No game as adequately expresses the sentiment that existence is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” than Comix Zone: half-an-hour and a bit of luck is enough to see one through the game from start to finish. That short half-hour, however, will be among some of the most tense and wonderful that one could hope to experience. There are few games that aspire to, on the surface, so little but manage to embody not only the things that define their contemporaries as being of their age, but also the wider social context of the age, as focussed as that ray of social awareness may be. Comix Zone, though perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight, is an almost perfect reflection of the cultural products associated with mid-nineties adolescence: aggressive, bound tightly with consumption of media and headily self-referential.
In a blaze of postmodernism that could only be rivaled by some of the smarter produce of MTV of the era, Comix Zone sees the player taking the role of a comic author of the “starving artist” type who finds himself inside of his own comics, owing to some unexplained paranormal activity that leads to a physical manifestation of his comic’s antagonist at the cost of his own corporeal form. With this unfortunate set of contingencies set in train, it falls upon the player to guide our surprisingly handy comic book artist through the perils of a world that he himself is responsible for. The author, by this point, is well and truly dead: the antagonist of the piece uses his newfound corporeal form to change the world as envisaged by our author in order to make its traversal just that little more difficult. The comic book death of the author means continued existence in the physical plane for the escapee.
As could only be expected from a game with the above as a backdrop for its gameplay, Comix Zone has a wonderful and unique style to it. While the cartoon style of the graphics is perhaps nothing too unique given the nature of its Megadrive contemporaries, swinging from comic panel to comic panel is far more compelling and adds far more character to the game than the flashing arrows of its action-platformer kin. Comparing the style of this game to the likes of Double Dragon or Final Fight is fundamentally unfair: though it would be unfair to say that there was nothing characteristic about these games, there was definitely an underscore of conservatism about them – Comix Zone is definitely not conservative in any manner, but rather is the epitome of flashy nineties excess, inclusive of the tendency of the era towards self-referential sarcasm.
Comix Zone never loses sight of the fact that it is a game, with references being made by the character, though the charming speech bubbles that pop up from time to time on screen rather than the awful speech synthesis that the Megadrive was capable of, to the fact that he hopes that the level is almost over, or to the fact that the world seems to be designed in a way that every challenge is surmountable. There are elements of the game’s design that appear to be sarcastic jibes at the player: the randomised “question mark” pickups may well be explosives that serve no use to the player, save for increasing the volume of the screams caused by the game’s horrendous-yet-satisfying difficulty. In one section of the game, this randomisation is not so random: two of these pickups are placed in dangerous locations – locations that, following conventional videogame logic, would usually be considered prime for powerful or useful pickups – and the player is encouraged by the main character’s insistence that these advantageous supplies. The cruel joke is that these supplies will nearly always require a fresh start of the game if picked up. Without doubt, this is cruel, but it is a reminder that the game expects to be played on its terms, not on the terms of any other similar game one may have played.
Comix Zone is challenging, and its short length may well be merciful. As a testament to a now lost art of player-unfriendly, biased gameplay, it is among the best in class – an accolade indeed for a fairly niche game introduced after the end of its console’s mainstream lifespan. Perhaps only as a historical curio, it serves as a gleeful reminder that game design as a discipline has come on a long way since 1995, but also serves as a reminder that the most wonderful ecstasies can be obtained from the end of suffering.