Dark Void Zero

A game by Other Ocean Interactive for PC, DS, and iOS, originally released in 2010.
Dark Void Zero is level-based open world actioner starring Rusty, a test pilot, fighter, and close friend of Nikola Tesla. Using advanced weaponry, a jetpack, and the insights of Tesla, Rusty explores the Valley of Doom, a science lab, and the so-called Inner Sanctum, wiping out aliens – and collecting gobs of keycards – on a mission to save humanity. The game is done up in a chunky 8-bit style with a reduced color palette and chiptune soundtrack.

Dark Void Zero was initially pitched by Capcom as a lost project, originating from 1987 when the NES was king, and Capcom had seen success on the platform with Commando and Ghosts ‘N Goblins, and was just about to release the first entry in the Mega Man series. The game was said to incorporate the multidirectional shooting of Section Z, along with a new piece of hardware that would allow for increased numbers of sprites on the screen without flicker or slowdown (hey, they could have used that in the Mega Man series!), along with a special dual-screen version to be released on the PlayChoice-10.

Of course, this was all poppycock.

Capcom went hard selling their good-natured flimflammery by outlining a contest where players could submit their high scores in Commando, with the winner being flown to Capcom headquarters in Japan where they would be added to the game as a major character. The winner of this supposed contest was Jimmy Fallon (yes, that Jimmy Fallon), and the PDF instruction manual includes an “unreleased marketing photo” featuring a young Fallon decked out in 80’s garb and playing Dark Void Zero on the NES, with his eyes creepily looking just off camera.

But alas, a mysterious incident with a magnet caused the tape backup to be erased and the game was nearly lost to time… with only a 50% complete prototype surviving, along with design notes from the original team, allowing it to be reconstructed and completed. And Captain Jimmy Fallon still gets a shout out in the final game.

In actuality, Dark Void Zero started off as an April Fool’s joke but was later transformed into an actual game and released as a companion to Dark Void, a game which Capcom hoped to launch into a new franchise. Dark Void was also released in 2010 and starred a (different) jetpack-wearing pilot fighting aliens on a mission to save the human race with the help Nikola Tesla. However, despite some interesting concepts and new gameplay offered by jetpack-based combat, the game received middling reviews and never received a follow-up.

Rusty isn’t the most capable hero, with only a 1.5x nonvariable jump, the ability to duck, and a gun that fires a continuous stream of bullets. His movement speed is slow, and it takes him a moment to turn around, making it difficult to avoid even slow-moving projectiles and enemy strikes. He has a 100-unit health meter, and health can be lost in single-unit increments, but most enemies do at least 10 points of damage, with stronger attacks doing 20, and exploding enemies do 50… and there’s a super annoying low health alarm that kicks in when he gets below 20 units of health. There are also level hazards like lava that kill the player instantly.

Hearts are occasionally found in the environment or dropped by killed enemies, and these restore 20 units each. The player must be mindful of his health, as he has a limited stock of lives, and getting killed returns him to the most recent checkpoint, although there are some hidden 1UPs to be discovered. If all three lives are lost, the player must start the entire area over, and each of the three areas is quite long, leading to a lot of repeated gameplay upon failure. Once the player completes an area, he may leave the game and pick up from the start of the area on his next attempt.

The player is capable of firing in eight directions while standing or jumping, and his movement locks while aiming. However, since the player needs to hold DOWN to duck, it’s not possible to duck and shoot forward, since ducking and shooting causes Rusty to fire his gun into the ground. This means that the player can duck to avoid enemy projectiles but will need to stand up to return fire.

There are a few powerups that aid Rusty in his mission, and each of these is limited by a 10-second timer. A 2X icon doubles the fire rate of his weapon, and a 3-way shot lets him fire three projectiles at a time, with one going forward and the other two travelling at upward and downward angles. There’s also a force field that grants temporary invincibility, a secondary EMP pulse, and an electrified force field that protects the player while damaging enemies.

More importantly, there is an array of weaponry available to help the player complete his mission, and picking up a weapon replaces the one that is currently equipped. The starting machine gun has a long range but not much damage output, while a shotgun-style weapon does the opposite. A rocket launcher does heavy damage over a long range with splash damage, and it allows players to break though concrete barriers, but it has a slow firing rate. A laser fires strong blasts that can penetrate walls, and the Tesla-designed hypercoil fires fast and does heavy damage, but it overheats if you hold the trigger too long, leaving you unable to shoot for a few seconds.

The most useful device the player encounters is a jetpack that lets him fly freely around the environment. By holding the JUMP button, the player can jet straight upward quickly, or he can double-tap the button to hover and fly freely in eight directions. He can also shoot in eight directions, and his aim locks in the direction he is firing until he lets off the trigger, making it easier to target enemies and bosses while staying on the move.

Level progression is made by exploring a limited section of the environment until a keycard is found. Each keycard opens a specific door, but unfortunately, these cards are not color coded to communicate to the player which door can be opened. Instead, the player must check the map to see where the key can be used, travel to that area to find another keycard, and check the map again for the next destination. The map interface displays the entire area, even parts that remain unexplored.

The player is generally free to explore and must backtrack to previous sections to move forward, but unfortunately, enemies respawn when leaving a section and returning. Powerups also respawn, but health restoratives do not, which punishes the player somewhat for exploring. That said, most exploration leads to optional pickups that mainly serve as score items, so players can opt to play it safe and just focus on completing primary objectives.

Online leaderboards encourage players to return to the game once they’ve mastered it in order to compete for high scores, or try to reach one of the alternate endings. Score bonuses are given at the end of each level based on items collected, lives remaining, enemies destroyed, and completion time vs. par time, and a multiplier is added for playing the game on higher difficulty settings.

Level layouts are arduous, requiring the player to travel long distances to fetch keycards, often travelling back through the same environment with freshly-spawned enemies, making an already short experience more repetitive… and even more so when the player runs out of lives and must restart the area from scratch. In multiple instances, the level design forces the player to lose his jetpack or downgrade to a low powered weapon to work his way through a dedicated challenge area. Given that some weapons are hard to come by, or tucked away in distant alcoves, it can be disappointing to grab a cool new gun only to be forced to throw it away a few minutes later.

Combat is pretty tame throughout most of the experience, with enemies following simple patrol routes, firing slow-moving projectiles, or honing in on your position. Much of the challenge comes from the fact that you must try to position yourself to kill enemies and dodge their projectiles, and your character isn’t terribly maneuverable, leading to cheap hits, accidental damage from environmental hazards, or outright death if you drop too low and touch lava along the floor. There are also several instances where you’re locked in a room with waves of spawning enemies and little room to maneuver, and some of these enemies can cut your health meter in half just by touching you.

Boss fights are similarly plodding, with slow-moving machines that absorb a ton of damage before revealing weak points, which take more damage before being destroyed… and each boss is just a palette-swapped version with new attacks added during each encounter. During these battles, the player must maneuver his sluggish character through sprays of bullets and homing attacks while waiting a long time for each weak point to be revealed.

Dark Void Zero was developed by Other Ocean Interactive, which has mostly created mobile and handheld versions of popular franchises, as well as Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection and Gunhouse. The game’s chiptune soundtrack was composed by Bear McCreary, composer of numerous film and television series scores, including Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead.

The game was published by Capcom, known the world over for the Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil series, among many others.