Because It Was Free: Mark It F**king Zhero
I've been playing video games for a while, and back in the day, one of my favorite genres was the side-scrolling beat 'em up or brawler. Fun and intuitive, no one will ever accuse the genre of being masterful works of storytelling or complex, nuanced games of strategy. The plot for pretty much every brawler from their heyday in the 16 Bit Era went something like this:

“HEY BAD GUYS! WHAT THE F*CK?!”

And then two to six characters proceed to industrialize the slaughter of approximately a billion goons who stand between them and a singular Boss. If your game was pretty decent, this array of anonymous punching bags would have a variety of designs, attacks, and sound effects across a wide range of eye-catching levels, with the odd stage boss beat-down against a larger, more imposing villain. Add some catchy music and a fun selection of characters, and you had yourself a Good Time In A Can. The genre has its tropes; generally your characters are divided into The All-Rounder, The Huge Guy and The Chick, as demonstrated in Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Sometimes you got a fourth or even fifth option, and sometimes The Chick was actually a black child on roller blades.

“Zheros” (pronounced “zeh-hee-ross?” No?) by Rimlight Studios is an attempt to call back to those heady days of my youth when I plonked my allowance into machines one quarter at a time or sat down in front of the SNES or Genesis to rearrange the pixels comprising the face of some Mad Gear Gang douche or Foot Soldiers.

“Zheros” fails on basically every level, and I mean both the actual levels in the game and also the various levels that one designs a video game upon. With all the elements there in the box for Rimlight to assemble a retro game that delivers all the nostalgic joy of liberally painting the screen with fisticuffs, “Zheros” instead elects to become a boring, frustrating, spongy mass of a game that does not even have the grace to suck in an interesting way.

Let's run down the list, just for fun.


CHARACTER DESIGN, IN WHICH WE SKIMPED ON ASSETS A LITTLE

There are two playable characters in “Zheros.” One is a potato-headed slab of pony-tailed pressed beef named Mike, and the other is a goggle-eyed slenderette with martial arts pretensions named Captain Dorian. They are, respectively, The Huge Guy – big, dumb, slow, but powerful – and The Chick – fast and kicky, but doing about half as much damage per hit as The Huge Guy (not that it matters; most enemies go down like chumps in three hits anyway). The art style for our heroes is cartoonish and exaggerated; Mike's gigantic lantern jaw is approximately the same size as Dorian's entire torso. The characters move fairly fluidly, if with a tendency to lumber if you're not holding down the L3 button. (That's the one hidden under the left analog stick.) Mike looks sort of like Mr. Incredible, actually, but if Mr. Incredible had a Try-Hard Pony-Tail, about half as many functioning brain cells and – okay, the only thing they really have in common is an exaggerated physique and a big old biscuit head. Dorian, meanwhile, looks like a punk rock space chick with pink hair and rather bulgy eyes that uncomfortably remind me of Crazy Frog aka That Annoying Thing. Viewed from a slight distance, they're not terrible-looking character models, but I need to stress how unpleasant Dorian looks in a close-up, because that's the character I elected to play. While back in the day I was apt to alternate between The Huge Guy and The Chick, generally ignoring The All-Rounder, I decided that Mike's big gorilla mannerisms were going to be trying for me and went with the Captain.

The first of the many minor failures of “Zheros” which as an aggregate form an unstoppable yet lukewarm and easily evaded mudslide of mediocrity comes with the bad guys.

The first enemy you face in the game is a robot called a “Screenman.” This is because their little heads are triangular screens. Now, they're cute. Really, they are. If left to their own devices, mobs of these little automatons will plink at you from a distance with slow, telegraphed shots from their pew-pew guns, or else run up to you to flail a bit. Mostly what they do is get the holy flaming pugilism kicked into their metal backsides, air-juggled, or possibly (if you feel like it) shot. They can accidentally shoot each other – more on that in a bit. Now, by himself, the Screenman is an okay enemy... at first. It's the “by himself” part that merits some emphasis, because it's a long time before you see anything BUT these guys, in groups of four to six. Remember what I said about a wide variety of enemies? Yeah? This game doesn't really have that. It takes a long time before a new enemy appears, and it's just a different kind of Screenman, this one with a shield you have to break. Eventually you also get these annoying, round, bug-eyed little robots that intermittently crap bombs at your feet that you can punt away, a dog-like monster I can best describe as a cutesy cartoon version of the “Doom 3” version of the Pinky Demon, and embolism-inducing flying metal turds that can only be destroyed with a deflected laser shot. There may be more enemies than this, but there are excellent reasons why I don't know that for certain.

You will get well and truly tired of booting Screenmen long before the game gets tired of them being the only enemy for you to fight.

The Big Bad of this little production is apparently named Doctor Vendetta. I somehow missed the part where that is described. Onscreen text, maybe. He's... well. He's underwhelms with a focus and intensity one would expect from a tour de force. He's a squat, pudgy little critter in a very tall metal top hat; he has a pencil mustache, rather sharky dentition and he's wearing what I think is pajamas with an ascot. He's about as memorable and inspiring an opponent as a flaming watermelon with an angry face drawn on the side, but without Toph declaring it to be the Melon Lord.

So what is this jerk's goal? Well, that brings us to a very brief little portion I like to call...

THE STORY, OR HOW THIS GAME BASICALLY DOESN'T REALLY HAVE ONE

Yeah, spoilers.

Okay, first of all, there is no spoken dialog in the opening cut scene. At all. The characters communicate solely in grunts and growls. Dr. Vendetta doesn't say anything at all, he just snarls and growls and chuckles and snickers. In addition to his bestial chompers, our archfiend may also be a mad scientist of somewhat diminished capacity, because all of the buttons which control his army of robots to do... stuff... are covered in cutesy emoticons rather than letters, or else just literally say what they do. One is labeled “Send Army.” Another is labeled “Send More Army.”

Dr. Vendetta has apparently invaded a planet. Why? Who knows. What planet? Don't know. This prompts the arrival of Mike and Dorian who are... uh... space cops? Superheroes? Janitors? The game does not bother to tell you. A planet is invade for great justice take off every Zheros. A hero is you. Whatever.

Now, while the genre is not exactly renowned for its rich narrative tradition, you generally get a little more to work with than dialog like “Grrr! Arrrrr! Heh heh! Grrrrrr! Rrr? Rar! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Nyeh heh! Grr.” Even the heroes (Zheros? No.) are reduced to sparkling insights like “Hmm.” and “Mmm!” and the immortal “Heh heh!” I know that Mike is huge and probably an idiot based on his simian mannerisms, and that Dorian is a martial artist, based on her stretching and posing animations. That's... pretty much it. I know nothing else about their characters, and the game gives me no desire to know anything else. So there's that.

I have no idea who these two robot-punching entities are, what Dr. Vendetta's deal is, what planet is being invaded, or if I have any motivation beyond “I wonder if this stage ever actually ends?”

That's my segue to the next little bit of game design flotsam that “Zheros” treats us to. You like that? Yeah. Me too.

LEVEL DESIGN (AS INSPIRED BY THE MOST BORING TORMENTS IN HADES)

Now, the levels in “Zheros” are not painful to look at. At least, not at first. There are appear to be two “worlds,” if you will; there is “Sektor Zero” and “Wilderness.” If anything beyond this exists, I don't know and I have no real reason to care.

“Sektor Zero” consists of space docks and factories. The art style of the game is colorful, there's stuff moving and doing things in the background. The problem that immediately hits you is that these stages are determined to outstay their welcome by several months. They are long in a way that is difficult to convey. Each one has a midway checkpoint somewhere in them, and if you die before that checkpoint, you are starting this thing over again, which is just... it's just f**king wonderful, because each level is a long ribbon of featureless highway stretching before and after you while you endlessly mash the punch buttons until you can advance. A wall generally appears behind you to keep you from accidentally regressing in your plodding advance. Why you feel the need to punch each and every robot on the planet is beyond me. Why whatever organization the protagonists belong to only sent two jerks to make kung fu to a legion of robots is not explained.

Identical screens are stitched together into a hellish ribbon that sucks all motivation to press forward out of you. Stages are just too damn long; where a classic beat 'em up stage might have five or six screens of progression, a level in “Zheros” seems to consist of fifteen identical f**king screens where you fight the same one or two types of non-threatening beep-booping bastards until the game finally decides you have pushed the boulder far enough today. Levels don't end with any kind of real flair or sense of accomplishment; you reach a point that looks exactly like every other point on this interminable perambulation and your character begins stretching and flexing. Why Dorian stops at this spot to work the kinks out – which she really ought to do at the beginning of a level, not its end – is immaterial. This is where the level “designer” got bored of making you look at the same crap for the time being.

Of course, the stage that follows it will be exactly the same. It's not that “Zheros” is bad; it's so much worse than that. It's boring. Its brain-scraping monotony is infuriating. Oh, and by the way...

There's like two songs in the entire freaking game. And they loop. FOREVER. The same aural skull-drill of a techno song will bleep and bloop in incessant reprise, jackhammering into the part of your brain that understands sounds the singular idea that the composer is a hateful shell of a human being with a wilted cabbage soul. You will be able to taste and smell the sound effects of this game by the end of the 33rd (?) stage of Sektor Zero; even now I can hear the mindless shitty boops and bleeps grinding away at my skull like one of the Tall Man's Sentinels.

This is fitting, as everything about this game is based on dick-headed repetition.

GAMEPLAY WHICH CAN LET YOU DOWN FROM ANY HEIGHT, NO MATTER HOW SMALL

In general, your job is to traverse from the left side of the screen to the right side, introducing your character's preferred destruction appendage to as many identical robots as you can, as quickly as possible. For Mike, this is his fist; for Dorian, this is her foot. You have a strong attack and a weak attack; if you hit either button while sprinting, you do a lunge or slide. You also have a gun, which is basically worthless, and you can perform a fast charged attack with your weak strike and a painfully slow charge attack with your strong strike. When Dorian performs her charged fierce kick, she lets out an incredibly grating karate yell each time. She begins this painful modulating of her vocal cords the instant you begin the charge and ends on a piercing whoop. Because this attack takes so long to charge up, the only thing I ever used it for was the annoying little bastard Screenmen with shields, who are invulnerable until you break their shields with this charge attack. It can be interrupted at any time, and you can release it too early, which you will do constantly because it appeared to have charged up all the way, yet hasn't, or because your target waddled away from you. It has short range, too, in case that yelling was not irritating enough.

You can jump; this is largely used to evade annoying environmental hazards such as laser beams and electrified floors or deliver a ground-pounding move if you feel your style being cramped. The jumping is imprecise and finicky, so you are likely going to get a little bit of health whittled off by these traps. It's worth noting that in may places, the moving lasers are designed in such a way that connecting with one will bounce you helplessly back and forth between two of them, or get you repeatedly dunked on by the same one as it cycles back to your position just as your character stands up. So, you know, don't let that happen to you. I say “largely,” because rather abruptly (in a move surely inspired by the whispers of Satan tickling the ear of the level designer) platforming is abruptly propelled upwards twixt the player's rearward cheeks with the studied insouciance of a rogue airhose. This level comes out of nowhere, is a real bastard to navigate, and involves jumping across ever-moving lines of platforms. There's a timer, too, and presumably running out the clock is fatal. I wouldn't know, since I was killed by the previously-alluded-to embolism-inducing flying metal turds, after dying more than a couple times on the platform. I then discovered that I had to do the entire section of five or six horrible jumps over again, rather than any kind of rational checkpoint. When I regained consciousness, I was in the basement without pants cradling my Super Nintendo to my chest. I have no memory of what occurred.

In addition to bringing the pain with a basic barrage of attacks and your gun, you also have a shield and a dodge button. If you perfectly time deploying your shield, it will reflect a projectile back at the shooter, and if you do so at a melee attack, you will automatically perform a counter attack. A perfectly-timed dodge-roll nets you bonus points. You accrue these points in order to get “RP” (I do not know what the “R” stands for) with which you buy upgrades for your worthless peashooter (which shares a glacially-recharging energy meter with your shield, compounding its garbage damage output), your moderately-useful shield, and your array of combos. You get more of these RP by collecting the contents of orange crates.

You absolutely need to get good at that deflection thing, because the game abruptly kicks you in the bonch by introducing the Flying Turds, hovering turrets with fist-proof shields that can only be defeated by deflecting their (very high damage) shots back into their face. "Zheros" opts to introduce these aggravating little jerks by putting them on a stage with a time limit and then putting four of them on screen at once. The timing on deflecting their shots is maddening; they fire very slowly, taking several precious seconds to charge up before shooting, but their projectiles travel extremely quickly. Meanwhile, your shield has a strange lag to it, and only deflects a shot if it is completely deployed at the precise instant that the shot would have connected. This is very indicative of the sort of haphazard, ass-end-first design that is so hard to describe adequately, but covers the entire game in a thin, crispy veneer of Wrongness.

At first, these combos seem fun: you can punt enemies into the air to deliver a DBZ smack-down, or kick them skyward to juggle them with pellet-gun shots, or give them a scything boot to the face that sends them skittering across the entire screen. However, their usefulness is somewhat debilitated by a simple fact: you are given a dominant game strategy in the form of just pounding out your usual three-hit combo. Since you fight the same sets of enemies in the game over and over, you generally do not need to do anything fancy to send them to their top-hatted maker in pieces. I felt no real compunction to use tricky combo moves, instead simply mashing the light attack button until I felt I needed to apply a strong attack. If this sounds stale, it's only because you can hear the little bits of it crunching and cracking with every crumby bite of “Zheros” that I take.

There are not enough foes on each stage to justify their length, and if there were, I'd still hate this game because of how flavorless the combat quickly becomes. The platforming is asinine, the villain utterly uninspiring, and the characters are not likable in any way, nor are they dis-likable in any way. The brawling is fun for a few minutes but outstays its welcome before long.

I paid Zhero dollars for “Zheros,” and would like a refund, please.