Retro-Game Backlog Entry #1: Air Zonk

I don’t know if I played this game back in the day. I’m fairly certain I played Super Air Zonk on the Turbo CD. Regardless, for some reason this was the first game I opted to address. After a difficult playthrough, I went back to realize there are three difficulty levels – Sweet, Spicy and Bitter. My run was on the middle difficulty.

The game starts out well enough – bright and bubbly and totally ’90s. The side-scrolling shooter had plenty of tributes to the Bonk series it derives from and the soundtrack is familiar and upbeat. As the stages progress, the formula doesn’t diverge much. Bosses are large and colorful and the power-ups are fun and diverse. You can hold down the II button to charge up your attacks, which work for most weapons. These result in surprising-for-the-90s effects which either do a weapon-specific attack or launch a screen-clearning bomb.

However, by the time level four rolls around, things start getting out of control. The boss rush finale is insanely rigorous and artificially lengthens the gameplay through its sheer difficulty spike. The continue system, right at home in 1992, is brutal. And as the fifth stage progresses on, you just hope you played your cards right. Air Zonk is one of those games that is manageable if you are powered up properly. Getting hit and losing that weapon boost, and you’re essentially neutered as the masses come at you. Dying early on means you might as well just give up and re-start.

But it doens’t matter. That final boss is just bullshit central. It’ll take you several go-arounds just to figure out the formula, which means replaying that absurd final stage again. Oh, and again. And when you do find that pattern, it doesn’t mean things are easy. He has five random attacks which aren’t too difficult to dodge, but before each and every attack he shoots out a green ball which if it hits you…*ahem* when it hits you completely blocks your shots. Therefore, your choice is to dodge the five random attacks and live or dodge the green attacks and get hit by his main ones. So…now that you’ve been hit, expect for almost all of your attacks to be stopped.

And so you dance this weaving pattern. Dodge, get hit by green orbs and wait for those to stop nullifying your shots so you can get a handful of hits on him and repeat. More than half of my game time was on this boss. For the remainder of the game I could see why EGM awarded this as their best TurboGrafx game of 1992. But that finale was just nonsense. I’d go back and play around in the first three stages or so but have no interest in the rest.

Final Verdict
Air Zonk is representative of its era. The bright and colorful palette, fun soundtrack and wide range of weapons make for a fun romp in small doses. The end of the last stages were just stupidity, however, and negate any enjoyment from the first portion of the game. Would revisit the initial sections and wouldn’t wish the latter on my worst enemy. I’m glad I played, now to tackle the Turbo CD Super Air Zonk! I imagine its soundtrack will be both more impressive and familiar, as I almost certainly played that one 25 years ago or so!

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