Here’s a very specific fact about me that you didn’t want to know and probably don’t care about: I love 2.5D first-person shooters. We’re talking the raycasted oldies like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. I don’t know why, I just love the aesthetic. The simple or abstract environments with their billboarded sprites. The invitingly humpable walls. That’s my scene.
It was a relatively short-lived period of gaming. After Quake arrived in ’96, the method for 3D environments began its exit to make way for the world of polygons. That puts the 2.5D heyday on the 16-bit consoles, like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, which were a little too under-powered to handle them. In fact, there were only three first-person shooters on the vanilla Sega Genesis (four, if you count the Brazil-only “port” of Duke Nukem 3D), which, I mean, of course I’m going to end up playing them all. Zero Tolerance is the only one I own at the time of writing, so let’s start with that.
Zero Tolerance is a game that excites me for a number of reasons, but the narrative isn’t one of them. You play as a team of 5 members of the Planet Defense Corps, who find themselves under attack by an alien threat. You’re sent to the space station Europa-1 to free it from the alien menace and prevent its nuclear reactor from exploding. If that’s too hard to follow, don’t worry, it all boils down to “shoot the bad guys.”
There are five members of your team available to choose from, each with their own particular skillset. If you die while playing as one, they stay dead for the remainder of the game, forcing you to pick from one of their colleagues. There are forty levels across a variety of backdrops, with the goal being to eliminate every enemy on each floor before descending to the next one. To do this, you’ve got a small assortment of firearms to dispatch enemies with. You’re given 5 inventory slots to mix and match equipment in, which can force you to choose between a forth or fifth gun and a bulletproof vest, at times.
The Genesis simply did not have the horsepower to run an FPS, not even a raycast one, but that didn’t stop developer Technopop from trying and succeeding. The result is understandably limited, but still features some extremely impressive graphical trickery to make up for it. Even the title screen shows off a really cool 2D lighting effect to set the mood.
There are some great visual treats, like a whole 16-bit cityscape projected outside the windows of the game’s second area that gradually changes perspective as you descend the building. Blood splatters against walls. Elevators and stairways descend in realtime, showing off a really neat attempt at simulating room-over-room level construction. One gun has a laser pointer that changes size to reflect the distance it’s travelling to the wall. It’s a neat mix, even if the game still looks less than pleasing.
The raycasting seems to have caused a weird artifact with the rendering, making the textures look like they’re covered in vertical lines. The system is limited to the 61-colour simultaneous pallette that the Genesis is restricted to. The actual playscreen is smooshed down into a small area in the center, with the Genesis being straight-up incapable of rendering fullscreen. In its place, the HUD has an absolutely massive, static picture of your character’s ID in case, you know, you have to visit a bar or something and get carded.
The game’s performance isn’t so hot, either. It runs at a reasonable clip most of the time, but if you’re in an open area and pick up the flashlight or night vision goggles (don’t, they’re both practically useless), the framerate drops into the gutter. The game also has a habit of stuffing a tonne of enemies onscreen at once, which further drags down the game’s responsiveness.
BENEATH THE GLIMMER
The tech’s fine, but there’s a game beneath those visual tricks. Zero Tolerance is… tolerable. It’s okay. This was 1994. Doom was released in ’93. Do you think that even the most advanced visual tricks could allow the Genesis to produce a game that’s on par with Doom? No, it couldn’t. Not without the 32X, anyway, and even then, barely.
The limitations of the hardware inevitably drags Zero Tolerance down in a way that no design could make up for. Levels are very squared off an abstract, using a distinct grid to map everything out. They’re varied, at least, with the narrow office corridors giving way to wide-open construction areas. In that way, it’s better than, say, Wolfenstein 3D.
But that grid is everything. Even enemies appear on the grid, and strangely enough, only when you’re looking in their direction. So if you’re wandering through a maze and don’t want to be blindsided, avoidance is as easy as keeping your focus in the opposite direction. It’s bizarre, since it results in moments where you’re trying to track down the last enemy on a floor and find them in a room you already cleared, but since you turned in a particular way, they didn’t spawn in. What were they doing? Did they think you were deliberately ignoring them and were too polite to speak up?
The AI is also laughable — not that I’ve ever encountered an enemy in a 2.5D FPS that did anything other than charge at you. Most of the enemies can only attack within melee range, which makes them extremely ineffective. If they do manage to get close to you, however, they often just coast right by, then struggle to hit you. This made a lot of levels extremely simple, the only difficulty arising from inventory management and ammunition supplies. Actually, for that matter, the only time my progress was slowed down was during a couple of floors where ammo was scarce. I had to switch characters to the hand-to-hand combat specialist because there weren’t enough bullets to go around.
The game’s music also sucks out loud. As far as I can tell, there’s one track for each of the game’s three episodes. They’re all a forgettable assortment of tunes played over repetitive military drum rolls. They work, but hearing them for such long periods of time over the course of the game begins to wear.
There’s forty levels, and the fact that I stayed engaged for all of them says something. If there’s one strength Zero Tolerance has, it’s that it always offers something new. Whether it’s just changing up the wallpaper or providing entirely new enemies to fight, there’s enough variety to keep things smelling fresh throughout. This works against it when the game slows to a crawl in the last chapter, when the levels devolve into dense labyrinths packed to the brim with baddies. Not exactly the bang the game should have gone out with.
Still, it scratched an itch. While the game feels like a tech demo first and a game second, there’s still a degree of personality buried beneath the technical trickery. It’s a game that isn’t without merit, but is still entirely antiquated. Unless you absolutely need to play an FPS on your Genesis, or you’re a nerd like me and get excited when you see raycasting, it’s probably a game you can safely pass on.
This review was conducted on a second model Genesis (revision VA3; it matters for Genesis!) with an authentic copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.