Zero Tolerance 1994 Video Game Title
QUByte Interactive

Zero Tolerance originally hit store shelves in 1994. A Sega Genesis game released deep in the console’s twilight years, firmly in the midst of the 32X and Sega CD, Zero Tolerance is a game that is solely carried via its lofty ambitions, promising the world to many a young gaming enthusiast as it sat next to games like Final Fantasy VI and Mortal Kombat II. It was a particularly interesting period for one key reason: video game violence.

Zero Tolerance certainly didn’t assuage concerns about violent content in games. With the ESRB officially entering the cultural lexicon in April 1994, it was the start of a brand-new era for video games in terms of content ratings and the leery eyes of parents. But this isn’t to suggest that Zero Tolerance somehow pushed the bar in terms of video game violence. No, instead, it’s a drastic reminder of the disadvantage Zero Tolerance was at when it came to the prying eyes of children and adults alike — it was on the Sega Genesis.

In 1994. For reference, the Sony PlayStation was about to pop out into Western markets by the fall of the next year, while the Super Nintendo Entertainment System thoroughly dominated the Genesis in just about every technical aspect imaginable. SEGA, in the mean time, had been trying to extend the lifespan of their flagship console with the 32X and Sega CD hardware add-ons. Unfortunately, in the eyes of both their intended audience and their third-party developers alike, they came off more as either aging tumors or glorified life-support devices. Their physical appearance certainly didn’t help matters.

But underneath its generic box art, hidden behind the promise of a soldier lugging an assault rifle around, there’s some technological prowess that’s legitimately impressive, if not flawed. Were it not for the limited hardware that Zero Tolerance was restricted to. But is it worth leaving behind in the dust? Is it just another piece of throwaway software that is better off as just a footnote? Let’s revisit to find out.

The Story Thus Far

QUByte Interactive

Contrary to the modern-at-the-time assault rifle depicted on the game’s box art, Zero Tolerance actually takes place in the distant future, where humanity’s success in space travel has led to the successful colonization of the stars. With peace being kept by the Planet Defense Corps (PDC), there’s little to fear when it comes to intergalactic threats. At least, that’s the idea.

Europa-1, a spacefaring vessel belonging to the PDC, suddenly comes under attack by a group of violent extraterrestrials. With the integrity of the ship hanging in the balance, a group of highly-trained operatives under the code name “Zero Tolerance” are tasked with liberating the ship before all Hell breaks loose. However, that’ll just be one of many fires they’ll have to put out.

Though it won’t have much of an impact on the narrative, you’re given a rare opportunity to play as each one of the five operatives that make up the titular task force. Once you pick a character to start out with, you’re locked in with them until they meet an untimely demise. Each character doubles as your total amount of continues — you can die up to a total of five times before you ultimately lose. The pentalogy of protagonists includes:

  • Satoe Ishii: A talented marksman with seemingly mathematically impossible accuracy.
  • Justin Wolf: An expert medic who can take additional advantage of the numerous medical kits found in the field.
  • Tony Ramos: A master of hand-to-hand combat, which may or may not be useful against otherworldly creatures.
  • Thomas Gjoerup: A surveillance expert who lugs around a bioscanner for detecting nearby enemies.
  • Scott Haile: An explosives savant who just so happens to carry around live mines on his person.

Each character has their respective strengths and weaknesses, with some being more tailored to specific levels than others. Well, except for Tony Ramos: as useful as melee combat would be on paper, you’re in deep trouble if you’re ever forced into a situation that requires it. We’ll get into that.

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It’s fairly standard stuff. Granted, Zero Tolerance does utilize its setting for some impressive technical feats. Verticality in its level design is one of them. It’s something that seems fairly standard now, but it’s something that had only recently started to enter the growing first-person shooter scene on both home consoles and personal computers. Wolfenstein 3D had been released only two years prior, and while its grid-like labyrinths were certainly impressive, they all took place on a single flat plane. For the poor souls that couldn’t afford to play Wolfenstein 3D’s dominant follow-up, Doom, on a thoroughly expensive Sega 32X system, Zero Tolerance’s thematic progression system — whereby you continually descend and ascend different floors via elevators or stairs — gave an impression illusion of depth for the time.

Environmental damage, as primitive as it is, can also be inflicted on certain walls and environmental props, including dangerous security cameras. Just as well, there’s some genuine effort to make the gradual descent have some genuine meaning. One mission starts you on a rooftop, complete with a set of unique textures and a distant gunman from another building overtaking potshots at you, making the frantic scramble to descend into the building all the more intense. It’s fascinating, and it lends Zero Tolerance‘s levels some interesting storytelling opportunities.

Zero Tolerance for Low Framerates

Zero Tolerance 1994 Video Game 1
QUByte Interactive

Speaking of which, Zero Tolerance is a game, after all — an action-oriented one at that. Like many good action games, responsive gameplay and buttery performance are essential to facilitating the action occurring on screen. For a frame of reference, imagine watching something like Die Hard or Point Break from start to finish with every other frame cut out of the film reel. It’s not exactly a pleasant experience.

Funnily enough, Zero Tolerance can be summed up in a single phrase: “Not a pleasant experience.”

It’s not for lack of trying. The game takes after the grid-like approach of Wolfenstein 3D and presents a series of levels broken up into individual squares, which are then aligned into a cohesive labyrinth. Your view of the world is through a tiny, narrow slit at the top of the screen, with the rest of the screen being obscured by ginormous UI elements. You have a top-down view of the map, an ID card of your selected character (which serves no real purpose), a menu to swap items, an enemy counter, an ammunition counter, and a blank section to provide readable text. From there, all the action takes place within the tiny, narrow slit near the top of the screen.

As for the “action” going on, there are some issues. The biggest of which has to be the game’s framerate. Call it a compromise, call it a sacrifice, however you may feel about Zero Tolerance from a quality standpoint, it’s genuinely difficult to justify the game’s incredibly varied framerate. Performance is actually somewhat acceptable whenever there’s nothing but a black void in the distance, but as soon as less than half of a half a dozen assets load into view, the framerate plummets as it renders them in all their low-res detail. The few times you do reach the double digits in terms of frames rendered are absolutely fantastic, but they’re few and far between. Instead, what you get is equatable to a slow, steady stream of sludge oozing out of your display, something choking from the weight of its own detailed excess.

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The issue is amplified when you realize that, at some point, you’re going to have to shoot something. Combat is barebones, but in a way that isn’t necessarily negative. Combat in Wolfenstein 3D, for instance, was similarly simplistic, but it made up for it with ludicrous speed and an overall addictiveness that made putting the game down difficult. Zero Tolerance doesn’t have that. It veers in the other direction quite often, actually. While the game doesn’t have the speed — an understatement, really — you’ll come to realize that what’s there is, at the very least, competent.

Combat is intense. Enemies will often directly rush at you, often trying to swing around to your backside in their urgency. As you slovenly swivel around to avoid catching a bullet in the back, you’re flung back from the force of their brutal swipes or blasts of buckshot, and as you’re hitting the floor, you’re in a daze, struggling to center your aim on your assailant until you finally squeeze the trigger and blow them away. Enemy behaviors are actually somewhat varied, as they’ll either wait in hiding, patrol the premises, or simply skulk the shadows as they await your presence. It can be genuinely exciting at points, and there were times were I was genuinely nervous to face what was coming next.

Zero Tolerance 1994 Video Game
QUByte Interactive

It’s just a shame that there’s not really any variation in this, as if it were a binary decision. There’s a tense challenge, or there’s nothing. The alternative is simply firing into blank space, staring more at the lifeless map below the action because, as mentioned, the game’s difficulties in rendering distant objects means that you’ll be peering into the void as you’re being rushed by a football team’s worth of soldiers. Opening a door into a large area is often accompanied by the distant call of alert sounds, a frenzied blast of gunfire into nothing, and occasionally getting thrown around by enemy attacks. Rinse and repeat hundreds of times.

This issue of repetition really starts to come into play when you learn about Zero Tolerance‘s biggest hidden secret.

Like many games at the time, Zero Tolerance utilizes a password system. Prior to the idea of “saving” your game becoming commonplace, passwords were a common institution for allowing you to retrieve a certain point in time from the game you’re playing. Obviously, ignoring the endless amount of time younger players have in their free time, the passwords are incredibly useful. However, it has one specific criteria for doling out its sought-after passwords. It’s by no means a short game, and Zero Tolerance makes sure that you work for the privilege of saving your progress.

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As mentioned, each “floor” counts as a separate level. You can get a password for just about every floor of the game. That being said, there’s only one way to get a password for each floor — you have to kill every single enemy on that floor. If you miss even a single errant soldier or monstrous extraterrestrial, you’re locked out of retrieving new passwords for successive floors until you clear out the one you left prematurely.

This gets to be exhausting. If you trust your abilities to survive, you’re more than free to just blaze through each floor as they come. But if you’re an adult revisiting an older game in your free time with other responsibilities to tend to, let’s just say that the experience is drastically different. The game’s length is effectively doubled, for better or worse, and as the game’s level design gradually shifts into slow, trawling labyrinths, you’re bound to feel fatigued on multiple levels.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned the game’s arsenal: there’s a reason for that. It may as well be nonexistent. Barring different ammo pools, most weapons are fairly interchangeable. Other than extreme differences found in weapons like flamethrowers and a handful of explosive weapons, there really isn’t a discernible difference between them. At least in an everyman sense. You’ll ultimately just use whatever you have the most ammo until you run out before eventually reaching a point where you have to accurately time melee strikes with a questionable range.

Genuine Effort

QUByte Interactive

Speaking of punching things, it’s easy to punch down on Zero Tolerance. It really is. Its level design becomes exponentially more obnoxious as it continues, with levels turning into sprawling labyrinths that make the slow turning speed equitable to torture. Its performance is hard to get behind, its music is sparse at best, and the overall experience pales in comparison to some of its vintage contemporaries, let alone what’s available on modern hardware.

But, on the other hand, there’s something genuinely commendable about squeezing a bona fide first-person shooter, one that does function to an extent, onto hardware that would’ve had no chance of actually running it in most circumstances. First-person shooter games on home consoles at this point in time were a compromise — sure, you’re missing key features, but you get to play it on your system of choice instead of getting a separate computing device. Doom was a particularly prolific example of this, with each and every single port sacrificing in different ways to cram id Software’s monolithic giant onto home consoles. The fact that Zero Tolerance manages to accomplish as much as it does with little flashes of incredible performance here and there is something to genuinely applaud.

Technopop, or at least what remains of it, feels the same way. A short-lived development studio that lasted all but a decade before dissolving around the turn of the millennium, you’d be surprised to learn that the company’s former president and founder, Randel B. Reiss, became the single holder of the company’s assets.

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On a memorial site for Technopop, maintained by Reiss, you can find a treasure trove of information surrounding the company’s operations. Well, “treasure trove” is a bit of hyperbole, as it’s mostly just a handful of candid staff photographs, varied screenshots from the games the studio worked on, and even a recording of a commercial that featured one of the studio’s projects alongside heavy hitters like Streets of Rage. What’s most fascinating, however, is that a detailed set of instructions are provided for creating your own Technopop Network Link cable: a connection that, when paired to a separate Sega Genesis, television, and copy of Zero Tolerance, can be used to play the game cooperatively. It is the only game that this cable officially supports.

As bizarre as a device may seem nowadays, you can’t deny the sheer amount of effort that went into making Zero Tolerance something truly special, even if the end result does suffer a bit because of it. Very few video games, in general, get their own dedicated hardware to enhance the experience, and it not only showed the kind of genuine effort Technopop put into it but unabashed confidence in their final product to even go through with such an idea.

A Tolerable Legacy

Zero Tolerance 1994 Video Game 2
QUByte Interactive

It’s worth noting that the game was also the subject of a brief legal spat between Randel B. Reiss and the former British developer Eidos Interactive. In the mid-2000s, the two companies had envisioned two wildly different projects: Reiss had begun development of a modernized rendition of Zero Tolerance for the popular PlayStation Portable at the time, whereas Eidos had enlisted the earliest incarnation of Rocksteady — yes, the very same Rocksteady behind the beloved Arkham series of Batman games — for an FPS game on the PlayStation 2. Unfortunately, both games shared the title of Zero Tolerance. A brief cease and desist notice ended amicably with Eidos changing their game’s title to Urban Chaos: Riot Response.

But then there was silence. For years and years, Zero Tolerance was little more than a game locked away on dated hardware, destined to become a source of enthusiast attention and collectible fodder for years to come. The sixth and seventh generations of consoles came and went, and while some publishers took up the opportunity to re-release their classic titles on modern systems, the means to facilitate such a thing weren’t really all the way there yet. By the time the eighth generation rolled around, however, and digital distribution became a commonplace standard, the floodgates opened.

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Thankfully, the game is more than accessible on modern hardware. Courtesy of Piko Interactive, a company whose skillset lies in reintroducing retro games into current markets, successfully released it on digital platforms everywhere. There’s also the Zero Tolerance Collection on both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, with a plethora of additional goods to justify the purchase. For starters, the previously unreleased sequel to Zero Tolerance, Zero Tolerance Underground, is available in this collection, along with an incomplete prototype for Beyond Zero Tolerance.

Is Zero Tolerance ultimately worth revisiting today? From a practical standpoint, not necessarily. In terms of examining where the industry was at the time, however, and taking a look at the kind of innovations both on the software and hardware side that would gradually be lessened over time, it is an intriguing time capsule that’s worth experiencing for any longtime first-person shooter fan. Of course, this is if you can stand some of its technical issues. As for whether or not you can justify the current price of it, that’s a separate story.

If you’re interested in snagging the title for yourself, it’s on Steam, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch. The Zero Tolerance Collection can also be purchased as a physical disc or cartridge while supplies last.

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