Ahead of its Time – Zero Tolerance

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It’s happened to all of us at some point, I’m sure – at least, to those of us who have been gaming for a significant amount of time. We buy the latest and greatest game containing some new features that have everyone foaming at the mouth, only to sit back and say, “Hey, that’s not so original, I remember doing this in X-game back on X-platform in 199X!”

If this has ever happened to you, then this article is for you. This feature will run in as many parts as we can find games to fill it, each time looking at a title from any possible platform that gave us a glimpse of things to come, ideas that wouldn’t be seen again for years until other developers cottoned on to what a good idea it actually was. If you have any ideas for games you would like to see mentioned here, then shoot us a mail with the name of the game and a brief but clear explanation of why you think it was ahead of its time.

So, without any further ado, let’s begin the very first LazyGamer: Ahead of its Time feature.

Title: Zero Tolerance
Platform: MegaDrive
Developer: Technopop
Publisher: Accolade
Year: 1994
Genre: First Person Shooter

Back in the early to mid 90’s, developers released a near-endless torrent of First Person Shooters, mostly for the PC, following the worldwide FPS craze started by Doom. At this point, the humble little MegaDrive didn’t seem to be the best console to own if you fancied sliding down corridors, blasting the shinola out of highly-pixelated enemies in (fake) 3D space. The MegaDrive was created to display and manipulate 2D sprites after all, not compute complicated mathematical algorithms to generate 3D viewpoints.

However, that didn’t stop a small development studio called Technopop from trying their hand at creating a First Person Shooter specifically for the rapidly-aging 16-bit console. Zero Tolerance was the fruit of their labours, and it shattered a great many expectations when it was released. Not only was it a FPS on the MegaDrive, but it contained features that wouldn’t be seen in FPS games on the PC for at least the next two years – and it allowed two players to link up their MegaDrives to play cooperatively or head-to-head like PC gamers had been doing for so long – something that wouldn’t be seen again for consoles until mid-way through the PlayStation 1’s life. If that’s not enough for you, the developers also claim that it was the very first FPS game for a home console EVER. This would put it a few months ahead of Imagineer’s port of iD Software’s Wolfenstein 3D for the SNES, and a year ahead of Sculptured Software’s port of iD’s Doom for the SNES. That’s already a grab-bag full of kudos right there, but we haven’t even gotten started yet.

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Even the title screen was unlike anything ever seen on the MegaDrive before.
Even the title screen was unlike anything ever seen on the MegaDrive before.

In order to beat out the competition in the early 90’s FPS “arms race”, developers constantly tried to offer more features and “real world” capabilities in their game engines. This was still two years before the first true 3D engine appeared in the form of iD Software’s Quake; a time when most FPS games still used a method of faking 3D environments by drawing 2D images that looked 3D, a-la Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. There was only so much that could be done with this technique and every developer tried to push it in different ways. Raven Software used iD’s Doom engine to create their fantasy FPS, Heretic, but added in the capabilities to carry an inventory of items, fly, and look up and down to some extent. Capstone Software’s offering, Witchaven, attempted to use photographed textures for the environments and photographed, stop-motion miniatures for sprites to increase the realism; and while the game looked pretty good, the gameplay was heavy on the suck factor.

The map. It's essential, really.
The map. It's essential, really.

Zero Tolerance managed to keep its head above the water by concentrating largely on the gameplay, which was great, before giving us over-the-top on the graphical effects. Zero Tolerance used the same kind of fake 3D engine that all PC FPS games used at the time, but added in some highly competitive capabilities. For starters, you could choose from a roster of five characters, each with their own specialization, and each of whom could walk, strafe, jump, duck and even perform an array of martial arts techniques when bare-handed. Hell, you could even perform a flying kick by running, jumping, and then entering the kick command in mid-air! This degree of movement and control in a FPS game was rare or possibly even unheard of at the time.

Like Raven’s Heretic, your character could hold an inventory of items, including weapons, armour, useful gadgets, and the occasional tool needed to pass an area. Zero Tolerance was also one of the first FPS games to feature hand-grenades as a weapon, and even allowed players to bounce these grenades off walls to blow up unsuspecting enemies in the next room! The ability to bounce grenades around corners wouldn’t be effectively employed again until the advent of Quake with its grenade launcher weapon. Zero Tolerance was also the first console FPS to offer multiplayer. Unfortunately, there was no split-screen mode, only the system-link option, and you had to fill in a form to receive the link-cable for free if you wanted to do this. I filled in the form myself, and even though South Africa was not listed as one of the eligible countries for the offer, they still sent me the cable – for free! I kid you not, I still have it. Once you had two MegaDrives, two TVs and two copies of Zero Tolerance in the same room with the link cable, MegaDrive owners could experience playing multiplayer FPS games in the same way that was popular with PC gamers using null-modem cables to play two-player sessions of their favourite FPS games.

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After shooting this guy, his blood is sliding down the wall on the right there... see?
After shooting this guy, his blood is sliding down the wall on the right there... see?

But that’s not all. Zero Tolerance also featured a number of interesting graphical effects that wouldn’t be seen again for some time. Easily the most of impressive of these effects was the blood. Sure, Doom may have had crisper graphics, and Doom’s guns did produce little red blood splats when you shot the monsters, but in Zero Tolerance, the blood would actually fly out of your enemies and splat on the floor, ceiling, or walls, dripping down until it formed a puddle on the floor. I’m dead serious, it was in there. This is something that wasn’t seen again for years to come, possibly only with the advent of the Quake 2 engine. Zero Tolerance also featured destructible scenery and textures, something that would only be surpassed by Duke Nukem 3D two years later. One of the coolest effects in the game, though, was on the top level of the high-rise, where a board room featured a TV with an animated texture on it of a news-reporter reporting on the events your character was participating in, showing the smoking, burning building and even footage of the chopper which had dropped your character off.

Interestingly enough, if you have any doubts about the validity of my comments about this game, then feel free to go and download it and play it for yourself. That’s right, you can actually download the Zero Tolerance ROM legally from Technopop’s website! They’ve made it free to the public, along with what little they managed to make of the sequel, Beyond Zero Tolerance, before the project was cancelled. They also have the wiring procedure to create a link cable for the Megadrive yourself – I guess for those players who still own the actual cartridge and a Megadrive and would like to play it in multiplayer. Check it all out at: http://www.technopop.net

Taking all of these graphical touches, gameplay innovations, and the ability to play system-link multiplayer into account, it’s easy to see why Zero Tolerance shattered the limited expectations people had of the MegaDrive to produce a First Person Shooter which could compete with those on the PC. All this coupled with the fact that some of its features would not be offered in PC or console FPS games for years afterwards truly make Zero Tolerance a game that was ahead of its time.

Last Updated: March 18, 2009

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