Bet you don’t know who Sega’s mascot was for a brief time during the '80s. No, we’re not talking about Alex Kidd – we mean Opa-Opa, the slightly bizarre living spaceship from Sega’s oft-overlooked classic shooter Fantasy Zone. And that game is exactly what we have here, thanks to those gurus at Tokyo-based M2.

Fantasy Zone isn’t exactly unknown to those of us who love Sega, but it’s fair to say that the kids today might not be totally familiar with this one. Released in response to another classic shooter, Gradius, Fantasy Zone may look nothing like Konami’s classic at first glance. Indeed, the jarring pastel colours chosen specifically to make the game different to the numerous other space-based blasters of the time may lead to people into not expecting a shooter at all. This is Sega, though; it knew what it was doing, and injecting a bit of trademark Sega ‘blue skies’ charm turned out to be exactly what the genre needed. Along with Konami’s own TwinBee, the 'cute-em-up' genre was born.

This isn’t a simple horizontal shooter though, of course. Instead, this one is free-roaming, like Defender. You explore the area from left-to-right-to-left destroying all the bases scattered across the map while also taking down enemies and avoiding bullets as you would in any other shooter. Once all the bases are annihilated, you move on to the boss. Those who picked up the early Switch release Graceful Explosion Machine a few years back will pretty much know what to expect in terms of its non-linear structure.

At your disposal are your standard bullets as well as bombs. Rather than picking up new weapons and upgrades during the run of play – as in most shooters – players instead visit shops where they can buy new weapons as well as upgrade their spaceship using money dropped by downed enemies. This combination makes the game extremely unique and far removed from the space shooters of the time, and while the visual style is a little bit more ‘Marmite’, there’s no doubting its charm and character.

What should you expect from the Switch version, then? Well, those of you already familiar with M2’s previous Sega Ages releases won’t be too surprised with what we have here. As you’d expect, you get the original System 16 arcade game emulated to the usual high M2 standard of quality, and this still plays perfectly fine. It’s the arcade game, albeit with the optional ability to select stages once completed. The star of the show, however, is the new Upa-Upa Mode. This shakes things up by eliminating the weapons and upgrade shop entirely. Instead, players can freely swap between different weapons and bombs using the shoulder buttons as long as they have picked up enough gold to unlock that particular weapon.

Any concerns that this might make the game too easy are dispelled by the fact that firing weapons now also uses gold per second, with more powerful weapons requiring more gold to fire. In practice, this means that much greater emphasis is now placed on taking out the smaller enemies in addition to the bases to accumulate as much gold as possible. Actual ship upgrades are applied before you start playing rather than being selectable during play. Frankly, this mode makes the game significantly more enjoyable and while it does ultimately make the game easier by having weapons available at all times, the trade-off is that you have much more opportunity to mess with everything the game has to offer. This is accompanied by a much easier to understand mini-map display showing exactly where each base will appear on the screen rather than simply their rough vicinity (which is available in Arcade Mode too, but only when using specific screen modes).

In addition to this is a Time Attack Mode, which might sound a little dull compared with the Upa-Upa Mode (and in fairness, it’s not exactly as fun), but M2 has done a decent job of making this more than a run-of-the-mill time attack offering. For starters, players don’t get points in this mode at all. This is an intentional decision to make dealing with small fry completely pointless (other than for gold) and instead force players to focus on taking down the bases as quickly as possible. One nice touch is that this mode records the exact time it takes to take down each base as well as reach the boss, allowing you to focus on shaving off vital seconds. The basic gameplay is identical to Arcade Mode in all other areas, but it’s nice to see a bit of thought put into what is otherwise a pretty standard mode.

Other than this, everything else here should be pretty familiar to those who have played the other M2 Sega Ages releases. The usual screen modes are here, including 4:3 as well as full screen 16:9 (for heathens), and while the basic smoothing filter isn’t to this reviewer’s tastes, the scanline filter is significantly better than most. We recommend using one of the ‘Normal’ screen modes in portable mode as this brings lovely, pixel-perfect integer scaling and looks excellent even with scanlines.

Aside from that, we really would have liked to see some of the other home ports included – in particular, the Master System game, but also Sunsoft’s Famicom version or the excellent PC Engine port. M2 tends to focus on specific versions of games, but it did break that rule by including the Mega Drive port with Ichidant-R. The lack of M2’s own System 16 remake of Fantasy Zone II is telling given that they developed it themselves – it would be a safe bet to expect a Sega Ages: Fantasy Zone II release at some point, with that hopefully including the Master System game. We'll have to make do with the 3DS version until then, we guess.

Conclusion

Fantasy Zone is a charming game which might not be as flashy as Space Harrier or Out Run, but is right up there where it matters: gameplay. It’s hard to recommend this over Shinobi, which also releases this week, but this is a perfect addition for anybody remotely interested in all things Sega.