by Robert A. Jung
Telegames, for the Atari Jaguar
It is the year 2044. Earth has finally made contact with the first non-Terran life form -- and it isn't friendly. As the alien armada approaches, Earth Defense deploys armored HIT-PAK space cruisers to stop their attack. Using the HIT-PAK's main guns and its autonomous BAMBAM fighter, you must engage the enemy over an extended campaign and try to save the Earth.
If that's the crisis you're in, then this must be Zero 5. In this cartridge from Telegames, you must battle the unnamed alien forces over 15 grueling missions. The game offers three modes of play -- you'll operate the HIT-PAK's massive quad-cannon guns, dogfight in open space with the BAMBAM fighter, and race through canyons and tunnels in high-speed assaults. The game ends when you are destroyed; fortunately, three difficulty levels and the option to skip earlier missions help make things more bearable.
Hybrid games -- games that consist of several distinct sub-games -- have never really caught on. This is usually because the individual games aren't sophisticated enough to hold a player's interest on their own, and the sum fails to be greater than the parts. Zero 5, unfortunately, does not break from that trend; though it tries, each of its individual play modes is defective by various degrees.
The space dogfight sequences are the worst offenders, since this mode isn't "flying" at all. You control your BAMBAM from a fixed third camera, and steering the ship makes it turn in different directions. Your goal here is to point your ship at the attackers, then destroy them and their shots. Evasion and fancy flying are not possible, and the enemy are always in the same position relative to you. Worse, the fixed third-person view makes it easy to get disoriented, and the lack of helpful guides makes aiming difficult.
The other game modes aren't as frustrating, but they are still flawed. The gunnery mode, where you operate the HIT-PAK's cannons to destroy enemy objects, suffers from imprecise aiming and a poor sense of your cruiser's space; it is easy to get hit from an object that you thought would have missed you. And the tunnel-flying game is essentially a simplified version of S.T.U.N. Runner, complicated by almost-impossible speeds and a claustrophobic view. To compound things further, even the easiest difficulty level is rather hard, and the endless button-pounding that the game requires quickly induces thumb cramps.
To its credit, Zero 5 is not a terrible game per se. Despite their flaws, the cannon-firing and tunnel-flying modes do provide some satisfaction, and the long missions requires hard work before they are beaten. Even the high difficulty isn't too stifling; since the appearance of enemies and obstacles is fixed, it's possible to memorize their appearances and devise tactics appropriately. But the rewards are always tinged with some degree of displeasure, and ultimately you're left with a feeling of how the game could have been better.
It is a shame that Zero 5's gameplay is so discouraging, because it is coupled with some very sweet graphics and sounds. Game graphics consist primarily of Goraund-shaded and texture-mapped polygons; the animation is smooth and fast, even if the colors tend toward bright primaries. Other small touches -- like the brief cinematic clips before and after each mission, and the Minter-esque Pixelshatter explosions -- round out a succulent feast of rapid-fire visual delights.
The game is no slouch in the audio department, either. Voices and sound effects are clear and distinctive, with enough richness to immerse you into the action. Background music consists of several hard-hitting techno tunes, perfectly suited to the game's nonstop action. They compliment the game without distracting from it, though the presence of a bass/treble control seems almost gratuitous.
Stripped bare, Zero 5 is an attempt at hybrid gaming that yields mixed results. While the graphics and sound are top-notch, they cannot completely overcome the flawed gameplay and high difficulty level. Still, determined players with a high threshold for pain might be willing to labor through Zero 5 and reap the rewards.