Thanks to ray casting, an early form of graphics processing that allowed the rendering of a 2D map as a pseudo-3D environment, Zero Tolerance, a true First-Person Shooter, arrived on Sega’s Mega Drive in 1994.
What makes Zero Tolerance Collection significant — particularly for fans of the original — is its boast of additional items of lore: an unreleased sequel, Zero Tolerance Underground, and the prototype title Beyond Zero Tolerance. As it happens, Zero Tolerance Underground is falsely advertised, and not a true sequel at all. Its nine stages (as opposed to the original game’s 40) were actually designed as bonus extras for a Mega CD port of Zero Tolerance that never saw the light of day. Beyond Zero Tolerance, the unfinished prototype meant as a true sequel, would be of greater appeal if it hadn’t already been legally released on the internet as freeware.
Zero Tolerance is a sci-fi-themed FPS that sees a team of five marines enter the Planet Defense Corporation’s facility to rid it of invading soldiers and alien species. Each of your squad has a range of abilities, some with better marksmanship, others skilled in explosives and tracking. When one marine dies outright, they’re gone for good, leading to some strategy in how you attempt to complete the game. In our estimation, saving the characters with firearm skills for the hordes toward the end is probably a bright move, although you could just as well strategically plant mines in the middle of the throng.
The action is letterboxed to a third of the display, but remains quite playable even in handheld mode; while new screen filters do their best to sharpen or smooth the heavily pixellated imagery, with varying success. The CRT option eschews traditional RGB scan lines for a curved display that mimics ancient RF connections: noise interference, wavy lines, and muted colours. It’s stylish nostalgia over substance, but we kind of dig it.
For its time, Zero Tolerance’s detail was impressive. The aim is simple: travel from floor to floor and wipe out everything that moves. There are no keycards or objects to collect outside of abundant health packs and ammunition, but you do need to strategise a route around the grid, clearing out rooms sequentially and using the pause screen’s map overview as your guide. The remaining enemy count is visible on the HUD, helping you hunt down leftovers, as well as equipment slots and a useful mini-tracker that displays incoming enemies.
Interestingly, you don’t have to clear out each floor if you don’t want to, but neglecting your duties denies you a password that allows you return to your point of progress. This is slightly softened by the new quick save feature, but not entirely, since loading a game doesn’t bring back those of your team that have previously perished.
Seamlessly traveling in elevators and up and down stairwells was quite a thing for the Mega Drive, as are the various effects created by flashlight and night vision goggle pickups. Weaponry is a nice mix, too, featuring everything from handguns and uzis to flamethrowers and pulse lasers. The shotgun is a solid standard with excellent range, violently blowing enemies apart, and, in a neat touch, spattering their brains against nearby walls. Amazingly, corpses all stay in place for the duration, helping to visually denote areas you’ve previously visited.
While Zero Tolerance was once an impressive technical feat, it sadly hasn’t aged all that well. The controls are cumbersome, your turn starting slow and then speeding up — sometimes too quickly — requiring you to place precision shots mid-way through your heel spin. The weapons compensate with increased range and the shotgun is especially satisfying, but the enemy AI just rushes at you blindly, and every time you take a hit you bounce around in a disorientating manner.
You can only hold five items at a time, meaning one has to be depleted if you want to collect something else; and certain tools — such as night vision — hamper the already slow frame rate as badly as a room filled with enemies. While the graphics have a gritty sci-fi personality, with windows featuring clever panoramas, it’s often too dark to see much of anything, requiring constant switching to the map to pinpoint your position. In floodlit areas like the Engineering Level, it’s much easier to see, but with every wall essentially the same pattern it’s rarely straightforward to orient yourself. The music changes only three times for each of the game’s three chapters, and is a woefully bad, uninspired series of sparse, tepid beats and metallic clangs.
Even for those who have fond memories of it, Zero Tolerance is testing to connect with nowadays. Taking your team through its three chapters is no mean feat, and with a whopping ten-hour duration, surviving the tedium is perhaps its greatest challenge. While seek and destroy is a fun premise, once you’ve killed off a few floors it becomes a gnawingly repetitive grind. With enemy counts regularly at 99 in the final chapter’s alien-infested basement, seeing it through requires more patience than most will be willing to muster.
Zero Tolerance Underground, the “sequel”, is pleasantly surprising for the first few minutes: smoother, visually clearer, and with more precise controls. But at just nine stages, it’s both the polar opposite of the original’s weighty ask, and several times more difficult in terms of survival. It has some nice graphical improvements, including a moving subway train and advertisements plastered on the walls, but it’s more nifty re-skin than sequel, and doesn’t elevate itself beyond the original’s basic routines.
Beyond Zero Tolerance, once unlocked, treats you to a prototype set on the alien scourge’s home world. Existing fans have no-doubt obtained the ROM and played this already, but for everyone else it’s essentially more of the same in an unfinished but playable state — with more aliens.
The most irritating aspect of the Zero Tolerance Collection are less the games themselves, which are a product of their time, but more the lack of effort from publishers Qubyte Interactive and Piko Games. The selection screen is lifeless, the new options disappointingly basic. We didn’t even realise strafing was possible until we got lucky by holding down the button assigned to jump, duck and interact. It’s not marked as ‘strafe’ on the controller remap screen, inexplicably, and even then it’s terribly difficult to use. Our first thought was to remap the strafe to the shoulder buttons, but you can’t, and there’s no option anywhere to use dual analogs. Worse still, Zero Tolerance Underground features strafing using the shoulder buttons as default - so why not allow the option elsewhere?
Additionally, the Mega Drive original was pioneering in allowing co-op play via a link cable, two machines and two TVs. This is a big game-improving feature that should be present in some form or another, either locally or online, but is nowhere to be found.
Once a technical marvel, Zero Tolerance Collection is now severely dated. Fans who live to relive days gone by might get a kick from diving back into the Planet Defense Corps facility, and the new Underground set of levels is a nice, if limited, bonus extra. But tweaks to provide an updated graphics option, improved frame rates, audio tracks, and true button remapping would have been greatly encouraging for existing fans and newcomers alike. As it is, this collection is largely just a ROM set thrown into a lacklustre zip file, with a frustrating level of non-effort.