If today’s game scene is dominated by big Hollywood blockbuster productions, then the game scene of the 90s was dominated by the B movie features of yesteryear. Video games had just found a desire to tell serious narratives, but still lacked the talent necessary to do so. Combine that lack of talent with the technological growing pains of 3D gaming, and you have some awkward attempts to stretch what games were capable of. Sometimes, that played into a game’s favor. Often times, it didn’t.
It is in this context that we find Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman. Where other games tried to make due with what little they had, Rising Zan appeared ready to embrace the limitations of its time. Rather than look forward to advance what games could do, it sought to look backward to its B movie brethren. Zan is over the top and utterly ludicrous in every way, yet that’s arguably what led it to come out ahead of a lot of its peers.
Anybody who has played Zan could immediately point out its old Hollywood influences. It’s set in the Old West, but with strong smatterings of Japan and 50s sci-fi tropes plastered all over it. In this world, you assume the role of Johnny, a cowboy who travelled to Japan (or Zipang(u) as the game calls it) to train himself in the way of the sword, seeking revenge against those who wronged him so many years ago. This is all very obvious B movie schlock, and not just because the game fuses two long-dead film genres together. The production values are pretty low, and the story is paperthin. It speaks in broad cliches like honor and familial ties, and doesn’t ground its characters in anything beyond their narrative roles (hero, villain, etc.).
If it sounds like I’m being overly critical of the game, keep in mind that this is all what makes it such a joy to play. B movies were fun for their absurd premises and their camp executions, and Zan is no different. It gleefully embraces cliches left and right, always playing itself up to an audience. The game falls somewhere between a theatrical performance of and love letter to the movies it honors. You can’t help but laugh along with that ridiculous performance, not only because of how fun it is to watch, but also because of how innocent it is in that performance.The game feels genuine and enthusiastic in its love for these kinds of movies. Zan is simply effusive with their spirit.
I mean that in a broader sense than you’re probably imagining. That spirit isn’t limited to the narrative, but expands into every facet of Zan’s design. We can see that clearly enough with the dingy brown fog permeating the West, the “barely looking any better than the actual game” cinematics, and the cheesy voice acting. More interesting, though, is how the game applies kitsch to its own gameplay mechanics. Zan is a third person action game that falls somewhere between Dynamite Deka and Soul Reaver. Generally speaking, the game tasks you with moving from room to room and taking out the baddies within, usually by some combination of shooting and slicing them. The rooms themselves are of little interest. The rooms themselves are of little interest. Most of them are (from a designer’s standpoint) dull boxes that direct your attention squarely to the more interesting content within.
So with the rooms having no real intrinsic value, our attention falls to the game’s combat systems. I imagine the intent was for the gun and the sword to balance each other out, and in some ways, that works. In a lot of other ways, though, it doesn’t. Playing the game feels stiff and awkward. Zan’s numerous small spaces mean that the camera doesn’t give you a lot of good angles to see what you’re doing. Understandably, combat breaks down to clumsily swiping away at whatever ne’er-do-well stands in your way. But again, this isn’t a hit on the game. In fact, it’s where we see Zan’s B movie spirit really work its magic. The comical tone that lends the game its charm? It’s here, too. A hardened cowboy with years of training and expertise has been reduced to flailing his sword at low-life thugs. Accidental as the humor might be, it still works greatly in the game’s favor. (The only place where it doesn’t work are the “All Button Events”: Zan’s painful response to Dynamite Deka’s more integrated QTEs.)
Although I must admit that calling Rising Zan “accidental” is strange, especially in light of its contemporaries. After all, so many other games from the 90s hit the camp, terrible production value notes: Dark Savior, Lunacy, Resident Evil, just about anything with live actors, etc. Yet unlike those games, Zan doesn’t create its ethos by lack of skill. Zan knows full well what it’s doing, and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. That’s apparent enough with its mixing of genres: cowboy and samurai films were both prevalent during the era of B movies.
Some might say that Zan’s level of expertise actually distances it away from B movies, since they were all about the lack of skill. However, I’d characterize Zan’s skill as a good thing. The game has more control over itself with it than it would without it. It can craft interesting, exciting scenarios that play right into its own ethos. Again, the gameplay makes that most apparent.
Despite how clumsy the play experience was, I can’t remember a single instance where that made the game less fun to play. And I wasn’t enjoying the game ironically, either. I never felt like the rules of play put me at an unfair disadvantage, or that I had too much trouble doing what I needed to do to win. Compare that against the other games I mentioned, where even at their best, they felt like a chore to play. Accidentally or not, they implemented the B movie aesthetic into their own mechanics, always to their own detriment. Zan however, understands the limits of what it’s doing, and willingly designs with them in mind. Unlike a lot of other games from the time, it’s a genuinely fun experience for it.
This isn’t to say that the game perfectly captures that ethos, or even that it should. Most worrying is the rampant Orientalism in Zan. For one, the Japanese villains speak in vaguely Japanese gibberish while their non-Japanese counterparts speak perfect English. Still, it’s worth remembering what we like so much about these old movies. They often tried to tell these big, heroic stories, but lacked the means to do so. Although that kind of friction rendered them humorous, that’s precisely why we can still enjoy them today. Rising Zan captures that spirit beautifully in every facet of its design.