The unfortunately named shmup genre—that’s gobbledygook for shoot-‘em-up, for all you sane people—is one of those rare types of games that peaked shortly after it was invented. On the backs of Space Invaders, Galaga, Asteroids and the like, shmups dominated the early years of the games industry, sucking up more quarters than even Rampage. But as technology evolved and new creative landscapes opened up, developers were quick to abandon the limitations of revolving 2D ships. Few modern games, such rarities as the Gamecube’s Ikaruga, have successfully recreated the arcade-y bliss of the genre. But you know what? Zenzizenzic pretty much does, right down to having a silly name.
Zenzizenzic could only exist in this day and age. Every inch of it is a product of modern design, starting with its strikingly minimalistic visuals. An eclectic mix of geometry and vibrant, high contrast colors, the game’s aesthetic is as gorgeous as it is appropriate. Each of its five levels are done up in a distinct theme with a bumping song to match, but the starkness of the color palette is a boon to gameplay as well, clearly outlining enemy fire and ships.
Your vessel, a blue and broken rectangle (or red, if you’re player two), has a black outline to it, marking the color to avoid. You can bump elbows with the colorful edges of environments and missiles all day, but get a speck of black on you and you’ll lose one of your three lives. Gray, on the other hand, is a godsend, the weapon-powering energy dropped by destroyed foes.
On the surface, Zenzizenzic (I will take every opportunity to make you read that name) is a very standard but polished shmup. It’s got powerups, special weapons, life and score counters, epic bosses, and difficulty levels capable of churning out positively retina-scarring hordes of enemies. It controls perfectly (note: I played with a USB and BetterDS3-connected DualShock 3 controller, but found keyboard/mouse to be perfectly adequate), looks and sounds great and is easy to pick up. It would be fine if that were all it was, but there’s a thick layer of nuance topping it off.
Commendably, Zenzizenzic is very noob-friendly, something I greatly appreciated. A superb tutorial effectively introduces the basics of combat and evasion, and subsequent mechanics are introduced at a healthy pace. You have two special weapons and several consumables available to you, and can swap them out on the fly via the shop. You can also adjust your speed, either to manipulate your weapons or avoid projectiles.
Unlocking and upgrading weapons is a breeze given how many points you can rack up in a single level, so it’s more about fine-tuning your play style. It’s not just missiles and lasers either: a short-range teleport and AoE black hole are two of the more creative tools. The shield pickup, which protects you from one hit, can also be detonated, often before immediately picking up another shield. All weapons also have a rating indicating how difficult they are to use, which underscores that old shmup adage, “Easy to play, hard to master.” For those who do master it, there are Operation-inspired don’t-touch-the-sides bonus levels that are sure to re-up the challenge.
The most impressive thing about Zenzizenzic is its cocktail of bonuses, little bits and bobs that add up to a big difference in playability and style. For instance, you navigate menus with your ship, hovering over the option you want to select. You can trade 500,000 points (a drop in the ocean, trust me) for an extra life, which helps novices such as myself complete the game without bothering the score-hungry elite. You can play waves of “test enemies” from the main menu to get a feel for new levels before diving in head-first. Even the music can be customized. It’s layer after layer of convenience and creativity, all of which helps distinguish Zenzizenzic from the shmup crowd—as if its visuals hadn’t already covered that.