I got into shmups in the 1941 days, back when they weren’t called shmups, they were just called “One of those Galaga-type games.” I fell out of them pretty quickly, for the same reason I stopped playing many games: because I wasn’t any good at them. I never stopped watching them, though, and I’ve been fascinated by the rise of “bullet-hell” shooters that fill the screen with projectiles in a hypnotic mosaic of destruction. ZENZIZENZIC elevates that aspect of the genre to the n-th degree. Let’s get down to specifics.
It is almost a crime how good the visuals of this game are. Graphics are entirely vector style, with sharp, clean lines of bright, vibrant colors tracing out simple geometric shapes that in turn interlock and arrange with dozens of others until the visual complexity becomes a very real threat to the continued function of your brain. Enemy movement borders on choreography at times, with targets sliding along pre-determined paths. Then the bullets enter the fray, sometimes moving along similarly predetermined paths or else tracking the player.
Technically the game is 3D, though it is played on a 2D plane like all shooters. The 3D nature is represented by elements like walls rising up from below. This also serves as positional indicators for things of screen for the free roaming mode of the game. In the standard shooter inflection you still get a little 3D movement when you get to the bonus level, which takes place “below” the regular playfield.
Each level has its own color scheme and design aesthetic too. Interestingly, the color has a bit to do with the difficulty. Powerups are usually black, which means when you’re dealing with black projectiles, the differentiation can get to be a little hairy.
It’s a bullet hell shoot ‘em up, and thus there are a few aspects of the game that are absolute necessities. The first is bullets, ideally (and eventually) in very, very large quantities. Those certainly show up. Bullets come in roughly three forms, and by the end of the game they’ll be covering 80-90% of the screen. Type one is the “rectangle that can kill you.” These move across the board at varying speeds and, if they touch you, they kill you. The other is the “heat seeking triangle that can kill you.” Guess what that is? Finally there’s the laser, which draws a straight line out from its origin point.
You, of course, aren’t helpless. You’ve got three bullets of your own, accessible as randomly dropped upgrades. Your standard weapon is a little line that shoots out of your ship (if you can call a rectangle a ship). Later you’ll get little rockets, then little slow moving balls. This is a twin stick shooter, so aiming is handled separately from motion.
In addition to the standard weapons are the special weapons. You select two at the beginning of a play session, and several are unlockable by earning and spending points. That’s right, points aren’t just bragging rights in this game, they’re currency to open up features. The specials themselves vary widely in ease of use and specific functionality. You can unleash clusters of homing rockets which do huge damage and are dirt simple. Then there are lasers which penetrate multiple enemies. What I found most interesting, though, were the weapons with defensive capacity. The Charge, for instance, produces a large, slow projectile that absorbs enemy projectiles as it moves. It also absorbs your projectiles, causing it to shrink and eventually explode. The resulting explosion produces a region that destroys more enemy projectiles, allowing you to take shelter inside it. There are also time-shifting teleport attacks, blackhole attacks, etc. These specials are fueled by little fragments that are dropped by pretty much anything you destroy, so they can quickly run out. Refueling them, hilariously, hinges greatly on doing the one thing you’d much prefer avoid: not shooting. The radius at which you can absorb them grows massively when you’re not shooting, so you can quickly clear half the board of tasty point-nuggets, but only if you don’t care about killing anything at the moment.
Rounding out your arsenal is the shield, which absorbs one hit or can be detonated to clear some projectiles. Getting hit without a shield causes you to die, subtracting a life from your bank of lives and ejecting all of your powerups, though you can collect them again if you’re quick. Additional lives can be purchased at the cost of points, which are also used to determine if you get a shot at the bonus obstacle avoidance level that comes before every boss.
An odd bonus aspect of the game is that every enemy has a time limit, even bosses. That means you can beat every level just by avoiding death. Doing so earns you zero points, which is actually an achievement for each level.
The game supports two player co-op, which is pretty cool, and also has a strange “macro” mode. This turns the game into a sort of roguelike, allowing (that is to say, forcing) you to purchase all of your upgrades in game and explore levels to earn enough progress to fight massive puzzle bosses.
I’m hard pressed to find fault with the gameplay aspect of the game. On normal mode it is difficult. On “Very Hard” it walks the line of impossibility, which is appropriate to the genre. And most of all it is bizarrely addictive, even when you suck at it (which I tend to do).
The game takes pains to give you audio to match the visuals. Earworm level electronica and dubstep pounds your ears in the same way that the complex patterns of neon assault your eyes. It’s a good fit.
I like to imagine the story is what happens in flatland after heretical dissidents theorize about the existence of a third dimension and illustrate its existence, resulting in a holy war that sweeps the length and width of the world.
The one thing that kept jumping to mind as I played this game was this. I should be recording every single moment of gameplay. Why? Because playing this game is like helping to paint a masterpiece, but having to defuse a bomb at the same time. You’re creating something beautiful, but you are too tense and frenzied to appreciate it. Play the game, have some fun, then watch some streams so you can see the beauty, too.
9 / 10: Visually fascinating and an interesting concept, well worth experiencing.