Let's skip the story already -- there's only so many ways to set up a horizontal-scrolling, shoot-everything-in-sight video game, which is what GATES OF ZENDOCON is. Your mission is to fly your spaceship through various scrolling lands, firing lasers and dropping bombs to destroy everything in your way. There are power-up weapons, but they are few and far between, and a password feature lets you start the game at any selected level. The ultimate goal is to stay alive long enough for the final confrontation with Zendocon, a giant alien who looks like a disembodied brain.
There are a few interesting wrinkles to this title. The game features 51 levels, but you do not go through them linearly. Instead, each level has one or more "gates", and the next stage you go to depends on which gate you exit through. Any path you choose will eventually take you to the end, but some routes are longer and/or harder than others. Your ship has a temporary shield to repel most attacks, and you can suffer up to three hits before dying. The first two hits take away your shield and your laser, respectively, and those can be repaired at the end of a level. Finally, the game can be played in either "Easy" or "Hard" mode, where the action is twice as fast and the score is 100 times greater in "Hard" mode.
As the first side-scrolling shoot-'em-up game for the Atari Lynx, GATES OF ZENDOCON is not bad. True, there's nothing that's really innovative about the game, but it does offer a lot of action. One big reason for this is the vast number of different enemies and levels in the game: You're attacking and attacked by everything from UFOs, columns of flame, and giant insects to robotic walkers, space lizards, and rolling missile launchers. Each enemy behaves differently, attacks differently, and have different vulnerabilities. Similarly, the 51 levels are set in some very diverse locations -- beneath the ocean, over futuristic cities, in caverns, and more.
Many of the enemies appear and attack in predictable times, but there is a fair amount of randomness to the action. The game difficulty is fairly consistent, and the game as a whole is an above-average challenge. Some levels are easier than others, but not by too much. It's worth noting that many people will find that the "Easy" mode is too easy; the pace of the game is half as slow as the typical arcade game, and today's dedicated players will breeze through it without too much effort. The "Hard" mode, however, will suit these pros just fine.
The graphics in GATES OF ZENDOCON are adequate, with a fair use of detail and color, but they don't completely feel right for the title. Many of the game elements look simple and cartoony, instead of the sleek and rugged futuristic appearance traditionally associated with these games. Sounds are also a mixed bag. The good news is that the game features several musical scores, each one uniquely appealing in its own way. On the other hand, actual game sounds are mostly uninspiring, consisting mostly of explosions and the firing of your ship's laser. Worse, the sounds of combat drown out some of the music, which detracts. There is also a short digitized laugh at the start of the game, but nothing truly noteworthy.
This game makes a strong argument for not judging a book by its cover. Underneath the average graphics and average sound is a well-rounded, pretty diverse action game just waiting to be discovered. There is very little that hasn't been seen before, but for players who are looking for a stereotypical "shoot it if it moves" title (and there are enough of those out there for any platform), GATES OF ZENDOCON is a good buy.
GAMEPLAY: 8 GRAPHICS: 6.5 SOUND: 7 OVERALL: 7.5