Thanks to Suminell Studios for the review code
System: Steam (Mac)
Release Date: 11/25/2016
You are a new pilot, setting out on a grand journey to conquer the solar system by destroying all the enemy forces and letting your legacy grow! There’s not much of a story to be found here, as the game is simply meant to be one where you have fun and clear a lot of stages, just like old times!
True to part of its name, (Z-Exe, which in some areas can be pronounced “Zed-X” like the ZX Spectrum) Z-Exemplar mimics the art style of the ZX Spectrum library with a limited balance of color. Surprisingly, despite the fact that this visual style looks simpler than the done-to-death NES theme, this visual style has rarely been done in modern indie games, which is why seeing Z-Exemplar try a different retro art style and doing it well is such a big deal, since it’s clear the developer was a gigantic ZX Spectrum fan and wanted to make a proper throwback without focusing on presentation elements that make ZX Spectrum games boring to play in the modern era (Most notably choppy scrolling and the heavy usage of ugly orange colors, although the former is an optional setting if you want that extra bit of authenticity.) There are even a few cool filters you can apply to the game, not unlike those seen in Gunmetal Arcadia Zero.
When it comes to music, that’s also a faithful representation of the ZX Spectrum, with catchy tunes that use the same instrumentation that old ZX Spectrum titles used, this time with both sound effects AND music! (Most ZX Spectrum games lacked a BGM unless there was no SFX, and vice-versa)
Upon starting up the game, you have the option of going through a very simple tutorial to get the hang of the control scheme and gameplay mechanics. Once that tutorial ends (or if you choose to skip it), you’re off to choose one of the multiple levels available from the start! They’re all ranked by hostility, with the easiest levels being really, really short and simple to complete (even for shoot em up beginners) and the tougher levels lasting a bit longer with more enemy patterns and obstacles to deal with. This is a great difficulty balance, and the fact that you can quickly unlock some tougher missions if you choose them first also ensures that the game doesn’t get too easy, for those who don’t like slow starts in their games.
When it comes to gameplay in actual stages, the controls are still simple to get the hang of. You can move your ship around in all directions with the arrow keys or controller, fire with the shoot button, or charge your shot by holding the shoot button down, but instead of unleashing a powerful attack when you release it, charging is actually how you use the powerups you gain. These powerups can range from a pod attaching to the front or back of your ship, spread shots, damage multipliers, Hoopla Missiles, and many others. With these simple controls, any challenges encountered throughout the game can easily be taken care of with trial and error, instead of worrying about cheap deaths. (The only time anything of the sort happened to me was when enemies snuck up from behind, but that can be easily avoided with a certain powerup.)
Before entering a stage, you can choose between whichever powerups you currently have equipped from the store, and when you collect enough Power Crystals from defeating enemies, the bar at the top of the screen will highlight to let you know which powerups you can equip by charging. Simply charge the shot until the meter hits the powerup you want, and you can release to obtain it! This is a strange, but effective method of getting powerups, and a nice change of pace from the traditional “defeat enemies for powerups” or the Gradius powerup system that gets copied so frequently.
In conclusion, Z-Exemplar was a game that fell victim to my review queue along with a buggy period on steam where controller support on Mac just wouldn’t work. Thankfully, now that I’ve given it the time it deserves, I can confidently say that Z-Exemplar is a retro throwback that’s rarely seen in a day and age where modern NES games flood the steam market. It moves at a nice pace, it’s easy to control and the music is great, all while feeling like a ZX Spectrum game without the awful technical limitations the system was known for.
For $5, you really can’t go wrong with a fun horizontal shooter like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a hidden gem further down the line. There are a lot of fun stages to complete, which gives completionists plenty to do, and combine that with in-game achievements, (No support for Steam Achievements, oddly enough) and you have lots of replay value to be found in this game! For those looking for games reminiscent of old shooters like R-Type and Gradius, this is a pretty good one. I give Z-Exemplar an 8 out of 10.