No Super FX Chip Needed
Over the years there have been a number of fans of classic series who decided to take matters into their own hands. The producer of Road Redemption for example has gone on record to admit that his passion for Road Rage was what prompted him to make his dream a reality. There are many IPs like Road Rage stuck in limbo, perhaps the most infamous being Star Fox. Star Fox Zero was the last game in the series to be released six years ago, not counting the recently released Star Fox 2, almost three decades later. While it seems the future for Mr. Fox is in the stars, Ex-Zodiac seeks to aim for the moon.
Ex-Zodiac is a simple game in its premise, telling the tale of Kyuu and her partner Miko as they fight against an intergalactic criminal organization known as The Zodiac. While the build I played had six levels including six bonus levels, more on that later, the full experience will have 12 total levels based on each member of the Zodiac. I didn't notice this at first, but there are a lot of clever naming conventions and references that are very "blink and you miss it." Kyuu, for example, is an anthropomorphic monkey who travels across various worlds along the Sanzaru Star System. "Sanzaru" is better known as the Three Wise Monkeys that represent "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil."
The Year Of The Monkey
Each level featured in Ex-Zodiac has a specific gimmick unique to the world that Kyuu visits. The first level features an environment similar to Earth in which a Zodiac member is committing deforestation. Various enemy types and obstacles stand before Kyuu, which she must gun down with her ship. Players used to the classic Star Fox will feel right at home in Ex-Zodiac in all of its 60 fps glory. There are multiple graphical options including a low-res "Retro" mode and a polished anti-aliased "Modern" mode. Players can also deliberately lower the FPS to emphasize the retro aesthetic much like the Bloodbourne PSX fan game.
At the end of the level, Kyuu will fight the rat responsible for the deforestation and will attempt to do the same courtesy to her. This is where Ex-Zodiac gets interesting as the bosses are very unique in their design. This boss, for instance, is a giant scorpion with pincers that extend towards Kyuu. This also signals the enemy's weak point and shooting the pincers will destroy them, entering a new phase. If the player's health goes to zero, they will lose a life. The player will then have to start the fight from the beginning of the boss, encouraging them to recognize their patterns. The bosses aren't overly difficult but they require the precise movements expected of an expert pilot.
Welcome To The Fantasy Zone, Do A Barrel Roll
Hidden in each level is a Data chip where if the player collects it and defeats the boss, they will be taken to a bonus level. These bonus levels are based on classic shoot-em-ups, specifically Space Harrier. Kyuu ditches the ship, takes out a giant blaster, and starts gunning enemies in her path. All the while a very similar tune plays based on Space Harrier's theme, including the boss theme itself. The music is composed by Pirusek, which is an amazing soundtrack to complement Ex-Zodiac's retro experience. Each stage music fit the theme of the stage itself, including eccentric techno for the futuristic city planet. Another good tune is the theme for Oasi-5, an Ocean-themed level that wouldn't feel out of place in G-Darius with its aquatic enemies.
The various boss themes also helped in keeping me focused on the action itself. The current final level of the build I played, Xenon, was easily the level that made me invested in Ex-Zodiac. Up until this point, the player relied on vertical and horizontal movement. This level changed everything as rather than fly a ship through an asteroid belt, Kyuu is speeding down the highway on her bike. She can only move horizontally, but the increased speed and mobility makes up for her limited movement. The final boss also adds a neat touch to the Chinese Zodiac as well as matching the theme of the level.
While Short, Ex-Zodiac Has A Lot To Look Forward To
As I mentioned, Ex-Zodiac is not a punishing game but it's not a "breeze" either. It's the perfect level of challenge for players to lose a few lives and get a "Game Over" here and there. Once everything starts to click in place, however, it becomes a fun time to get the coveted "S-Rank." After a while, things started to click and I realized making slow and methodical movements trumped over haphazardly moving my ship around. I was running into things in a panic rather than waiting for visual cues and audio ticks to make a move. Controller support was spot-on and I had no issues in controlling my ship, or bike, or Kyuu herself.
Overall in its current state, Ex-Zodiac was a blast to play and check out. With a successful kickstarter and four-plus years in development, the title is a labor of love to the console shooters of the past. I can't wait to see the further development of Kyuu's war against The Zodiac, her witty commentary, and the various bosses she would fight against. Thank you once again to Pixeljam and MNKY for the early review copy. This is definitely something to check out whether you're a Star Fox vet or you've never played any of the games at all.
Ex-Zodiac will enter Early Access on July 21st 2022. A playable demo is currently available on Steam.