Sega took a lot of chances in the 1990s (some would say too many, leading to the company's eventual downfall, but that's a story for another day). While the company leaned heavily on its star Sonic the Hedgehog and beloved franchises like Streets of Rage and Ecco the Dolphin, plenty of other one-off games were released in an almost experimental fashion. Ristar brought us a lively star with a talent for hugging monsters to death. Eternal Champions wanted a slice of the Street Fighter II pie. Then there's 1995's Comix Zone for the Sega Genesis in which an aspiring cartoonist, Sketch Turner (née Joe Pencil), is pulled into his own drawn world and forced to fight his own creations from panel to panel in a bid for survival in the form of a side-scrolling brawler. Never heard of it? Hardcore Gaming 101 has you covered.
Comix Zone is basically a tribute to comics in general, yet is not too overtly influenced by any particular story. The premise of mutants lurking in New York's sewers may be faintly reminiscent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it's otherwise a fairly creative world that Sketch has devised for his unlikely deathtrap. The game itself is a bit hard to cap as a straight genre, but it mostly plays as a sidescrolling beat-'em-up with elements of platforming and puzzles wedged in. The major difference from the likes of Streets of Rage or Final Fight is that the action only takes place on a single plane. Sketch must survive the pages of his own comic book by whomping on whatever enemies are in front of him and figuring out how to move onto the next panel. When Sketch can move on, a yellow arrow points away from his current panel, allowing him to flip over the panel border into the next scene. Some moves from Sketch and enemies will rip through the pages to reveal the papery underside, and the hand of Mortus will often appear to draw on new hazards for our hero. Even when you die, Sketch's body will turn into pencil sketches and get crossed out by Mortus' marker.
There's a lot to like in Comix Zone and it's worth exploring if you've never experienced it, but beware of the steep challenge level and a few frustrating mechanics. Sketch often takes a small amount of damage while opening doors or breaking boxes as part of the game's design, enemies respawn endlessly at certain points, and players only have one life in which to complete the adventure. The comic panel aesthetic is delightfully unique, however, and feels ahead of its time. Imagine how Comix Zone would play out on the Nintendo 3DS where Sketch and his foes could pop out of the backgrounds in order to hop across panels. Comics are flat, yes, but that extra dimension could help bring the game to life in new and fun ways. Even if a revived Comix Zone isn't in the cards, I'd like to see a comic-based game try this mechanic. It's practically begging to be done.