On occasion when the Atari Jaguar is discussed, it is either a based upon a bit of misinformation about it’s technical aspects/hardware (please read this post about Bits if you haven’t already) or if the discussion manages to come around to the games, it is that they all suck except for maybe two titles, Aliens Vs. Predator and Tempest 2000.
The purpose of these Jaguar Gem posts, of which this will be the first is to point out some games that usually don’t get any attention for whatever reason but are good or at the very least decent games that should get a mention regardless of what game system they were made for.
I bought a Jaguar in 1997, back when I should have had an N64, a PS1 and a Saturn. I already had a 486 which handled a lot of my gaming needs and with some money I had saved up with mowing lawns, I could afford a Jaguar. If you have read any of this blog already then you know I also had a thing for Atari so that was the console I opted for. It was too little too late to help Atari of course, which had ended official support for the system almost two years prior before merging themselves with a hard drive manufacturer no one had ever heard of. But I was ready to check out some post Genesis/SNES gaming and start a collection as well. It didn’t hurt that someone still liked the Jaguar as a company called Telegames, who released several games around that time. Thanks to their efforts and that of a few homebrewers, it felt like the system was still alive, to a small degree. Note: I am not the type of fanboy that will discuss only the good and ignore the bad – I know that technically there were some bugs in the Jaguar that held it back from full potential and the lack of huge budgets for many games also kept us from seeing it pushed to the max. There were some lazy ports as well as under-budget ports for the system. But it wasn’t just two good games either.
The Jag has a really fascinating history on games that never made it to the system but were in the works but that full discussion will have to wait for another time. Among some of those many unreleased titles were some gems that had they been released in 1994 or the beginning of 1995, perhaps the system would have done just a tiny bit better. Or not, we’ll never know.
The discussion for today: Caspian Software’s Zero 5.
If the name doesn’t sound familiar well then that isn’t surprising for a couple of reasons. First it sounds horribly generic, like someone at the Microsoft Game Console naming division was in charge of it. Second, it wasn’t on anything anyone owned.
There was a version released for the Atari STe / Falcon 030 in 1994, which happened to be one of the last commercial releases for the ST computer platform. It was a space game that had some tendencies of the exploration game Elite mixed with a shooter. To work with the STe, it had a blend of flat-shaded 3D polygons and bitmap graphics. Here is a video of the effort:
When talking about the Jaguar version however, you have to almost completely forget what you just saw there. It is a little odd but the only thing the two versions really seem to share are that they take place in space and there is shooting involved. Same developer but the different hardware influenced them to take their game in a different direction.
One note about this game as you read about it is that it was practically finished but not quite. It was released after the Jaguar had been canceled by a company called Telegames. They purchased the rights to several Atari Jaguar games that were finished and ready for a release or games that were maybe 97% done. Playable but in need of a few tweaks. Zero 5 was one of those games.
The Jaguar version of Zero 5 has three different game types mixed into one game. All involve blasting things in some form or another. Aliens are attacking Earth and like usual, you are expected to defend it alone against the hordes of well-funded bad guys. This is very much a 3D shoot ’em up or for those that prefer the term, shmup. All of the play mechanics focus on blasting things, you get power-ups from certain enemies, they will often fly around in patterns you can memorize and it is tough. Here is a breakdown of the different game modes:
Fighter Craft Mode: This is the first part of the game the player is faced with and the most odd to control. If anything needed some last minute tweaking it was this. That isn’t the best way to start off a new player, especially in a game that as you will quickly discover if you play it, is quite challenging.
You start off in a small fighter craft that occupies the center of the screen. Bad guy ships will fly in from various directions in patterns, attacking you at certain points. The odd thing is that they fly around you in 3 dimensions and your craft doesn’t automatically lock onto them, nor does it have a targeting reticle. You have to quickly learn how to aim at enemies in 3D space as they come blasting at you in high speed. I have talked with some Jaguar fans who are turned off to the game because of this mode, however, if you stick with it and learn some of the patterns, it becomes a unique shooter/shmup experience. Flawed but don’t let it stop you from playing the rest of the game as it is fun in this mode once you get the hang of it. Here is a video of the mode from someone who was getting the hang of it while playing. A lot of the trick is to aim in the center of where the bad guys appear and not move around too much. Keep firing your lasers and they act as your guide.
It may sound bad to have a flaw like this early on but again, there is more to this game for those willing to learn and once you get the hang of it, it is fun. It’s not a game breaking flaw that a player cannot overcome without a short amount of practice.
I will mention here how the power-up system works. The power-ups themselves simply charge whatever ship system it is you have selected. So if you want to power-up your cannons which is the default, you keep it on that setting; if your shields have been damaged, switch to that and power-ups will restore shields. If you have maxed out your cannons and your shields are fine, then you can tell it to give you bonus points. Nothing complicated although you start fresh every level. Also there are no power-ups for the next mode, it only exists for the Fighter Craft and Trench modes.
First-Person Mode: Your fighter craft will dock with that mothership again and then the game takes a turn where you no longer have this odd way of controlling things. It now keeps on a mostly 2D playing field as a turret. The ship can turn around but Z aiming is limited to within the camera so it doesn’t throw you off. Often you have to blast ships that warp in from various positions around your craft; you also have to navigate asteroid fields and the big boss battles happen in this mode. This video shows most of that in action:
Trench Mode: Now for my personal favorite of the game, which makes up for some of the flaws in Fighter Craft mode, the trench mode. Obviously inspired by the likes of Star Wars, you go back into your fighter craft but now the control is simply firing and rotating. Push left or right on the D-Pad to move the trench clockwise or counter-clockwise. Along the way you have power-up panels to charge your cannons or shields. I prefer to charge the cannons and to fire non-stop. There are no enemies you encounter, only metal panels. The trick to this mode is to keep firing and listen carefully to the sound that is made. If you get a metallic sound, move your craft immediately to avoid running into one of the dark panels (which cannot be destroyed). Lighter panels will dissolve quickly. Learning that makes this a real rush to play and admittedly I wish there were more of these found in the game than the fighter mode.
Graphics: You probably noticed something about this game that stands out and that would be the graphics. The Jaguar is often bashed, sometimes fairly but sometimes not over it’s lack of 3D prowess. Considering the main hardware was finished in 1992 that that it was designed more as a 2D system than a 3D one is where sometimes it is looked at unfairly. Anyways, Zero 5 shows that with the right programming and tricks, it could handle very fast 3D. It does have to mix flat-shaded stuff with polygons but if you want 60 fps in a 3D 90s game, sometimes sacrifices had to be made (almost like the Xbox One right now and you either get 1080p@30FPS or 900p@60FPS but not the coveted 1080p@60).
Zero 5 is without a doubt the fastest full 3D engine on the Jaguar. For a system that did not feature special hardware to handle textures this is also a nice feat. If you look carefully, some of the textures are even animated (watch the internals of the ships you destroy in First Person mode). I did read once that another trick they pulled was to render the color in a lower depth than some Jaguar games tried to do, putting it on par with where most PlayStation 3D games rendered their color (which was not 65k but lower). No matter how they did it, it works and even with flat-shaded polys thrown in there, they blended them in such a way that it adds to the art direction. While graphics are not everything, it is nice to look at and one has to wonder what else could be done if similar tricks were used.
Sound: Also something of a treat. Some Jaguar games were rightly criticized for having no background music (I do differ with people who say that AvP or Doom needed it as they become darker and more tense with how it was done on those titles but games like CyberMorph or Trevor McFur needed something). Zero 5 is a game that has a soundtrack that is on par with Tempest 2000 and not just in quality of sound from a cart but also tonally. It is a high energy techno track that fits perfectly with the action so that it enhances it. Not all games get that blend of soundtrack and on-screen action right but Zero 5 does, which elevates the game overall.
Controls: As mentioned, this is the main flaw with the game. It doesn’t kill it but it can frustrate newcomers. In addition to some tweaks in ship movement and enemy locating, they also should have added an auto-fire function. I once damaged the button on a ProController playing the level 8 boss. The boss battles also needed to be toned down slightly as they seem to go on forever, which is murder on your controllers and hands. I once managed to get a 900k+ score on the game but my right wrist ached for a while afterwards. There are modded “Rapid Fire” controllers for the Jag I have heard about, such a thing wouldn’t be unwelcome with this game.
Overall: So while it is not an absolutely perfect game, it isn’t a “sucky” game either. It is too bad it didn’t get polished up and released during the Jag’s official lifetime as it would have stood out and may have sold a few units. Atari always had a stronger showing when it came to space games so it is too bad they didn’t fine-tune that further. Gamefan Magazine reviewed Zero 5 back when it was released and they were all impressed by what it had to offer at the time, especially the soundtrack (one of them even mentioned that it beat out N64 soundtracks in quality). If you happen to be considering trying out a Jaguar or collecting for it, then do not overlook this game if the opportunity presents itself, it is a gem.