Remembering Section-Z, Capcom's first radical arcade reinvention for NES

Faithfulness or fun? The classic Cap-conundrum.

The NES Works series continues its run through the ambitious, intricate games that appeared on NES throughout the summer of 1987. This week's entry covers another one—in this case, Capcom's surprising top-to-bottom reinvention of an interesting but ultimately lackluster arcade game. Section Z was a pretty unique take on the horizontal shooter genre thanks to its ability to rotate the hero's direction with the press of a button and take on enemies approaching from either ahead or behind, but the mechanic felt a little cumbersome, and the "A-Z" gimmick didn't really offer all that much to the overall experience. 

But that's OK, because the home version was basically a different game whose only real connection to the arcade title was that it scrolled forward and the hero could fire in either direction. But everything from the game's structure to the particulars of the shooting mechanics completely changed on NES, and arguably for the better.

I have to say "arguably," though, because Capcom's habit of totally overhauling its NES versions of arcade hits to the point that they practically constitute sequels—a trend that properly begins here after some halting steps in that direction with Commando and Trojan—doesn't sit well with everyone. And there is a certain element of simplicity lost here, as the single nigh-endless corridor of Section Z's coin-op experience becomes 60 tiny, standalone stages that interconnect with crisscrossing conduits in Section-Z on NES, effectively becoming a maze. It kind of feels like a prelude to Metroid which shipped the following month in the U.S... except that Metroid actually came first in Japan. Also in Japan, Section-Z had a save feature, which made the game vastly more approachable.

But even if Section-Z feels a little like a stumble in places, there's no denying the ambition here, and the fact that Capcom recognized the fundamentally different nature of home and coin-op gaming. It's a worthy chapter for an era of software defined by creativity and experimentation.