There were plenty of successful mascot platformers during the 16-bit age. The true sign of success came when the character would branch out into other genres. Mario would eventually go kart racing, host parties, and even teach typing and Sonic the Hedgehog would follow suit. For NEC Bonk also starred in….a shooter. He’s a caveman, you expect him to put on a three piece suit? Despite being another shooter on a system inundated with them Air Zonk is easily one of the best for the system and a truly great game.
Take Bonk, slap on a pair of lightning bolt sunglasses and you’ll basically have Zonk. Technically he is a descendant of the original as the game takes place in the future. Come on, they’re not fooling anyone. Zonk’s design is clearly patterned after Astro Boy and some of his abilities are reminiscent of the character. He is equipped with a rapid fire gun and rather than machine guns coming out of his, uh, ass the flame jets on his feet can roast enemies in his wake.
Shooters are well known for having cool weapons and Air Zonk is no exception. The numerous power-ups range from the serious to downright wacky. There are boxing gloves, shark teeth, lasers, boomerangs, and my favorite, playing cards. The most frequent item shrinks you down in size and fires in all four directions. Personally I didn’t like it but the reduced hit box does come in handy. By holding down button 1 you can charge your current weapon and unleash a devastating super attack. Taking it a step further holding it even longer creates a super missile that damages everything on screen. As ridiculous as this all sounds it goes even further.
Probably the coolest feature is the partner system. In total there are ten companions with varying abilities. They are a strange bunch: there’s a mummy, a dump truck, a scud missile, and even an inflated cow. As weird as their designs are they fit within the tone of the series; Bonk took place in prehistoric times yet there were tanks, spaceships, and submarines. You choose one to buddy up with per level (or let the game pick randomly). Once used you can’t choose them again for the rest of the game unfortunately.
The smiley faces that are a hallmark of the series turn up here with a purpose. Collecting seven will create an item that summons your partner. If you keep them alive and pick up seven more the next item will create a fusion that also grants twenty seconds of invincibility. These hybrid forms are extremely powerful and last until you take a hit. Generally if you kill every enemy you should be able to combine at least once per level which seems appropriate. It’s the game’s best feature and would be terrible if they downplayed it.
At just five levels Air Zonk might seem a bit short but each level is pretty long and you’ll cherish every moment. There’s an everything but the kitchen sink approach as you visit the many varied themed stages. That variety in both weapons and levels is what really sells the game. It reminds me of Parodius, another game that doesn’t take itself too seriously but isn’t afraid to show teeth when necessary.
I just wish it weren’t so easy! Usually when a game gives you so many options in terms of weapons its ball busting hard. However here they make a moderately challenging game that much simpler. The game is far too generous with its power-ups so you’ll rarely go without. The extra hit they afford goes a long way and new weapons come in even during boss fights! Hell smiley faces to summon your partner can be stockpiled during these battles as well which is insane. Do yourself a favor and bump up the difficulty to truly enjoy the game.
Air Zonk has some of the highest production values of a Hucard title. The system’s color palette is given a thorough workout as every single level is a vivid explosion of artistic excellence. The sprites are large and colorful and the futuristic setting allows a wider variety of set pieces. One minute you are flying over a toxic wasteland and the next you’re in a baseball stadium. It’s all over the place yet it makes sense within the context of the game itself. The layers of scrolling stretch out into the horizon and all of this visual excellence is accompanied by a fantastic score that is even better than the CD sequel.
Air Zonk is truly one of the system’s best games. Great graphics, an awesome soundtrack, and well-rounded gameplay combine to create a game you’ll replay over and over again. This is not just one of my favorite titles for the Turbo Grafx but one of my favorite shooters of all time. It rarely gets better than that.