Capcomís reputation as an NES development powerhouse was well-deserved, but it was also a bit of poetic justice. They made their arcade debut the same year the Famicom hit Japanese stores, and in many ways both the company and the system matured in parallel. Capcomís games often stood as milestones for the console, and in turn those milestones represented the budding publisher coming into its own.
So, given all that, youíd think Section-Z would be a bigger deal among NES maniacs. The game was a pivotal release for Capcom, at once a considerable improvement over Capcomís previous NES titles as well as a turning point in the companyís approach to game design and arcade ports. In many ways, it was Capcomís cornerstone... and yet, somehow, itís constantly given short shrift.
At first glance, Section-Z seems to be just another of the companyís early arcade-to-NES ports. While the NES game has a distinctly different visual style than the original -- it looks much flatter and more angular than the rounded, System 7-esque appearance of the coin-op version -- they begin in much the same manner. Players control a tiny spaceman flying through auto-scrolling stages with a jet pack, and this little astronaut differentiates himself from other shooter heroes of the day with his ability to fire both forward and backward, with a button dedicated to each direction. Even the music is basically the same, though the NES arrangement is more intense than the funky, spy-movie-like rendition that plays in the arcade.
These similarities end roughly one minute into the game. At that point, the two Section-Zs strike out in very different direction and become totally distinct entities. In the arcade version, players keep right on scrolling non-stop through a hectic corridor of impossibly dense bullets until they reach an inexplicably toothless boss whose demise signals the conquest of Sections A through E. Theyíre then whisked immediately to Sections F through J, where the screen begins to scroll vertically, though the little Astronaut remains horizontally oriented. Here the action becomes more of an obstacle course where the goal is to avoid hazards from above while taking out enemies lining the walls, since the perpendicular relative orientation of the screen and the character make it impossible to shoot down threats as they scroll into the play field. Itís a novel twist, but itís also preposterously difficult.
The NES game takes a different tack. For whatever reason -- maybe it was technical limitations, or maybe Capcom just decided that being effectively reduced to the role of janitor and scraping the walls of barnacle-like gun emplacements wasnít much fun -- Section-Z on NES is a strictly horizontal shooter. Instead, its world is broken from a single contiguous corridor spanning A to Z into dozens of self-contained levels numbered 00 through 60. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the title entirely nonsensical, as there is no actual Section Z, but in every other way it makes for a denser, more intriguing game.
The hook to Section-Zís level structure is that itís non-linear. Oh, sure, you advance via fixed scrolling, but each individual section is tiny, with some less than 10 seconds long and few (if any) lasting longer than a minute and a half. At the end of each of these bite-sized passageways is a pair of teleporter beams that must be entered blind, and each leads players to a different destination. Take the top teleporter beam at the end of Section 1 and youíll end up in Section 2; take the bottom path and youíll be whisked to Section 4 instead. Section 2ís exits lead to Sections 3 and 6, and so on and so forth. Itís possible (and frankly inevitable) to take the wrong exit and end up back in Section 1, but itís a simple enough matter to map things out via trial and error.
Despite the comparatively modest hardware, the NES game does a respectable job of replicating the intensity of the arcade game. The bullets arenít as fast or thick as in the original game, but for an NES title of its vintage Section-Z throws a surprising amount of hazards at the player. It also adds an interesting health and penalty system; while a single hit equaled instant death in the arcade, here players begin with 20 points of health. Being struck by an enemy projectile costs a point or two, while colliding with an enemy costs five and sends the player back to the beginning of the current section. There is no game over to speak of; instead, when the heroís health hits zero, he collapses and is returned to Section 1 and forced to fight his way back to where he died. The Famicom Disk System release of the game allowed players to save their progress at the beginning of the current ďzone,Ē a cluster of Sections, rather than starting from Section 00 every time. Naturally, this didnít make its way into the U.S. release... which sucked for us, yes, but Iím willing to wager that American fans know the early sections way better than their Japanese peers as a result. I guess thatís a silver lining, of sorts.
Like all good early 8-bit games, Section-Z is crammed with invisible warp zones and other secrets. It also features a cumbersome power-up system, as well as the option to expend a chunk of health to manifest an incredibly powerful missile that works wonders against the bosses that appear at the end of each zone. The ultimate objective is to defeat an insanely powerful and ludicrously cheap monster called L-Brain, which calls to mind Metroid and Phantasy Star and even Life Force and makes you wonder what the obsession was with 8-bit sci-fi games and defeating brains. Thereís a hint of bio-horror to Section-Zís design -- at least in certain throbbing, gelatinous monsters -- which is more than a little reminiscent of Namcoís Baraduke.
In other words, Section-Z was very much of the zeitgeist of 1986. Not just in terms of themes, either, but in its overall design sensibility. It was a game developed by people who were growing in confidence in their ability to work the NES hardware, who wanted to bring gamers a more satisfying at-home experience than a weak rendition of a 15-minute-long corridor shooter that relied on excessive difficulty to simulate replayability, and yet wasnít quite up to par with the best games of the systemís golden years. Section-Z was an important step for Capcom, but their real breakthrough wouldnít come until Mega Man arrived a year later. Until that classic came along, Section-Z perfectly embodied the strengths and weaknesses of a very specific slice of the NESís history.