I was like a lot of Genesis kids back in the early 90s – almost gameless. The couple titles I did own smelled of melting plastic from the incessant use they received. Finding jobs was always an iffy prospect for us 8-year-olds, and the only ones available were at Nike for pennies a day. So, like so many other kids, I maintained a second home at the local video store. I would rent games and do everything in my power to finish them in the single night that I had them. This allowed me to peruse the Genesis library relatively competently. Only a few of the plethora of games I tried became repeat rentals. One of which was seemingly never picked up by anyone else. Maybe it was because of the strange title, or the obscure uber-Japanese source material. Whatever the case, this game deserves some more love.
Mazin Saga: Mutant Fighter, also known as Mazen Wars, was released in the US in 1993 for the Mega Drive. Published by Sega and developed by Almanic Corporation, the game is a side-scrolling monster hack n’ slash based on Go Nagai’s manga, Mazin Saga. Save for the opening summary, the story is pretty minimal, despite coming from a series that is bursting with narrative content from which to draw. I am not familiar with the manga whatsoever, so I won’t risk pissing on the feet of you manga fans by attempting to summarize it. Instead, I’ll give you exactly what the game gives you just after the title screen of the game:
“The year 1999… The Biobeast Force, led by Godkaiser Hell, attacked Earth, and dominated the people of Earth in only a few months. The Earth has been demolished and polluted with the weapons they used, and the out of control ecosystem has shown the effect of the aftermath. The survivors of the holocaust escaped underground, living in fear of the attacks by the Steelmask Force. But, even with fear and despair among many, Doctor Kabuto has secretly succeeded in creating the Mazinger-Z.”
… Yeah. If you’ve never read the book, you’ll be as confused as I was. It’s a lot of weird names to take in at the beginning of any game, but that’s all the story you get until the very end, which you’d be incredibly lucky to reach, as some areas of this game are hard. Controller-chewingly hard.
The basic structure of the gameplay is pretty standard. You play as Mazinger-Z, a heavily armored, midnight-blue knight and apparently the savior of the planet against the Biobeast Force. Traversing different countries in each stage, you slaughter beast after beast in your quest to reach the boss waiting for you in his lair.
Sounds pretty bland, right? Well, ok, yeah, you’re right. The actual gameplay itself is really pretty average. Your moves consist of jumping, swinging your sword, a very effective and fun jumping spiral move, and a special move that drains some of your health (On a side note: every time I play the game after not having picked it up in a while, I always accidentally use that health-draining spaz-out move. It’s needlessly mapped out to the A button, which is the button I instinctually go to when I don’t remember the controls for a game. Damn you Mazinger-Z.) These moves do their job, for the most part, though the amount of enemies around you can become a bit overwhelming with so few attacks at your disposal.
Needless to say, these controls aren’t what set it apart. As a huge fan of monsters and creative creature design, I’m really won over by the enemies in Mazin Saga. I assume that they are somehow connected to the manga, which would explain some of the more inspired nuances. These include a monk-creature whose robes hide a long, machete like blade, a giant shelled beetle that scrunches up into a ball and rolls at you, and a clawed, armored red guy who looks like a cross between one of Ridley Scott’s Aliens and Street Fighter‘s Vega (or Balrog, or whatever).
But these smaller creatures are just little precursors to the game’s real creations – the bosses. Imagine fiddling with your average hack n’ slash, pushing through crowds of rolling beetles, slaughtering armored flame-throwing monsters, when suddenly, a massive, screenfilling claw comes slamming down on top of you. Frantically, you slash at the massive appendage that threatens to crush you as it descends again and again. Eventually, with one final swipe of your sword, you send the creature away screaming in agony. This is your first encounter with that level’s boss.
This kind of encounter happens at the midpoint of each stage, helping to spice up some so-so gameplay with some rather interesting anecdotes of giant, gorgeous-looking monster combat. The best is Dino-Beast’s stage, in which the aforementioned creature chases you. To survive, you jump from cliff to cliff, barely keeping ahead of the rapidly moving screen. At times, you even have to run along Dino-Beast’s arm to reach the next cliff. This stage frustrates the HELL out of me.
I’ve expressed my love of variety in game mechanics before, and Mazin Saga’s boss battles again reaffirm that undying adoration. Through most of the game, you fight as a little human-sized knight, fighting off other human-sized creatures. At the end of each stage, you transform into a giant version of yourself, Power Rangers style, to fight the final boss eye-to-eye. The game transforms into a very simple fighting game, a change in gameplay which can be an extremely welcome respite from the regular sword-slashing rigamarole. The intensity of these battles is driven skyward, largely by the insane difficultly, but even more so by the distinct disadvantage your character now has. The limber, spinning Mazinger-Z of the hack n’ slash has been traded for a slow, hulking version with a much more cumbersome fighting style. Your foes carry maces, shoot fireballs, and can charge at you repeatedly at impressive speeds, while you only have your sword swing to protect you. This really forces the player to strategize, finding just what tactics of Mazinger-Z’s limited arsenal will help him hold out until the beast has been slain. Sometimes this can make for a rather interesting battle, other times it can feel frustratingly unfair.
Even moreso than their smaller minions, these bosses have some fantastic creature design and very intricate animations. Characters like Dino-Beast (a dinosaur head with a football player’s body), Slughead (another Alien-looking creature with a mace ball), and Buster Claws (a cross between Shuma Gorath and a snake) are absolutely astounding to look at, especially for a Genesis game. This helps to ease the pain of the uncontrollable tongue-chewing that the difficulty of this game will inevitably induce.
It is this incredible difficulty that will drive many players away from this fun little experience. Mazin Saga is only five levels long, with each level split into three stages. This length works, considering the fact that so few people will have the patience to go through later half’s grueling duels over and over again. By the end, the challenge they provide makes up for it. I’ve played this game on-and-off for more than a decade, and I’ve only just recently beaten it… And I couldn’t be more satisfied. Then again, I tend to be a sucker for punishment.
Despite its surplus of almost unfair challenge, Mazin Saga is a relatively solid title. I don’t blame anyone for shying away from it for its flaws. I only hope that I can influence a few more fans of the genre to consider giving it a try and experiencing the interesting character design, the intense boss battles, and the fun albeit generic combat for themselves. Sure, it sounds and appears rather unapproachable, but if you’re willing to withstand some of the game’s glaring flaws, you just might find something underneath that is pretty to look at and satisfying to play. I know I did.
This ain’t going back to North Star Video for a looong time.