Friday, September 17, 2010

Zero Divide: Final Conflict on Sega Saturn

Zero Divide was a robot fighting game that appeared on the Playstation in 1995. The gameplay was rooted in Sega's Virtua Fighter style, with Guard-Punch-Kick and focus on martial arts moves, and it was very enjoyable. After all, who doesn't enjoy futuristic fighting robots? Thankfully, the painful memories of....bleech...Rise of the Robots has been forgotten in time.

Zoom, the software studio, created a sequel on the PSX, and then, in a surprising move, brought the third game in the series to the Sega Saturn in Japan. Zero Divide: Final Conflict is probably the best game in the series, certainly the fastest and most refined, and it makes sense that this game would appear on a Sega console, whose best 3D polygon brawlers all owe a debt to Virtua Fighter.

Obviously, Zero Divide was never brought to the States. It sits alongside the other 367 or so Sega Saturn classics from Japan that Sega of America wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. They relied almost solely on Western developers, who, at that time, were nowhere near as skilled as the Japanese. You can see the divide between East and West on the Saturn, and the difference is striking.

To be fair, Playstation swept the American scene almost immediately, and so, most software developers focused their energy on Sony; Sega might get a quick port, which was almost always inferior, and this fueled the momentum to the Playstation side. Programmers and programmers simply never spent the time needed to learn Saturn's complex architecture.

Given this knowledge, the decision by Sega of America's executives to almost completely shun Japanese Saturn games - especially 2D games - proved to be a terrible miscalculation. Sega went into battle with all its best games, Saturn's strongest games, kept off the playing field. A crippling defeat at the hands of Sony and Nintendo was all but inevitable. And it was easily avoidable.

Okay, enough with the tragic history lesson and back to Zoom's Zero Divide: Final Conflict. This is one of my favorite 3D fighting games on the Saturn, and it's also one of the most technically accomplished. The programmers had successfully mastered the dual CPUs, and you can see the results: stunning robot designs, skilled lighting effects, fully 3D graphics, all running at 60fps in Saturn's high-resolution graphics mode of 704x480. Everything looks terrific.

Take a close look at the robots in the video clip. Notice the subtlety of the lighting and shading as they move around the ring. This is much more refined, in a design sense, than the PSX, which was masterful at shading and lighting, but today often looks gaudy and over-syrupy. I'm quite impressed. The high resolution and fast framerate are also crucial factors, and I think this and similar Saturn games like Virtua Fighter 2 have aged so gracefully. This is the direction that game design evolved, as hardware became more powerful and the novelty of endless Gouraud shading wore off.

I'm impressed to see walls surrounding some of the fighting arenas, and these are 2D bitmap graphics instead of polygons (Zero Divide on Playstation had some terrific polygon backgrounds). This is the model that everyone followed after VF2 showed the way, and for the hardware, it's quite skillful. That said, I think these walls are a bit low-res and pixelated. These graphics should have been handled better. But, of course, I'm nitpicking, and it's 13 years after the fact. One of the joys of oldschool gaming is learning to make your piece with the limits of technology.

Zero Divide remains an obscure game for the Saturn, much like Anarchy in the Nippon, another spectacular 3D brawler. There are precious few articles on websites or videos on Youtube. I'm not sure what this means to the price of import copies on Ebay, but at least we can download the ISOs for free. Dedicated fans and collectors, of course, will want the physical disc, and they should be encouraged. This is a terrific Saturn game to surprise and impress your friends. Heck, add a few more classic Japanese titles to your library, and your Saturn will become your main console in the living room. Imagine that.

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