New Retro News: Z-Exemplar demo released
Z-Exemplar is an unflinchingly old school shoot em up in development that – as the name implies – pays tribute to the ZX Spectrum era of gaming. We first highlighted it back in August, showing of a sweet animated gif and its possibly-too-much-oh-god premise of having over 900 levels to blast through. The game has been pursing votes on Steam Greenlight for a while now, but now a demo has stuck its tiny head out into the world and is here to help gaggle up some interest; downloadable here. A bit more info about the demo and game itself follows after the jump.
At first glance, the screenshots may give the impression that Z-Exemplar is an overly stone-faced attempt to recreate a retro arcade experience, warts, unforgiving difficulty and archaic interface and all. A quick spin of the demo quickly shows us that Z-Exemplar is more than that – it is easy to pick up and play, has some fun with the genre, and there’s even a cheeky sense of humour hidden beneath its pixellated folds.
The demo itself is quite short unfortunately – it doesn’t save your progress and seems to limit you to only four levels per play through. It’s not really long enough to get a proper feel for the main campaign (especially since you can barely afford any of the more interesting upgrades). The boss encounters aren’t implemented yet either – which is a shame. There is, however, the option to begin with the full galaxy map open. This comes with the choice of a randomised or maxed-out loudout – opening up a lot of the later levels (although your choices are still limited to four of the different planet types) and giving you the chance to play with a lot of shiny new toys, as well as sneaking a peek at just how difficult the later levels can get (hint: hard).
Right from the opening cutscene, you’re cast off into outta space as some practically nameless sod instructed to claim the “surely lifeless rocks” (read: definitely inhabited) in the name of emperor Zed – this game, thankfully, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Core gameplay on the other hand is a more straightforward 80s style shoot em up affair – which is to say it’s relatively slow-paced but still difficult. A single gentle tap from a wall or enemy’s bullet will send you straight to silicon heaven, and the level will need to be attempted again from scratch after each fiery death. Luckily, the levels are generally quite short, so it’s not a huge setback.
There are some refreshing enhancements to its old school core though – rather than a linear sequence of levels there’s a whole galaxy to conquer which you navigate through a huge galactic map. There’s a mix of planet types ready for conquer – from old space derelicts to automated orbital platforms to insect hive worlds (although only four types are accessible in the demo, 10 different types will be in the full game). There is also a persistent upgrade system whereby at the end of each mission you can purchase various categories of ship subsystems (or upgrade existing subsystems) for your hard-earned zogs, which then can be outfitted to your ship at the beginning of following missions. There looks to be a good mix of upgrades to choose from, ranging from speed boosts and shields, to homing missiles and sonic bombs, to more esoteric things like organic vines that creep along behind your ship. There seems to be a great mix of offensive and defensive utility to the loadout options, and this is probably Z-Exemplar’s strongest point. It’s just so much fun upgrading and trying out the different combinations.
Although there is a persistent upgrade system, your ship begins each level anew, naked and alone, and must collect and rely on the powerups which are dropped by vapourised enemies and obstacles before you can activate your outfitted subsystems such as the speed boost or missiles. The more powerups you have and expend, the more powerful a subsystem you can activate. However where R-Type forced you to always execute the most powerful subsytem available, Z-Exemplar grants a bit more flexibility – you hold the fire button to charge a gauge and release the button when the gauge hits the desired subsystem. This charging incidentally also allows you to release a more powerful shot, megaman style, that cleaves through enemies.
The powerup zogs that you collect also double as a currency used to purchase the permanent upgrades at the end of each level, and during the level you can choose to ‘bank’ your collected powerup zogs for this purpose. This adds another layer to the powerup system as you must balance the trade-off between powering up the ship now or gathering resources for later. The system is easy to grasp in practice and works well – albiet hard to explain in text – luckily the game has a pretty decent tutorial level that explains all this in-game.
Overall, the game is looking fun to play so far and both pays tribute to and expands upon its source inspirations. The intro is a laugh, the upgrades are varied and interesting, and the levels are short enough that it doesn’t feel too tedious trying to conquer them. Of course there are a few design decisions that may divide some opinions (retro trappings notwithstanding). For one, you can only purchase upgrades after successfully completing a level – which can be a bit annoying and it would make more sense to allow players to visit their home base and upgrade at any time.
The upgrade system, meanwhile, is a great expansion from its retro roots in principle, but trying to cover shooting and charging with upgrading and banking zogs all under a single button is a little too much. It’s easy to intend to charge a shot but end up releasing the button a split-second too late and activating an unintended upgrade and costing precious zogs. It’s also not always feasible to charge up your blaster in anticipation of upcoming enemies since this would charge the bar up to “bank” action, storing all your zogs. The design seems to be designed to accommodate the planned Android/iOS ports and a separate charge, upgrade and bank button would be far better on PC, especially for gamepad users.
The massive number of levels – while impressive – means that most layouts are quite similar for each subsequent planet of each category so the variety comes more from the escalating number, placement and complexity of enemies. The enemies are clearly the star of the show, with a colourful and interesting menagerie of beasties that appropriately reflect their home environment and exhibit a hearty variety of patterns and behaviours. Nonetheless, I’m not sure if I’d really want to play through all 900+ levels, as short as they may be, without a lot more variety or purpose to my galactic genocide. Since the galaxy is inhabited and there are hints as some kind of ruling guardians watching you, it’d be grand to see them react and their attitudes and approach change as you slowly back them into the corners of the galaxy. An award system such as a zog cash bonus for defeating each “ring” of planets, perhaps progressing up to challenge awards like a special ultimate weapon or perk for conquering all of one type of planet in the galaxy would also provide a nice motivator to see -the job through.
It’s early days yet and from what I’ve read of the developer’s blog, some of these things may very well happen in the final release. The promised boss encounters and secrets to find will certainly add some more flavour to the game. The developer’s website provides more hints at what to expect in the full game, such as boss encounters, secrets, and more planet themes. Following are some screenshots from the developer’s website to give you an idea how the later levels are looking:
Z-Exemplar is still making the rounds on Greenlight but is already shaping up to show a lot of promise indeed.
Z-Exemplar (demo) | Website /
Download: Windows / Mac
Note: Unfortunately the demo is no longer available. The dev posted a comment on Steam in Feb saying “I’ve taken the demo down for now while I gear up for launch. New, better demo will be available soon.” Whenever a new demo appears we will update the link.