Zillion is an action game in the Metroidvania style with a very solid design. Unlike the original Metroid, Zillion is a largely room-based game, featuring many simple puzzles as part of its main gameplay. The result is a game that feels ahead of its time, though even its own sequel didn’t copy the formula. Your mission in Zillion is to rescue two of your compatriots, gather five hidden floppy disks, and then set the base you’re doing all of this in to self destruct and get out. To do this, you’ll have to map out the base while managing several resources to survive.
The primary gameplay mechanic is that any given room might have a locked door. To open it, you’ll need to find four symbols in that room and enter those into the computer. This isn’t really a “puzzle” per se (though having some kind of aid to remember the symbols is helpful), since the symbols are always found in item dispensing nodes that are in plain sight. The main difficulty is in various obstacles: damaging lasers or mines, sensors that call reinforcements, and wandering enemies. You’ll also find ID cards, a valuable resource that lets you disable some of these obstacles temporarily. You have to decide whether to disable or deal with any given obstacle in each room, which keeps things interesting.
The game really opens up once you rescue your first ally. Each of your characters gains levels (via found items) and upgrades independently, so you have some incentive to plan out your upgrades. If you’re thorough, this may never be an issue, but having multiple characters also means multiple health pools. Health restoration is not that easy to come by (though you can always return to the starting point to fully heal), so the challenge becomes balancing between your abilities and staying alive.
The game is superbly paced, with an opening area that introduces the basic mechanics, a middle section that is high on combat, and a final area that has a more focused puzzle aspect. Instead of simply opening the door and moving to the next room, you’ll find yourself opening a door that can be accessed from another room, significantly complicating your exploration. It’s very well done and keeps things fun and interesting.
Unfortunately, there is one major downside to Zillion’s design: the lack of a save or password system. The game takes several hours to complete, and has limited continues, which can make it extremely frustrating if you fail. The play control on the Sega Master System controller leaves a lot to be desired, and you will often take extra damage as a result. In a game this potentially unforgiving, that’s a problem. Playing conservatively helps, but adds to the already significant time investment.
Zillion is an extremely fun game, in my opinion a largely forgotten gem. It doesn’t have a huge variety of gameplay mechanics, but it is well designed and well paced. A simple password save may have made it a masterpiece of its time, but as it is, it’s worth a playthrough if you like this style of game.