Pixel is the sort of studio that, in the days before intensive research efforts like GDRI, would be hard to know ever existed. Working for only a short while as a small developer for the MSX, Pixel soon stopped making their own games to vanish into the Japanese industry’s confusing world of contract developers for the rest of their days.

So why bother sifting through their sparsely-credited history? Most directly, because they were good at their jobs. Low-profile contract studios operated that way for a reason, and while there are exceptions the most immediate examples are not flattering. The once-invisible Tose has much work that’s structurally mediocre in the kindest of light, and the output of smaller outfits like Micronics or Another isn’t just bad, it’s the stuff of legends.

Meanwhile, as freelance programmers Pixel continued to provide the solid technical foundations their games always had; effortless scrolling, reliable controls, and eye-catching visual tricks. While the projects they took on ranged from licensed titles and arcade ports to offbeat games from small studios, perhaps most significant was their brief partnership with a subdivision of Bothtec named Quest, and in turn a working relationship with in-house musician Masaharu Iwata. But all this came well after their early days.

As far as can be told, Pixel was formed in the mid-eighties by Junichi Osajima and Junichi Saito to develop and publish their games for the MSX. While a persistent rumor suggests they were involved with a 1985 adventure game from Sony, SF Zone 1999, the company’s traceable history begins later that year with their first self-published title, the troubled but ambitious Zeta 2000.

 
  Zeta 2000: starting point at new game   Zeta 2000: MSX packaging/cover art   Zeta 2000: in-game credits, Pixel staff
 

Though Zeta 2000 has barely any text, its expansive backstory is preserved online. In the bleak future of the 32nd century, humanity is facing extinction. A desperate analysis determines five “Destruction Points”: critical events that caused this crisis and could possibly turn back the tide were they stopped. Actually doing so is no small task, of course; first of the five is the Zeta 2000 supercomputer, lying deep underground in an ancient military complex.

An artificial intelligence built to supervise military defense networks, but not completed in time to prevent a devastating global war, Zeta 2000 outlived its creators. Yet despite the holes in its mind, the machine remained aware and functional. and after surveying the ruined world above it began producing combat robots en masse for a misguided war on the remains of civilization.

Now re-discovered as a Destruction Point, and the source of the robots that have assaulted humanity for generations, Zeta 2000 must be stopped. With 32nd century technology a single person can be teleported into the machine’s vast underground complex. The world puts its faith in a man known as Neo, a Psychic Warrior with fearsome psychokinetic abilities. Armed with these powers and his laser sabre, Neo must fight his way through the facility alone and find some way to shut down or destroy the insane supercomputer housed inside.

 
    Zeta 2000: enemy robot approaching   Zeta 2000: door animation
 

Programmed, animated, and even scored by Saito and Osajima with minimal outside help, Zeta 2000 is unmistakably a product of its time. It’s a mashup of contemporary trends, combining the dungeon views popularized by Ultima and Wizardry with the combat of early action RPGs like Tower of Druaga, and the game seems like it’s filled with nods to suitably geeky pop culture. The Psychic Warrior’s fantastic and unusual powers in an otherwise sci-fi setting smack of the Jedi before the laser saber is even mentioned, enemy robots call to mind everything from streamlined 50s sci-fi designs to iconic mecha of Gundam and Macross, and Skynet all but puts in a cameo as an AI bent on destroying humanity with its war machines.

Zeta 2000 is also characteristic of its time in its holy-shit-are-you-kidding difficulty level. Dungeon crawls of the 80s are not known for soft and cuddly dispositions; environments are sprawling featureless mazes that demand handmade maps, death is a constant threat even to high-powered veteran characters, and players are rarely given more than the faintest guidance on how to advance.

But even among its peers, Zeta 2000 stands out as an absurdly punishing game with all the hardships of an RPG and none of the comforts. First-off, there are no experience points or levels. Neo is essentially as strong at the end of the quest as he was at its start, and players have no way to outpace the difficulty through persistence and brute force. Considerably more distressing is a lack of better weapons or armor to use, with just a single rare defensive item that can only offer temporary protection before burning out. There isn’t even an inn to heal up at when things go badly. Recovering from the game’s many vicious battles depends on scavenging for supplies, and there’s a very finite number to be found.

And recovery is a serious issue, because every single fight is deadly. Combat consists of holding down the space bar, running into enemies, and hoping luck is on your side. When it isn’t, the weakest of drones can land hit after hit without Neo so much as scratching it in return. Players have full control to move Neo around during the real-time fights, although the advantage of movement is easily negated by enemies that move just as fast. Whether a robot will be open to a hit-and-run attack or if they’ll give chase and maul Neo in a retreat is as hard to predict as whether or not you’ll even cause damage.

 
  Zeta 2000: Neo fights a weak drone   Zeta 2000: Neo fights a weak drone   Zeta 2000: Neo fights a weak drone
 

As a small mercy, there’s a reward for fighting well. Neo can recover some of his health after an enemy dies, with an increasing amount restored as he takes less damage in any given fight. But while this is a saving grace in theory it depends on coming out ahead in an unpredictable system with a bias against the player; only by crushingly tedious amounts of saving and reloading will players profit from this effect as anything but a freak occurrence.

Neo’s one trump card is his gift as a Psychic Warrior: a telekinetic attack that does tremendous damage to the robots if not disintegrating them outright. Still, this power is hardly comforting since it quickly burns out Neo’s mental energy – a precious resource refilled only by rare beam packs. It takes a lot of exploration to gather enough resources to trivialize combat using the psychic beam, and for the long road until then the only way to stay alive is avoiding as many fights as possible and constantly saving during fights to reload whenever the game deals out a sudden and crushing defeat.

Despite the difficulties of combat, basic exploration is no easier. While the complex only stretches down three levels, its first floor is a sprawling maze nine times larger than the deeper ones. Quirks of the game make the complex disorienting in more than sheer size, too. If Neo leaves the screen to the left or the right, the player’s perspective shifts so that direction becomes “forward” relative to the screen. Any given hallway will look different depending on what direction the player came in from, making it confoundingly easy to get lost even in well-traveled and familiar areas.

 
  Zeta 2000: Neo turns in a circle   Zeta 2000: Neo using psychic beam   Zeta 2000: Neo moves in a circle
 

It’s tough to call Zeta 2000 a good game, and it sure as hell isn’t a fair one. It is intriguing, though, despite its awkward flaws. The story is ridiculous fluff at face value, but it starts commanding attention when paired with a mercilessly oppressive atmosphere that justly reflects Neo as humanity’s desperate last hope. Both Neo and the player start with almost nothing and everything they gain, from equipment to basic knowledge about the environment, is hard-won. But the game’s biggest appeal is how these challenges slowly give way.

Exploring the base teaches not only its layout, but also better routes that avoid combat and spare resources. With enough searching players can find a flashlight that reveals valuable supplies in the many unlit storage rooms, and a map that helps preserve a sense of direction in constantly shifting perspectives. Looting the facility slowly builds up a stockpile that lets the player heal up in emergencies and use their psychic attack with increasing abandon. Further exploration leads to truly unexpected finds, like a renewable source of healing and a flying car that can blast through the halls, so long as it has fuel. Even the security systems can be exploited to disable the robots and explore – or attack – unopposed.

Zeta 2000 also has distinctive visual flair, enough to help make up for its shortcomings elsewhere. Graceful animation on moving objects and scrolling backgrounds was a show of skill from any developer in 1985, especially a small outfit like Pixel developing their first game alone. Zeta 2000’s graphics are downright decadent by comparison to other dungeon crawls; the movements of Neo and enemy robots are fast with no choppiness or stuttering, walking down hallways sees the walls smoothly scroll past in a still-impressive effect, doors slide open and shut, and a pseudo-scaling effect makes the enemies grow larger as they charge towards the player from out of the distance.

It’s a sign of ambition at Pixel that Zeta 2000 was not just meant to be their first professional release, but the first part of an entire series. The Legend of Neo series was planned to have one game about each of the five Destruction Points threatening to wipe out humanity, and Zeta 2000 was only the first entry. The author of the Tape-Load blog even writes about a planned contest, where anyone who sent in registration cards for all five Legend of Neo games would have been entered for a chance to win a copy of Neo’s dog tags, cast in real silver.

Despite these plans, the series would never come anywhere close to being finished; Pixel had many years ahead of them, but the continued adventures of Neo was not what the future had in store. Zeta 2000 is clumsy and hostile, but has such personality that it’s oddly endearing; the next Legend of Neo game would bring the series to a swift end by forgetting the charm and doubling down on the antagonism. From there Pixel would make one last attempt to recapture some of Zeta 2000’s better traits, then call it quits on developing their own games. And while that would be the end for most studios, here it was just the beginning.

Next time: Thunderbolts and living planets.


Links & Notes
Game Developer Research Institute
Easily one of the best resources for all manner of detective work on the staff behind old games.

Tagoo
General MSX database with information and discussion about various games; also source for images of the packaging and credit screen.

何とか庵
Excellent stockpile of information on MSX games. Zeta 2000’s backstory is documented in full from the original manual, along with a thorough walkthrough of the game itself for any intrepid souls that want to try it.

Tape-Load
A Japanese blog with lots of reminiscing about classic gaming and a strong focus on the MSX. Other bits about the story and game came from the author’s log of playing Zeta 2000, and the comments on these posts.

Rest In Peaches
Cassandra Mewn graciously taught me some of her powerful gif wizardry.

et tu, Gamer?
Kitten is an invaluable editor who made this whole affair a lot more readable.

 
As an aside, Japan’s theatrical release of The Terminator came mid-1985. It’s a dodgy claim of influence when Zeta 2000’s release date can’t be pinned down beyond “sometime in the same year” but I’m willing to bet that, even if the game came out first, viewing an imported or bootlegged copy of the ’84 US version was not beyond the means of tech-savvy individuals like game developers of the mid-eighties.

I’ll also note that despite what I expected, Neo was on the scene a full year before Ys’s considerably more famous redhead Adol. That bit’s probably just an odd coincidence, though.