Zaku is passion compressed into an Atari Lynx cartridge – Destructoid – paynews

In AD1987, development was beginning…

The retro homebrew scene has really spread its tentacles and started grabbing us in new ways. What used to be a very underground niche has started gaining traction with what you could reasonably call big publishers like iam8bit and Limited Run Games. The retro market is going to keep getting bigger, and the appreciation for retro hardware continues to grow.

If the tale of homebrew started with bootlegs and ROM hacks, progressed into hacked cartridges, then new cartridges produced by small companies like Super Fighter Team and RetroUSB would be the third phase. For Super Fight Team’s part, they began by translating and porting Chinese Sega Genesis games and reproducing them on new cartridges. These were Beggar Prince and Legend of Wukong, and they were notable for having the full retail look. Clamshell cases, instruction booklets, a hangtag – they had the works.

Perhaps the strangest of Super Fighter Team’s releases, however, was Penguinet’s 2009 shoot-’em-up, Zaku. Rather than a late localization of an existing game, Zaku was a brand new game developed for Atari’s ill-fated handheld, the Lynx. It got all the love that Super Fighter Team’s previous games got, but for a less prevalent and beloved system.

I actually bought an Atari Lynx specifically for Zaku and picked it up during its first production run. It’s no longer in production, but rather than let it slip into obscurity, I want to do my part in helping it achieve immortality in homebrew history. So, I’ve spoken with Super Fighter Team’s Brandon Cobb and Penguinet’s Osman Celimli about its creation.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Meandering towards the Lynx

As far as handheld consoles go, the Atari Lynx wasn’t a total failure, but it definitely left a crater. It was released in 1989 before finally being discontinued in 1995. It sold an estimated 2 million units, far short of the Game Gear’s 10 million and the Game Boy’s kajillion. The Wonderswan, which was only released in Japan, sold more than the Atari Lynx. So you can see how it didn’t exactly cement itself in video game history. I was curious why someone would want to create a game for it more than a decade after it left the market.

“It was moreso a slow meandering towards the Lynx rather than direct inspiration to create software for it,” Osman Celimli told me. “Nintendo’s Game Boy was my first target, and I failed to assemble a single binary. It wasn’t due to a lack of resources, but rather my skills were at absolute zero – the instructions for running an assembler or linker read like complete gobbledygook. So I put the Game Boy aside and looked for more premade games to buy instead. The Lynx introduced itself soon after when I discovered it was the original home of Chip’s Challenge. Now, learning one of your favorite games was first developed for some giant plastic hoagie that devoured batteries was pretty out there, so I dove deeper.”

“It was then, by full coincidence, that I ran into the Lynx Programming for Dummies guide written by Björn Spruck – now, here was some literature on my level! The guide explained, step by step, how to set up Bastian Schick’s BLL Kit and build an example program. All it did was display a texture and move it leftward, but it was exactly what I needed. I spent countless hours modifying the example program, deleting or changing lines, and seeing what happened, and learned 6502 assembly through complete trial and error like this.

“I found the Lynx’s graphics hardware extremely friendly and became invested in the platform after making just a few test binaries. It felt very underutilized and seemed like a good home for the style of frenetic action game I wanted to make. This first materialized in 2003 as a fangame combining assets from Air Zonk and Sonic the Hedgehog, which eventually became Zaku.”

Zaku Screenshot
Screenshot by Destructoid

A fistful of Air Zonk

If I had to quickly describe Zaku, I’d say it’s the Turbografx-16’s Air Zonk designed for less powerful hardware and a much crummier screen. You play as the eponymous Zaku, who is trying to stop a flood of shovelware being churned out. Zaku flies with rocket boots and can blast enemies behind her with jets from them.

I think it holds up pretty well, especially when you compare it to other homebrew of the era. Osman has a different take on it.

Zaku’s content feels very janky and amateurish to me now,” he told me. “But sealed within this clumsiness are the memories of its wondrous, jovial development cycle. We were all just having fun making stuff, and I treasure that deeply.”

The whole project kicked into gear when Super Fighter Team’s Brandon Cobb saw a demo that Celimli put out into the world.

Super Fighter Team Cartridges
Image by Destructoid

Teensy Little Demo

“I saw a teensy little demo that Osman had shared with the community,” Cobb recalled. “It was clear he had the talent and passion to flesh it out into an incredible game, and I felt I was the right producer for him to partner with in order to achieve that goal.”

“I was enamored of the Lynx hardware and had dreamed about publishing a game for it. Not just any game, mind you: It had to be something incredible that people would be talking about for years to come. Otherwise, why bother? It’s such a special platform. I didn’t want to waste my chance.”

Zaku presented the perfect chance. Although other publishers were all doing bare circuit boards at the time, I promised Osman that we would manufacture authentic, ‘curved lip’ plastic cases for the PCBs. This proved to be a tall order indeed for our factory, who actually tried to talk me out of doing a Lynx game at all! Once they saw our sales numbers, however, they realized we were on to something.”

Celimli tells the story in a similar manner. In his recollection, he says, “Brandon contacted me after playing an early prototype of Zaku in 2006 and expressed interest in publishing it. His offer sounded totally improbable. This ‘game’ had one stage and no sound, yet he was already thinking about manufacturing authentic-looking cartridges. It was completely unprecedented – nobody was making new plastics back then. But after seeing a copy of Beggar Prince, I knew he was legit, and it’d be better to have Zaku published by Super Fighter Team than on my own.”

“In hindsight, the game wouldn’t have shipped if Brandon hadn’t stepped in. I’m glad he did, too – not just for the sake of the game, but because we also became very good friends.”

Zaku Penguin Boss
Screenshot by Destructoid

Super Fights

There were multiple production runs of Zaku before production ceased entirely. Now, Super Fighter Team is out of the physical market entirely.

As Cobb tells me, “Super Fighter Team ceased all manufacture and sales of physical product back at the end of 2019, returning to our roots as a freeware developer. That’s where we started back in ’98, and it’s where I feel most content.”

“Our most recent release is Sango Fighter Special Edition, for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Not only did we completely redo the mechanics, but there’s an enhanced soundtrack and the ability to play as versions of the fighters from both the MS-DOS original and Super A’can console adaptation of the game.”

Osman Celimli went on to create Rikki & Vikki for the Atari 7800. Once again, this was released as a physical cartridge, but not with Super Fighter Team. On this, Cobb tells me, “For Rikki & Vikki, he decided to self-publish, which I feel was the right decision as I don’t think I’d have been able to market the game as effectively as PenguiNet did.”

Unlike Zaku, which has only ever been available on Atari Lynx, you can buy a digital version of Rikki & Vikki on PC.

Zaku Iremsha
Screenshot by Destructoid

Zakone Zaktwo

There were plans for collaboration between Penguinet and Super Fighter Team on further Lynx games. While none of these ideas took off, Penguinet had played around with a sequel to Zaku named Zaktwo.

“The story picked up immediately after the events of the first game – Zaku returns home only to find it completely overrun by gigantic fish. She blames the Penguin Bros. and Captain Bran for the outbreak and dashes off to confront them. So many of the enemies and bosses were various types of fish or other sea creatures. Keeping with tradition, some of them wore business attire.”

“Zaku’s moveset was also redesigned so that her interactions with each enemy, especially the bosses, could be far more nuanced. Each of her abilities became a tool in figuring out how to damage an opponent or manipulate a stage hazard. It was mostly in reaction to the abundance of bullet hell shmups at the time, and I wanted the game to feel much more physical.”

“Unfortunately, it languished more and more after I started working full time – and this also caused it to accrue technical debt extremely fast. At the time of its cancellation, there was only one fully playable stage and another handful were partially complete. I didn’t throw away any of my design notes, though, and would like to incorporate some of the ideas planned for ZakTwo into other projects.”

It was canceled in 2016 as Celimli moved on to Rikki & Vikki.

Zaktwo Sequel Screenshot
Image via Penguinet

Atari escape velocity

Speaking with Brandon Cobb and Osman Celimli, I really got a sense of the adventure the whole project was. I don’t get the sense that it was an easy endeavor, but certainly, it was a worthwhile one.

“Seeing Zaku reach… I guess you’d call it ‘Atari Escape Velocity,’ really left an impact,” Celimli reflected. “I never thought anyone would buy a Lynx just to play the game, but it happened. This really helped keep Rikki & Vikki on the Atari 7800. With the addition of a digital version, it’d be an opportunity to finally see if using a console solely for its aesthetic could work.”

My favorite story Celimli imparted to me, however, was definitely around the acquisition of an actual Atari Lynx dev kit that he and Cobb went through.

He told me, “Shortly after Brandon and I arranged to have the game published through Super Fighter Team, we went in 50/50 on the purchase of an original Lynx Development Kit. This way, we’d have access to Epyx and Atari’s libraries, in particular their sound driver. It consisted of an Amiga 2000 and a large metal box containing a modified version of the Lynx hardware. However, the kit arrived in much worse shape than we anticipated! The Amiga’s clock battery had exploded, and the Lynx’s stereo board had dislodged itself and broken some of its connectors. I remember spending a week or two just restoring the kit.”

“This was also my first time using an Amiga. I didn’t really enjoy the user interface but found its multitasking capabilities very impressive. You could edit a text document while simultaneously formatting two floppy disks.”

Zaktwo Title Screen
Image via Penguinet

Digital archeology

While Super Fighter Team has backed out of physical products, Brandon Cobb and Osman Celimli remain good friends.

“I can talk about all the gross software archaeology work that Brandon and I have been collaborating on,” Celimli told me. After years of poking fun at the Watara SuperVision, we seem to have landed the responsibility of documenting and preserving its… er… legacy isn’t really the correct term, so let’s say ‘residue.’ At the moment, I’m slowly reverse engineering the TV-Link and putting together an assembly development kit for the platform.”

When I reached out for this interview, I initially intended to just grab a few statements from Celimli. He insisted I speak to Cobb as well, and I’m glad he did. This whole experience was extremely enlightening to me, and I’m overjoyed to share it.

The passion around the development of Zaku is palpable. This wasn’t just a commercial enterprise to see if people would be keen on buying new games for old hardware. This was a group of people who just wanted to create something. No one here made any compromise, and it shows in the end product.

I already appreciated Zaku as a game. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with actual commercial games released for the platform, and I’d be willing to elevate it by saying it’s one of the best on the Lynx in general. However, after speaking with its creators, I can only say that I respect it more now.

For other retro titles you may have missed, click right here!

Zoey Handley

Staff Writer – Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.

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