GameSpite Journal 9 | alti'tude: Air Zonk

As the ’90s began to pick up speed, there was a decided shift in the tone of media targeted at children. It wasn’t enough anymore to advocate the kind of positive attitude and squeaky clean morality previously seen in most children’s television, literature, games, and whatnot. Instead, everything needed to have “’tude.” For those not in the know, “’tude,” short for “attitude,” generally boiled down to a snarky disposition toward authority and a too-cool-for-school vibe, combined with a drive to constantly take part in Xtreme™ activities such as surfing a tsunami while on fire or playing some new sport that combined all the most dangerous aspects of hockey, demolition derby, and biathlon. Typically, characters exhibiting ’tude also dressed in some of the more garish varieties of ’90s fashion, like ripped jeans and neon shirts, although anthropomorphic animal characters might be limited to just oversized sunglasses and some kind of mohawk. In many ways ’tude was just the ’90s iteration of the same rebellious spirit seen in past youth movements such as the hippies and the beatniks. Of course, the difference is that ’tude was entirely a corporate creation, prepackaged and marketed to kids in a completely soulless way. Then again, I suppose that in and of itself was pretty much in keeping with the spirit of the decade.

And videogames were right there in the thick of it. As Sega began ramping up the marketing campaign for its new Genesis console in an effort to differentiate itself from Nintendo’s machines, it latched onto the ’tude-sporting Sonic the Hedgehog as a way of demonstrating how hip and modern a console the Genesis was compared to the stodgy SNES. Indeed, Sonic was the very embodiment of ’tude: His spines had a sort of mohawk look to them, his incredible speed put him in danger as often as it produced any positive results, and his trademark smirk and dismissive finger wave showed that he would be taking no guff whatsoever. While Sonic’s emphasis on ’tude eventually contributed to his series spiraling off in strange and obnoxious directions, in the beginning it was hard not to see Sonic as inarguably superior to a fat, mustachioed plumber who looked like he’d probably get winded running up a flight of stairs, never mind the side of a building. Plenty of other companies followed suit, and soon gaming was being overrun with rollerblading ninjas, extreme rodents, and heroes wearing sunglasses... despite the fact that their games generally took place largely indoors.

Nintendo itself seemed to be largely immune to the ’tude phenomenon, outside of perhaps a few advertisements in the U.S. market, and its games continued in much the same fashion as they always had. Of course, they were still riding high from having near total market domination with their NES console. They could afford to completely ignore trends. Other companies weren’t so lucky. Enter Hudson, NEC and their TurboGrafx-16.

The console’s breakout mascot, Bonk, possessed about as little ’tude as a character possibly could. He was a tiny, bald caveman wearing some kind of animal-skin tunic and sporting a completely guileless smile. Everything about him yelled, “Cute and harmless.” Sure, his meat-induced freakouts had ’tude potential, but in practice they weren’t much different than Popeye and his spinach. And you don’t get much squarer than Popeye. Hudson and NEC knew that if they didn’t want to fall behind in the ’tude race they needed someone new. The two companies turned to Bonk’s developer, Red, and Red gave them Zonk.

Zonk was similar to Bonk in that he was a tiny, bald guy, but his name started with a “Z.” “Z” is similar to “X” in that it’s one of those slightly more exotic letters found at the end of the alphabet which we don’t really use all that often in English, and thus has a bit of an innate outsider’s ’tude to it. Also, Zonk is a cyborg from the future, and as we all know ’tude is temporally linear. Have you seen those hats the Dutch wore in the 16th century? What a bunch of lame-os! More important than those things, though, was his outfit. While his skintight pants and Astro Boy boots didn’t exactly scream ’tude, he did have the most important article of clothing required for everyone seeking to express to the world their serious badass stature: A pair of huge sunglasses. How better to communicate the fact that you’re much cooler than everyone else around you than by dissuading conversation by wearing something that prevents eye contact? After all, when you’ve got this much ’tude you don’t want to talk to all the ’tude-less sheep. Zonk also had this weird little lightning bolt dongle on the front of his head that seemed to combine the most ’tude-tastic elements of both a wild haircut and a tattoo. Plus, lightning bolts -- known for exploding trees and killing golfers (the squarest folks of all) -- have the most serious ’tude of any atmospheric event.

With such an abundance of ’tude, Zonk needed a game that best showcased it, and frankly the standard hop-’n-bop formula of the previous Bonk games just wasn’t going to cut it. Instead Zonk’s game, Air Zonk, was a horizontal shoot-’em-up. Zipping over giant landfills, ocean drilling platforms, and toxic swamps while blasting away at robotic enemies with high-powered weaponry, Air Zonk is, indeed, a dark, edgy, ’tude filled experience. Well, not really.

You see, while on the surface Air Zonk bears all the hallmarks of a game suffused with ’tude, as you play it becomes pretty clear that Red thought this whole ’tude thing was kind of ridiculous. Sure, the hero is a flying robot shooting other robots as they all sail over factories and garbage dumps, but Zonk’s weaponry consists of goofy things like playing cards and scissors. Hell, in the Japanese version, his charge attack has him dropping a giant turd. Public defecation may be an extremely anti-authoritarian act, but no one, anywhere, ever, has described it as cool. Oh, and those robots Zonk is blasting mostly consist of goofy, mechanical versions of Bonk’s old cutesy dinosaur enemies. We’re not exactly talking the biological hell beasts of Life Force or the badass barbarians and monsters Lords of Thunder.

But what about the sunglasses? The sunglasses! Surely those giant, pointy frames prove that Air Zonk’s developers meant for Zonk to be a cool, badass reinvisioning of their Bonk character. Don’t they? No, my friend, the sunglasses are the biggest giveaway of all.

You see, one of the more unique aspects of Air Zonk is that Zonk gets to pick a partner before each level. Then, during the level, if Zonk grabs a certain power-up his partner flies onto the screen and acts as a sort of wingman for Zonk. That’s cool, right? I mean, a wingman—that’s got a Maverick-and-Goose-Top Gun kind of thing going on. Yeah, except Zonk’s partners aren’t badass fighter pilots with borderline obsessions with beach volleyball, but rather bizarre abstractions like a spherical cow, a tiny pagoda, some kind of gentleman gumball machine, half a truck, and so forth. No sunglasses, no matter how big or how slick-looking, would make any of these guys cool.

But what happens once you select your partner? You have to press a button to drop a pair of sunglasses that snap into place over their eyes (or if they’re faceless over where their eyes might possibly be, maybe if you squint hard enough). The screen even flashes as the sunglasses settle into place. The effect is not unlike seeing your seventy-year-old grandfather, pants pulled up to his nipples, awkwardly skateboarding down the street while hoarsely yelling things like, “Don’t have a cow, dude!” It just feels wrong. Red clearly understood the trappings of ’tude and chose to subvert them by placing them on things that could never be cool. Even the poop bomb Zonk drops wears sunglasses. Let me say that again: This game has poop that wears sunglasses.

But the thing is, despite all this, Air Zonk actually is an incredibly cool game. It has some of the cleanest, crispest graphics of any HuCard game, featuring multiplane scrolling that would put the SNES to shame and a rocking soundtrack to accompany the on-screen action. And that action provides a consistent challenge that never becomes frustrating. The enemies, though on the goofy side, are bright, colorful, well-animated, and all in all a genuine pleasure to watch before they explode in fiery death. It may seem a little on the tame side to those who eat today’s modern bullet-hell shmups for breakfast, but it’s a quirky, fun little game that provides a fair amount of replayability for players who want to find the best partner for each level.

Hindsight being 20/20, we know now that Red made the right decision, as ’tude has aged with all the grace of a tuna sandwich left under a radiator. While many of Air Zonk’s ’tude-filled contemporaries feel painfully dated, Zonk is just as fresh and fun today as it was when it was new. At the end of the day, Air Zonk shows that you don’t need to go around announcing how cool you are to everyone. If you’re really cool, they’ll just know it.

By Mike Zeller? | Oct. 5, 2011 | Previous: The Dark Designs of Digital Distribution | Next: Strider?