Thursday, June 30, 2011

Might Have Been: Zero Divide

[Might Have Been tracks the failures of promising games, characters, and companies. It ran at GameSetWatch several years ago, and I’ve revived it because I still find failure much more fascinating than success. This particular failure belongs to Zero Divide!]

The first generation of 3-D fighting games aged quickly and poorly. It wasn’t just the embarrassing one-offs like Fight for Life and Criticom, either. The standard-bearing, system-selling Tekken, Toshinden, and Virtua Fighter all lasted about a year before time and sequels reduced their once-impressive polygon characters to laughable mannequins. Knowingly or not, a developer called Zoom had the right idea back in 1995: if the combatants in all nascent 3-D fighting games were bound to look like blocky robots anyway, why not just make a fighter full of…well, robots?


Zoom was quite familiar with the path that led to Zero Divide on the PlayStation. Their most prominent creation prior to this was the Genocide series, consisting of two side-scrolling, mecha-filled action games for the Super Famicom and Sharp X68000. Zero Divide takes a few design cues from Genocide 2’s large-shouldered mechs and adds all the necessary stereotypes of a fighting game. There’s a basic robot named Zero, a slightly different rival-bot named Eos, a swordsbot named Cygnus, a camouflage-painted gun-bot named Wild-3, and a feminine cat-bot named Io. Rarer archetypes edge in as well: Draco’s a mecha-dragon, Nereid is a slavering, multi-armed beast with a drill for a body, and Tau is a screen-filling robotic scorpion. And why are all of these robots fighting? They’re part of some virtual-reality attempt to expose a taunting hacker named XTAL. We'll come back to him later.

If the characters have moments of invention, Zero Divide’s gameplay is painstakingly copied from Virtua Fighter. Special attacks are done by tapping the direction pad, most of the moves are button combos, jumping sends you high into the air, and being knocked out of the ring ends your match. At least the robots can grab the edge of that ring and pull themselves back in. The game also offers a limited selection in which opponent to fight next, though you face them all eventually.


Zoom picked a decent base for their fighting game, but Zero Divide doesn’t escape the problems common to early 3-D fighters. The controls are a little too sluggish, the gameplay just a little too limited in its one plane of combat. While the difficulty curve is fair, the characters don’t have enough moves to keep things interesting through repeated playthroughs or extensive two-player competition.

Back in 1995, though, that didn’t matter quite as much, because Zero Divide was so darned pretty. Zoom crammed the game with all sorts of 3-D sights, from jungle cages to cities to abstract techno-arenas surrounded by revolving cubes and TV screens. The soundtrack also wanders in its selection of tunes. Most importantly, the deliberately artificial characters look far better than the alleged humans of the first Tekken or Virtua Fighter, and their metal panels can be ripped away in combat to show crackling circuits beneath. Battle Arena Toshinden may have been the showcase fighter of the PlayStation’s early lineup, but Zero Divide looked good long after you noticed just how stiff and ugly Toshinden’s characters actually were.


Zero Divide also gives the impression that it wasn’t rushed. Zoom had time to throw in replay options, camera changes, a three-level version of their old 16-bit shooter Phalanx, and a bonus comic strip featuring Zero and Zoom’s cat mascot (the skit is still in the English version of the game, but it's not translated). The quality of the fighting game aside, Zero Divide gave first-round PlayStation adopters a lot for their money.

One other thing helped Zero Divide stand out. Remember XTAL, the mysterious hacker who started this all-robot tournament? Well, his voice goads the player throughout the fisticuffs, and he’s the most hilariously awful announcer in a fighting game. Eclipsing Soul Blade’s overdramatic narrator and Street Fighter Alpha 3’s heated TRIUMPH OR DIE screamer, dear XTAL delivers mockery like “Hey! Your unit’s gone!” and “Wow, that really hurt!” in tones both poorly acted and densely sarcastic. A combination of used-car salesman and 1980s translation software, XTAL is perhaps the most memorable thing about Zero Divide.

With its 1995 debut, Zero Divide was nearly a good fighting game. Rough starts are normal in the genre, and Zero Divide needed a sequel to refine itself. A Street Fighter II. A Virtua Fighter 2. A Killer Inst…well, a Mortal Kombat II. Instead it got Zero Divide 2: The Secret Wish, which adds four new characters and not much else. The replay storage is larger, the moves are mostly the same, and the graphics are actually more primitive in some places. In order to run smoother, the game simplifies its look, and the result isn’t as striking as the original Zero Divide.


It was the opposite of what Zero Divide 2 should’ve been, and no one cared. Time Warner Interactive brought the original Zero Divide out in the U.S. and Ocean released it in Europe, but no publisher picked up the sequel outside of Japan. Zoom tried one more time with Zero Divide: The Final Conflict for the Sega Saturn. It looks rather nice for a Saturn 3-D fighter not backed by Sega, but it sticks with the same formula and visual style.

That ended Zero Divide’s career. Zoom went on to make Mr. Mosquito and less notable games, while the original Zero Divide went on to age much like other 3-D games from the PlayStation's first round. It can't get by on looks anymore, and its two follow-ups offer only slightly better gameplay. Today, Zero Divide’s just the fighting-game version of a band that got a little airplay back in 1995 and almost, almost made it big.