Nostalgia can be a powerful, if misleading force. It colors our memories of the past as it shapes our perception of the present. Games and other pieces of media that are fondly remembered do not always hold up under the harsh glare of today’s expectations.
I first played Slave Zero not long after it came out, in the distant past of 2000 or so. I recall it as having been fun if not particularly deep, and still have fond memories of the game. The game didn’t make much in the way of an impact, and it’s not really remembered as a classic (or much at all) these days. Let’s take a look and see what remains once we’ve peeled away the nostalgia.
Get in the Robot, Chan
Slave Zero’s plot is simple comic book pulp, mostly developed through people yelling at you only to be drowned out by the soundtrack and thunder of combat. The evil SovKhan rules an enormous futuristic eastern-flavored megacity. You play as Chan, a member of an organization called the Guardians that is attempting to overthrow the SovKhan, for reasons.
|Tiny helicopters and tanks oppose you in the early game.|
Since the SovKhan has an army of giant robots, and what few Guardians we see are armed with sticks, the Guardians steal the SovKhan’s prototype weapon to even things up. Chan pilots (becomes?) Zero, the first of a line of giant biomechanical war machines called Slaves. For an entity made of so few polygons Zero projects a surprising level of personality between his eternal smirk and swaggering, simian lope.
A few throwaway lines imply that Chan is permanently fused to Zero somehow, but this is never further developed or explained. This is too bad. Sacrificing your humanity to become a giant fighting machine could have been a fascinating concept to build a story around, but such narrative finesse is beyond a game this big and loud.
The soundtrack holds up well. A collection of thumping techno with strong organic bass serves as perfect accompaniment to the giant robot on giant robot violence, helping to bring the neon cityscape to life. Give it a listen here.
Built to Scale
Let's be upfront. By modern graphical standards this is an ugly game. Textures are often muddy and polygons scarce. Where Slave Zero succeeds, even despite the obvious technical limitations of the era, is in giving the action a sense of size and scope.
|Tiny cars valiantly attempting to commute through a robot war-zone.|
The ground shakes beneath Zero’s mighty swaggering stride while tiny low-poly humans cower and flee. Cars wreck harmlessly against his massive feet as he crosses busy freeways. The helicopters, jets, and tanks that assail you in the early game are as toylike as they are ineffective. Vehicles and other debris can be scooped up and flung like baseballs.
Amusingly the massive civilian casualties and collateral damage your battles through the city must be causing are never mentioned or addressed. Still, nobody ever won a revolution without inflicting a healthy amount of carnage and horror upon the people the revolution is ostensibly being fought for.
|The city has a way of dwarfing even Zero.|
The bulk of your opposition consists of robots Zero’s size and larger. Often much larger. A generous helping of destructible buildings and other elements about Zero’s size further deliver a sense of the firepower getting tossed around. Finally the massive, colorful neo-Tokyo cityscape towers over everything, making even you and your ten story opponents seem insignificant.
Gameplay is not complex. You thunder through highly linear levels, destroying everything in your path. Exploration is minimal and backtracking almost non-existent. Occasional arenas halt forward progress until you explode every other giant robot in the vicinity. Irregular platforming has Zero hopping from skyscraper to skyscraper while rare static segments charge you with destroying or defending something while waves of enemy reinforcement pour in.
|Don't stand in front of these guys...|
Enemy AI is weak and most foes are not very mobile. Fragile hovering mechs seek you out and harry you from above while heavier units unleash blistering firepower from fixed positions. Zero’s not really nimble enough to dodge, so you must seek cover and retaliate between barrages. While you can occasionally pick the enemy to pieces with the railgun sniper solid level design and enemy placement keeps combat engaging.
|...because they do that.|
Zero can carry a mere three weapons at a time, swapping between handheld bullet and energy guns while firing missiles from a shoulder mounted launcher. Aside from a succession of bigger, louder guns (some so comically oversized they are nearly the size of Zero himself) there is no character progression or upgrade system. While the arsenal is satisfyingly destructive simply grabbing the next biggest gun you find is not always the best option.
The sheer rate at which they burn through ammo makes most of the high tier weapons impractical. The giant beam cannon, for example, consumes your entire stock of energy in about two seconds. Supplies are normally so plentiful this isn’t a big deal, but a number of major fights trap you in an arena with a giant damage sponge and a limited number of pickups. There’s simply not enough ammo in many encounters to win if you are carrying the most powerful but inefficient weapons.
There’s no garage or armory function to let you tweak your loadout between levels. The practical result of all this is that pressing forward with the wrong weapons can render some fights, indeed the game itself, un-winnable. Indeed, I’m honestly not sure there is enough ammo to beat the final boss on hard. For a game based around using big, simple, powerful weapons to destroy everything in sight discouraging the use of the biggest and most powerful is a bizarre design decision, bordering on a major flaw.
|It's lonely at the top of a miles high city. Watch you step.|
Boss fights are (as they should be) among the game’s most memorable encounters. Each pits you against a massive enemy Slave that dwarfs Zero. One boss fight sees you climbing a vertical chamber flooding with lethal acid while the hovering boss blasts away at you from the center. Another gives you an extremely limited number of skyscrapers to safely stand on, which the boss steadily demolishes over the course of your duel. Managing ammo supplies and collecting more without wasting it is at least as important in these encounters as dodging attacks.
The inevitable change of hardware and software over time have left Slave Zero with some considerable technical issues. Downloading the latest version of nGlide helped remove the savage stuttering the game suffered from, but I could never fix the resolution so my shots didn’t pull to the left of my crosshair. This made long range sniping difficult and broke homing missiles entirely.
More seriously Slave Zero crashed every time I got close to or took a shot at a specific kind of late-game enemy. I couldn’t find a technical fix and this bug almost scrapped my run of the game. Fortunately there weren’t many of this particular enemy and a few dozen crashes and some weird footwork was enough to get me past them.
|The sewers are visually dull and full of robot spiders.|
Slave Zero is not a long or complex game. You can probably blow through it in a weekend or less. The core gameplay is simple and accessible enough that it holds up today. Other games attempting to convey a sense of relative size and scale between giant characters and environments should look at what Slave Zero accomplishes even with its technical limitations. As a gaming artifact it provides an excellent example of big, dumb, loud fun, left dangerously close to unplayable on a modern machine by the march of time.
Reasons to play: Game sells the sense of size and scope of being a giant robot. Thumping techno soundtrack.
Reasons to pass: Simple gameplay and weird weapon/ammo balance. Serious technical glitches on modern machines.
Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.