In the genre of shoot-'em-ups, which includes games like Gradius and R-Type, there exists a subgenre that many people refer to as "cute-'em-ups." Structurally speaking, a cute-'em-up is like any other side-scrolling shooter. However, whereas traditional shooters tend to depict futuristic spaceships engaging in battle with serious alien creatures, a cute-'em-up usually features a goofy mascot trading firepower with cuddly teddy bears and googly-eyed puffballs. Air Zonk--originally published for the TurboGrafx-16 in 1992 and now available for the Wii's Virtual Console--is a textbook example of a cute-'em-up. The hero is a cybernetic rendition of Hudson's Bonk character, and his enemies are outlandish creatures that look as if they were yanked out of a Saturday-morning cartoon.
Zonk looks radical flying around with Mickey Mouse gloves on his hands and giant sunglasses shielding his eyes. The 2D backgrounds are colorful and bright, and they share a resemblance to the jungles and cities from the Bonk platform games. You won't have much time to pay attention to the backgrounds, since the screen is usually a tempest of enemies and bullets, but if you take the time to look you can admire the clouds scrolling by or the splashy plumes enemies make when they pop out of the water. Zonk's enemies look like bizarre creatures from a late-1960's acid trip, and they have all sorts of goofy animations. The sound effects are the typical assortment of lasers and explosions you'd expect to find in a game like this, while the accompanying music is jazzy and full of insidiously catchy beats. More importantly, the music doesn't sound hissy or scratchy like the music in a lot of TG-16 games does. Overall, the game has a lighthearted atmosphere but also shows that the TG-16 was capable of producing graphics and audio on par with the Genesis and Super NES.
Once you get used to the cute presentation, you'll discover that Air Zonk is a top-notch shooter in its own right. Different weapon pickups allow you to swap between machine guns, spread guns, and homing missiles that resemble the oversized lightning bolts, chomping mouths, and disembodied fists found in the Bonk platform games. You can charge weapons to unleash stronger attacks. These upgraded weapons also act like a shield of sorts. If you get hit while using one, you'll lose the weapon but not a life. When you destroy enemies, they'll frequently drop happy-face icons, which you can collect to summon a helper character. Initially, the only work the helper does is follow Zonk around and shoot straight ahead. However, if you collect more happy faces, Zonk and the helper will merge together into a single buffed-up contraption with its own flamboyant attack. In total, there are 10 different helpers. You select the level's helper before the level begins. Some are more useful than others and some are supereffective against certain bosses, so a key bit of strategy is learning which helpers work best in each level.
The game's five levels are each split into two sections, each containing a gauntlet of regular enemies that eventually gives way to a confrontation with a boss. There's rarely a moment when the screen isn't full of enemies hurling bullets and debris at you, and you'll really need to hone your twitch reflexes to survive the curtains of flames and lighting that the bosses continually generate. Compared to other shoot-'em-ups, Air Zonk is easily just as intense as Gradius or R-Type, although the difficulty is softened somewhat by the ability to stockpile extra lives and continue as often as you want. Of course, like most shoot-'em-ups, Air Zonk can be beaten in well under 30 minutes once you know what you're doing. The lack of a two-player mode is also unfortunate. For the Wii's part, it emulates the game without any problems, and the standard remote is a comfortable analogue to the original TG-16 controller.
While it won't eat up hours and hours of your life, Air Zonk is certainly worth the 600 Wii points it costs to download. Assuming you appreciate the game's sense of humor, its goofy antics and solid shoot-'em-up-style gameplay will keep you coming back for a few more nutso minutes every now and again.