An exemplary experience.
If you were to ask retro gamers to name the best shooters of all time, you can be almost certain that R-Type will be mentioned. Back at the end of the 1980s, it was released to much fanfare in the arcades, and when the home ports arrived, players were utterly infatuated. One of the most darling ports was for the ZX Spectrum, and that’s from where the little indie title Z-Exemplar chiefly derives its inspiration. And Nemesis. And Gradius. And many other classic, seminal shooters.
Z-Exemplar plays off British humor and places players in the role of a fighter pilot for a glorious interstellar empire and its leader, the mysterious Zed. Before you can say “jolly good”, you’re assigned to a remote region of space in order to coerce more planets into joining the imperial way of life and paying tribute to the great leader. This typically involves lots of shooting, avoiding obstacles, and earning money in the form of “zeds”. Players are given a star chart of levels they can play, with a degree of choice in which order courses can be tackled. Beating planets and sectors unlock additional locations, and each one is given a “hostility” rating so players know exactly the degree of challenge they can expect.
Things play out like your typical horizontal shooter. Players guide their ship through a rather short obstacle course and have to shoot down space debris and hostile life forms. You’ll need to mash on the fire button continuously, all while taking care not to touch the surface or the ceiling as you dodge enemy projectiles. After a brief-but-grueling session, you’ll reach the exit where a surprise may be waiting. A much-welcome reward, or perhaps a trap.
As enemies are killed, they drop the aforementioned “zed” currency. It’s in the player’s best interest to gobble these up, as they can be spent towards much-needed upgrades and additional firepower. Before each mission, you’ll be able to purchase and equip your own loadout, with different loadouts being best suited to different scenarios. For example, you may equip missiles that carpet-bomb the ground, or a wide-spread front shot. The combinations of loadouts are extensive, instilling in players a sense of experimentation (and a willingness to gamble on a bit of trial-and-error).
Regardless, your ship never feels overpowered, because using your upgrades requires a degree of timing and skill. You’ll need to press and hold on the fire button to activate a gauge that moves across a dial representing your arsenal. Letting go at the right moment will trigger your upgrade of choice. This means that you constantly have your guard up as you balance dodging, avoiding the floor and ceiling, and timing your shots perfectly. One minor knit-pick is the inability to return to previously-conquered levels. Granted, there’s enough on offer here to make grinding unnecessary, but it would be interesting to revisit stages with improved armaments and tackle them again. At the very least, just to farm more of the game’s money.
It’s a blast and it’s rightly challenging, but what makes it all the more endearing is the presentation. It looks and sounds like a ZX Spectrum game, right down to a bogus multicolored boot screen. Sprites and palettes are meticulously crafted straight from 8-bit sensibilities, complete with scanlines and even a monitor overlay with a slight curvature. Finally, the audio department is full-on chiptune, rounding off the retro feel. A casual observer might even be fooled into thinking the game is indeed some sort of R-Type sequel or one of its variants running on an actual ZX Spectrum.
There are a few slight nagging issues with the overall experience. Occasionally, players might find themselves crashing into the ground, despite having barely touched a horizontal pixel. Some of the gameplay styles, while true to their 8-bit legacy, feel a bit archaic now and their usefulness is up for debate. Finally (and this is the shallowest criticism of all), the game could stand to use a few of Steam’s features, such as achievements and trading cards. Nonetheless, the title remains enjoyable despite these faults and it truly succeeds in what it sets out to do: capture the essence of a classic shooter on an antiquated platform.
Z-Exemplar is the easily one of the greatest love letters to retro shooters ever made. If you ever played Bob Pape’s version of R-Type, or even just owned a ZX Spectrum back in the day, then this is an essential purchase and the best way to relive a bygone era. Fly over over here to snatch up your very own copy.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Suminell Studios ; Developer: Suminell Studios ; Players: single-player. ; Released: 25 November, 2016.
Full disclosure: this review is based on a review copy of Z-Exemplar given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.