Zanac was one of the games published by FCI, or Fujisankei Communications International, the North American division of the Fujisankei Communications Group (FCG) in Japan. The FCG was, and still is, something of a media empire with television shows, newspapers, museums, and thousands of employees. But they also were an early third-party partner with Nintendo when it came to games in the 80s and the 90s when it did a few games for the Sega Genesis. It would be as if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp decided to dabble in games.
Pony Canyon in Japan, one of FCG’s companies, focused on movie and music publishing, but they also dipped their toes into games (they brought over Origin’s Ultima and a few of SSI’s AD&D games to the NES) albeit with mixed results. But in North America, it was FCI that handled the publishing duties bringing over titles like Compile’s Zanac from the Japan-only MSX computer.
Zanac was a brutal, vertical shoot ’em up with a titanium-plated learning curve of pain. Part of the credit for its difficulty lay with its touted “AI” which ran the “ALC” or the “Automativ Level of Difficulty Control function”. I’m guessing they meant “Automatic” but that’s what the manual calls it. Both of those elements tie into something called the “Power Play Feature” which also randomizes the enemies for each of the twelve areas to add an even more dangerous element of unpredictability to the action. Rote memorization won’t help as much here as it might in other shooters with set patterns which is what Compile was apparently aiming for.
The game’s manual even had an entire page dedicated to a background story. There was apparently a super system developed by a now long-dead civilization that expanded to “cover the whole universe.” It only had one job — to share its wisdom with those who opened “the icon” the right way and bring destruction to those who didn’t. Unfortunately, “someone opened the icon improperly” and the system awoke, bringing its power down on everything in its path. When the icon was opened correctly, a signal was sent to the system to stop. But it didn’t. And that’s where the “AFX-6502-ZANAC” comes in as our last hope. Since the system was designed to fight massive numbers of enemies, it was hoped that one fighter might make it through to destroy its heart (kind of like the Death Star, but covering planets).
As the last hope of humanity, you start out with nothing except a puny one-shot blaster and a secondary weapon. The good news is that there are eight special weapons (to replace your secondary) that can be discovered by destroying enemy structures holding numbered “power chips” that float upwards to the top of the screen after blasting them free. The numbers are super useful since they tell you what weapon you’re looking at whether it’s “6” which is the Plasma Flash weapon that explodes and destroys everything on screen on contact with the enemy or the helpful “2” which is the shield. There are also power chips that can power up your main gun from a weak one shot pew pew gun to something slightly less awful.
Zanac also throws a variety of enemies at you ranging from simple flying ones to foes that combine halves from both sides of the screen. There are also floating obstacles that can’t be shot down by regular (and many of the special) weapons and mini “bosses” in the form of enemy bases that you only have so much time to destroy.
When it was ported over to the Famicom/NES from the MSX, its presentation underwent a huge overhaul. It made even greater use of its backgrounds to disorient the player by speeding things up or slowing things down to simulate your ship’s velocity with Masatomo Miyamoto’s great soundtrack matching the blistering action. The main menu’s theme, in particular, was short, looped, but catchy.
The way the game measures difficulty is apparently due to how many shots you fire, whether or not you can destroy those enemy installation mini-bosses (if you fail in the time given, the game gets harder), and what weapons you’re armed with. So it’s possible to have an easy go at it if you’re careful, or run into missile spewing clouds of explosive death before you even know how things got there. The NES Advantage and its slo-mo feature were really useful.
At the end of the game after defeating the system, you get a congratulatory message declaring “You are the messiah of Earth” and then a (very) short list of the the staff. Unfortunately, you can’t fly around the screen as in the MSX version — NES players simply got the text on a black screen.
Zanac is one of those classic shooters that attempted to break ground with its adaptive approach to difficulty, moving away from pattern memorization to keep things fresh though arguably later, memorization would become as valuable as skill when shmups turned into bullet-hell riddled kaleidoscopes of death.
At the same time, it also became its own worst enemy thanks to its often steep difficulty level, but Compile would go on to make a number of other games that weren’t as brutal but were just as creative such as The Guardian Legend in 1988 (and would come to NA in 1989). Most of the same, small staff that worked on Zanac worked on The Guardian Legend such as Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani who also produced the Madou Monogatari RPG series at Compile. Niitani would then use characters from Madou Monogatari in another would-be classic — the Tetris and Dr. Mario inspired Puyo Puyo.
As for Compile itself, the company survived for several years producing a large body of work that included RPGs and shooters as well as doing conversion work on classics such as Irem’s R-Type. Unfortunately, Compile shuttered its bankrupt doors in 2002, but some of its staff (including Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani) went on to form RPG-centric developer, Compile Heart, as a successor in 2006. Many of the staff involved in Compile’s shooter games had earlier gone on to found Milestone, Inc. in 2003, which later closed in 2013 when its president was arrested for financial misdeeds effectively killing the development house.
As for Zanac, the PlayStation would get a compilation in 2001, Zanac X Zanac, featuring the Famicom versions and a revamped version, Zanac Neo. It would also re-appear on Nintendo’s Virtual Console. A great, solid shmup from the MSX and NES days whose challenge still stands up today.