One of the first 'cute 'em ups' following Konami's Twinbee, Fantasy Zone first launched in Japanese arcades in 1986, but is better known in the west for its decent Master System conversion. Iconic protagonist Opa-Opa also sneaks in cameo appearances in many Sega games, most recently as a playable character in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. Almost 30 years later, the original comes to Nintendo's current handheld in the form of 3D Fantasy Zone: Opa-Opa Bros., another valued entry in Sega's excellent range of 3D classics.
Assuming control of Opa-Opa, the player is tasked with completing seven individually themed and progressively more difficult rounds; these rounds are completed by destroying ten enemy bases and then passing a boss battle. Stages are horizontal and can be scrolled in either direction, looping back upon reaching the edges - in a similar fashion to inspirational '80s arcade classic Defender. There's an eighth, final boss rush round and a twist ending revealing the 'shocking' truth about the nature of the attackers; yes, this rather surreal looking shooter does have a story of sorts, but all you really need to know is that you should shoot everything and avoid dying.
The not-dying part can be tricky for newcomers thanks to a rather brutal difficulty and power-up system. Shooting enemies reveals coins, which should be gathered up fast before they disappear. Amassing enough coins earns the right to enter a floating balloon shop to purchase some much needed firepower, yet there are drawbacks - wide beam, laser beam and 7-way shot all come with a time limit which won't last the entire round. Other special weapons - such as smart bombs and fire bombs - are bought per unit, so if you want to stock up be prepared to shell out. Revisiting the shop can be a shock, meanwhile, to find that prices have increased on all weapons previously purchased; if you lose a life you also lose everything currently owned. Expert players use default weapons for the first half of the game, building up coin funds without raising shop prices, before proceeding to speed through the final rounds with access to more affordable weapons of choice.
Fortunately for beginners, there are plenty of new features to ease them into the game. The overall difficulty and amount of lives can be adjusted, it's possible to increase the rate of rapid fire and any round already reached can be jumped straight into. Enabling 'Base Marker' adds disembodied white hands which point to the position of the next off screen base, allowing faster base destruction. Screen size can also be adjusted, but default provides the best results, making the other two options somewhat defunct; there's no simulated cabinet mode like in 3D After Burner II, simply because the original Fantasy Zone cabinet wasn't very interesting.
By far the most helpful new feature is the coin bank. Coins collected during play are added into a virtual savings account, from which withdrawals can be made at the beginning of each game; more money equates to more accessible weaponry. Combined with the round select, the end game suddenly becomes much more feasible to beginner players. There are also 2 additional unlocks to lengthen the time weapons last and increase the amount received from coin drops, but you'll need to accumulate a LOT of coins to access these. There's even an odd option to swap out round six's boss to the (much worse) Master System version.
Completion of the game also unlocks a new special mode, the 'brothers' part of the subtitle. In this mode, you play as Opa-Opa's brother Upa-Upa, with some significant changes. Firstly, a permanent engine is selected (speed) and all power-ups are now displayed on the touch screen; enabled by touch and only when you have enough coins, every second of use of any given weapon has a cost. Activate the 7 Way Shot for example, and watch all your coins disappear in seconds. No coins, no firepower. It's even more brutal than standard mode and has a noticeably harder difficulty, so experts need only apply. Aside from having a different theme tune for the first stage, nothing else is dramatically different.
The 3D effects are nice enough, with clear distinction between parallax layers, but being a 2D game at heart there's nothing here to get too excited about. Curiously, the best use of 3D is during the staff credits - view these for a glimpse of how a modern Fantasy Zone could look.
With its charmingly cute and colourful designs combined with catchy upbeat music, Fantasy Zone is instantly appealing. However, beneath the happy exterior hides a traditional arcade challenge. Expertly presented by developer M2 to allow newcomers to get easily involved with its pick up and play options, the hardcore can still try for the 1 credit clear. Repeat play truly rewards, too, though it's perhaps a shame there's no ability to share high scores with friends through an in-game leaderboard. In summary, though, fans of arcade shooters should pick this up without a second thought - it's a welcome and long overdue return of a true classic.