Shooters have been unfortunately rare in the past few years, which makes it increasingly tragic seeing how miserable some recent games have been. Games from developers like Psikyo and Cave seem to have devolved the genre back into the pre-Raiden days by giving only a single upgradeable weapon for with to destroy the usual baddies. It didn't used to be like this. In the prime years, there was Compile. Each new Compile game had some sort of unique weaponry system, filled with innovative ways to dish out punishment. And thus it was a sad day when Compile closed down shop back in 2002 - it signaled yet another death knell to the shmup genre. Not content to extinguish themselves before burning brightly, they created the Playstation release Zanac X Zanac, a tribute to one of their first shooters for the NES and MSX. While Zanac had many spiritual sequels - Power Strike for the SMS, MUSHA for the Genesis, Space Megaforce for the SNES, all ranking as some of the best shooters for their respective systems - Zanac Neo is the true sequel, having finally made its appearance fifteen years after first being conceived.
The basic gameplay in Zanac was pretty simplistic, and not much has changed in Zanac Neo - level designs are almost non-existant, as you play over a completely open field. What makes Zanac so unique is the artifical intelligence - depending on what weapon you have equipped, the computer will send out different combinations of enemies to attack. Not only does this ensure you'll almost never play the same game twice, but it also makes for an extremely hectic time. The AI barely ever lets up, ensuring a near constant stream of enemy projectiles from practically every angle - although the game is pretty generous when doling out extra lives, especially if you take particular care in racking up combos for high scores. The two player mode is especially nice, even if it contributes to the onscreen madness.
As mentioned, Compile games are famous for having a huge gamut of weapons to choose from. There are four playable ships, including the old Zanac fighter. Each of these has eight unique weapons, all of which can be upgraded a number of times. Remember that old multiplication table, and you'll discover that this is a damn huge arsenal available at your fingertips. The amount of depth in the power-up system actually supercedes Space Megaforce, previous holder of the "Most Goddamned Amount of Delicious Weaponry" award - amidst these methods of destruction, you're bound to find some sort of laser or bomb or shield that best fits your playing style. Trying out all of these toys and discovering the best way to dismember the many multi-turreted bosses is one of the greatest joys you can possibly have in a shoot-em-up. Quite possibly the only flaw is that weapon upgrades show up only as numbers, so it can get a bit confusing to remember which number corresponds to what weapon.
Other than some sparse polygonal enemies, the game is mostly in 2D, and not even particularly good 2D at that. While the levels are long, they often grow visually repetetive within a span of a few seconds. Slowdown is relatively sparse, which is almost unfortunate given the insanity you'll usually have to deal with. There are a couple of classic remixed Zanac tunes to be found, but otherwise the soundtrack consists mostly of generic soulless techno. The save system is quite robust, allowing you to save a number of profiles, scores and even your progress thoughout the game's ten areas. And not only that, but Compile included three variations of the original NES Zanac on the CD.
Being a later Playstation release, the game has become a bit pricey on the secondary market, but that shouldn't deter you. If you're a shmup fan, Zanac X Zanac comes highly recommended, and is quite possibly one of the best games Compile has ever put out. And given their pedigree, that's saying more than can possibly be expressed in mere words.