Disclaimer: Sega’s 16-bit machine was called the Mega Drive in the rest of the world, but known as the “Genesis” in North America. Since I’m from the United States, I’ll be referring to it as the Genesis in this article, rather than typing the awkward “Genesis/Mega Drive” every time. Know that I’m aware of the difference and respect it, but it’s just easier for me to type the name I’ve always used. They’re the same thing.
In 1995, I was living in Waltham, Massachusetts, less than a mile away from The Outer Limits, a comic shop that had been there since the early 1980s, and is, in fact, still there to this day. While it was the Marvel Universe trading cards and the X-Men cartoon that got me interested in reading comic books, it was the availability of them given to me by The Outer Limits being right up the street from my home that fostered my love for the medium.
Quarter bins are a great way to get new readers. Retailers, don’t ever overlook the importance of getting Middle School kids into comics.
In 1995, I was also subscribed to GamePro Magazine, keeping up with what was going on the final days of 16-bit gaming. The Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation were both released that year, but I was still perfectly happy with my Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis.
GamePro previewed a game from Sega called Comix Zone, where you played as a comic artist who was sucked into his own comic. That sounded cool to me. And then this commercial aired:
Have I ever mentioned how much I love this style of off-kilter, surreal, 1990s advertising?
So yeah. I HAD to check this game out. I rented it once or twice from the local West Coast Video shop, and then got it for Christmas. And I entered the Zone…
Turn the game on, and an animatic plays. It’s a dark and stormy night. A 90s-cool character with John Lennon sunglasses, an undercut ponytail, and a sleeveless hoodie over a t-shirt is drawing comics with his pet rat hanging out on his shoulder. Suddenly, lightning comes inside the window and strikes the comic page being drawn. A hand shoots out of the comic, and Mortus, the main villain, has come to the real world! He throws the artist into the comic page, with the little rat following behind. Mortus exclaims that if the artist dies in the comic, the villain will get to remain in the real world and take that over, just as he took over the word of the comic!
Cut to the beginning if the game, and the artist character falls into view, and is caught up to what’s going on by a woman named Alissa Cyan, the leader of the resistance. The conversation happens in comic book-style dialogue balloons. Three items sit on the ground in front if you. Crouching over them picks them up and puts them in a 3-slot menu above the health bar on the top-right corner of the screen. The conversation ends, and the artist vaults over the panel border to begin the game proper.
Gameplay is pretty standard beat-‘em-up platforming action, with some minor puzzle solving thrown in. You play as comic book artist Sketch Turner, who has what is probably the most contrived name in Sega’s lineup since Golden Axe’s “Ax Battler.” Sketch can punch, jump, use items, flip switches, push objects, and do some funky fighting combos. By holding diagonally up or down as you attack, Sketch will do upward- or downward-angled kicks. Holding straight up when attacking does a mighty uppercut, and down+attack does a crouching kick. You can mix up all of Sketch’s attacks to hit bigger combos than just hitting the attack button 4 times.
If you’re playing with the standard Genesis 3-button controller, then A attacks, B jumps, and C cycles through a menu of 3 items located above the health bar. Hit C once to highlight the first item, twice to highlight the second, and three times to highlight the third. Tapping A while and item is highlighted will use it. But if you’re using the later 6-button controller, then C will block, and you can use the X, Y, and Z buttons to immediately use the 3 items, without cycling through them. Using either controller, you can also change the controls in the options menu, and with the six-button pad it’s possible to re-assign what the C button does, including a few heavier attacks, or just taunt your opponents.
The aforementioned items are a mix of standard video game tropes and ideas unique to this game. There’s a knife that can be thrown for powerful, ranged attacks. A bunch of dynamite can be dropped down to cause an explosion at short ranges, while a grenade can be thrown forward like an explosive verison of the knife. A bottle of iced tea will replenish a good chunk of Sketch’s health, and the power fist will cause Sketch to transform into a superhero and punch the ground, killing all enemies on screen before turning back. Finally, your pet rat, Roadkill, is the most useful item in the game. He can be used to flip switches behind walls that Sketch can’t reach, but he will also occasionally find hidden items randomly strewn about in the background. Nothing like sending out your little buddy when low on health, and he finds some life-giving iced tea. Score!
There’s some cool comic-related features to the game; as Sketch journeys through the comic world, occasionally, Mortus’ hand will appear, and draw in new enemies to block the path. Sometimes, you’ll need to break through panel borders to get to the next section. Holding the attack button uses some life, but will see Sketch rip part of the background off the page and make a paper airplane that can kill most enemies in one hit. And Alyssa will occasionally pop in and give you a little bit of advice! She’ll also pop up at the end of each stage to congratulate you with a “Well done, Turner!” It’s rad.
Each of the six stages is one comic page long, and every other page has a boss. Sketch only has one life, but beating a boss will earn a continue. That’s certainly a way to increase the difficulty of the game — limit the number of lives a player has. Oi. Getting a game over shows Mortus standing on the balcony of Sketch’s apartment building and declaring that the world will be his!
Graphically, the is one of the best-looking games on the Genesis. Coming out right at the end of the console’s life meant that the devs had years to learn how to get the most out of its processors. Character sprites are large and detailed, although admittedly the “Gravis”enemy might have a little too much detail compared to the others.
The music in the game is 100% mid-1990s alternative rock, which is perfect for the Genesis’ sound chip. Some panels will feature an upbeat tune, while others are moody and atmospheric. The boss music is a hard-driving, riff-based tune that really amps up the feeling of danger. Other sound effects are impressive for 1995: the tearing of paper sounds like a sheet of paper being ripped. Hits give a satisfying WHACK or THUD. Each of the enemies even has a line or two of actual recorded voice sampling. Most are grunts and groans, but the hook sword-wielding Strigil will demand “Gimme the respect I deserve!”, and I he level four boss, Kung-Fung, will sometimes be impressed and let you know, “Your Kung-Fu is good!”
Comix Zone was released with a music CD. In North America, that was a sampler disc by American Recordings, featuring 12 songs from different artists they released that year. In most of the rest of the world, it was full recordings of six of the tunes from the game performed by Sketch Turner’s band, Roadkill — yeah, he named the band after his pet rat. I’ll definitely do an article on that American Recording Sampler CD, but the soundtrack CD can be easily found on YouTube by searching for “Sega Tunes Comix Zone.”
While the game was initially released on a Genesis cartridge, it’s often included on Sega compilation collections. That includes the Sega Genesis Collection on the PS2, Sonic’s Genesis Collection on the PS3 and XBox 360, and the Sega Genesis Classics on the Switch, Steam, PS4 and XBox One. It’s easy to find a way to get this game, along with other classic Genesis games, for really cheap.
In 2008, 13 years after this game’s release, my family opened a comic book shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. While trying to come up with a name for the store, “Comix Zone” came up. We all liked it as a name, especially considering how important the Sega Genesis game had been to my brother and me. But we also didn’t want to deal with any legal trouble from Sega. So we changed a letter and came up with a completely new logo. On December 6th, “Comic Zone” opened its doors for business!
Unfortunately, 2008 also saw a worldwide economic recession hit, so we were only able to keep the store open for a few years, until 2011. Regardless, a funky little game that came out for Sega’s 16-but console right at the end of its lifespan served as inspiration for one of the highlights of my life.
Well done, Turner!
Genesis, Mega Drive, Comix Zone, and all related characters and concepts are produced by or are under license from Sega Enterprises, LTD.