Zero Wing: Is the game behind the meme any good?

Zero Wing, the meme, the myth, the legend. On June 30, Toaplan’s oft-memed horizontal shooter released to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack in what’s probably the most widely available version of the game now.

Zero Wing first released in arcades way back in 1989, but most people are probably more familiar with its Mega Drive port that initially only came out in Japan and Europe in 1991. While North America did finally get a limited reproduction for the Sega Genesis from Retro-Bit in 2020, I think it’s safe to say the reputation of the memes from the mid 2000s proceed the game itself in a big way. When I first caught wind of “All your base are belong to us” and the internet phenomenon that it spawned, I didn’t even know the game was a shooter. It’s also surprising to me that no one tried to cash in on any sort of port when you consider just how far it permeated into gaming and internet culture. But now that it’s here, it would almost feel criminal not to give the game behind the meme a chance.

Zero Wing starts with that legendary intro with a translation that’s so bad, it’s good. But what I didn’t know is how hype the accompanying music track is. I personally always associated it with a “Bohemian Rhapsody” parody that replaced the lyrics with those of the Zero Wing intro that I heard all those years ago. That’s something of a theme with Zero Wing, though. The music tracks are bangers and honestly some of the best examples of what the Yamaha FM synthesizer in the Mega Drive/Genesis can do in the right hands. And that’s from someone who never had a particular fondness for that crunchy sound the console was known for.

But let’s jump into the main course here and talk about the gameplay before I get carried away. Zero Wing is a pretty by-the-numbers horizontal shooter. It’s also a checkpoint shooter which means you’re going back to a checkpoint and losing your powerups when you die. It’s pretty common of that era but will likely frustrate newcomers and those who just don’t like that style of gameplay. Luckily it can be circumvented with the rewind feature on Nintendo Switch Online for those that just want a quick glance at what the game offers. I wouldn’t say the game is brutally difficult or anything, but checkpoint recovery can be an issue for those who don’t know what they’re getting into.

Something I appreciated about the gameplay was its simplicity. There are three different types of weapons that you level up by collecting the same color power up dropped from enemies. There’s also the tractor beam that can be used to hold bombs or to grab enemies to use as either a shield or a projectile. Add your two bullet absorbing pods above and below your ship and you have a pretty simple game about blowing stuff up without getting blown up yourself. The stages also bring some environmental obstacles into the mix but not to the extent of an R-Type or something. It’s easier and a little less claustrophobic but still has similar vibes.

The progression of the stages from a design standpoint is well done too. You start off in space and venture deeper through enemy territory where things start to get more mechanical before turning into a hellish alien underworld. There’s some logic to it that helps make it feel like you’re progressing on a journey. It also has the cutest little ship that would fit in right alongside a cute ‘em up like Parodius.

So does Zero Wing live up to its legendary internet meme status? It’s far from the bad game many would likely expect from something with such a terrible translation. With its fun but not necessarily groundbreaking gameplay and awesome soundtrack, I don’t think the title would just be a footnote in the Mega Drive library if the meme didn’t exist. However, Toaplan did only ever release two horizontal shooters with Zero Wing being the last one.

But games don’t live in a vacuum. Sometimes playing a bad game with a friend can make it fun. Sometimes it’s the thrill of the hunt while you rummage through old shovelware at a recycle shop looking for something interesting that sticks with you. Sometimes you have fond memories of a game because it’s based on a tv show you loved as a kid. And sometimes a meme takes a game from good to legendary.