The One Hit Wonders of Game Design Part seven: Comix Zone

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

Comix Zone

The 90s would arguably be the golden age for Sega. Being the second major console developer behind Nintendo and the success of their arcade division gave Sega a lot of leeway in game projects. The Sega Genesis is home to a huge number of excellent games and like the SNES, the longer the system was around, the better the games got. Today’s game came out near the end of the Genesis’ timeline and without knowing it, the designers created the bridge between the beat-em-up and action genre.

Comix Zone was a 2D action game where players had to help Sketch escape a comic book of his own creation and stop the villain who put him there in the first place. Right off the bat you could tell that this was a late generation Genesis title from the stylish graphics. The game took place in a comic book with the player fighting from panel to panel through the detailed (for the time) world.

But what made Comix Zone great and the reason why I’m including it here is the gameplay. Comix Zone was one of the first beat-em-ups to evolve the gameplay of the genre. Most titles from the genre featured very few attacks and no options for defense. Comix Zone gave player different punches, kicks, grabs and the ability to block attacks. The different options to attack combined with the over the top sound effects gave the game a very visceral feel to it.

Comix Zone also mixed things up with one of the oldest traditions of the beat-em-up genre: health draining special attacks. While the player had special moves that could drain health, the real use of this mechanic was in the puzzle solving. The majority of the puzzles involved the player getting around or destroying an obstacle in their way. Attacking inanimate objects would drain the player’s health forcing the player to find other means of getting around them.

This challenged the player to figure out the solution instead of literally brute forcing their way through the game. The same idea would also be applied to the boss fights, as each boss could be killed with basic moves. But they each had another quicker way if the player could figure it out, making the fight a lot easier.

While the game sounds good so far, there were two big problems that affected the game’s popularity. The first was the length: the game was three levels long. Each level did have a few different paths based on what panels the player visited, but they all went to the same place. Once you get good enough at the game, you could finish it in about 30-40 minutes.

The other problem was the difficulty that many felt was too much. Player’s only had two lives and with bottomless pits, could end a run fast. Due to the energy draining puzzles, there was only a few optimal paths through the game, requiring players to play enough times to learn it to be able to win. Going the wrong way would force the player to attempt a harder scene or more energy draining puzzles which could spell disaster for them at the boss fights.

Comix Zone while an interesting attempt at the action genre did come out very late in the Genesis’ cycle. With other platforms already out, most people didn’t buy it and the complaints from those that did shut the game down from becoming a series. Today, you can find it on any # of Sega Genesis compilations as it remains an example of the variety of games the Genesis had to offer.

Josh Bycer

  • Sik

    Some remarks:

    1) The length was pretty much the usual for a game of that generation, so I don't think that was really the issue.

    2) You didn't have two lives, but rather you just started with one and were awarded an extra one whenever you beat a stage. That means that if you lost in the first two pages, it was instant game over.

    Also am I the only one who hated that health loss mechanic? Even basic attacks drained energy, and it happened whenever it landed a hit, regardless of what it was.

  • I think everyone hated the health lost mechanic. Which was a carry over from earlier beat-em-up titles. Thankfully that is a mechanic that is no longer seen in modern game design.