Hidden Gem Reviews: Sub-Terrania

Sub-Terrania Sega Genesis Front Cover
Sub-Terrania [Sega Mega Drive/Genesis]


Developer: ZYRINX

Released: 1993

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There are probably as many shoot ’em ups in the video game world as there are video game consoles, and it’s not too ridiculous to suggest that the majority of those shooters came from the early 90’s.

The 90’s, for the most part, was the 16-bit decade, 16-bit consoles would prove ideal for the shoot ’em up genre, a time of ever improving detailed 2D graphics and advanced audio capabilities more than perfect for a straight horizontal or vertical shooter. Not only that, shoot ’em ups follow a fairly exact formula and are simpler to produce relative to that of RPG’s or Fighting Games. And why not pump out shooter after shooter? Many players are happy to play a game which involves nothing more than shooting everything that moves, navigating a barrage of enemies and going toe-to-toe with increasingly tougher sub-bosses and bosses, myself included. With a few titles trying a few different mechanics here and there, it’s not a criticism when I say that most shoot ’em ups are repetitive and mechanically similar, if not identical. All this is likely why the 90s was saturated in “shmups”. Still, there will always be developers eager to try something new.


The video game library of Sega’s console is riddled with titles from this genre, and for fans of the genre, the console is an ideal choice. The platform offers many well-known classics that include the likes of Fantasy Zone and Thunder Force IV, and the lesser known classics such as Arrow Flash and the gorgeous looking Bio-Hazard Battle.

In this, the first edition of our Hidden Gem Reviews, we’ll take a look at another underappreciated and unique Mega Drive “shmup” – Sub-Terrania.

Sub-Terrania [Sega Mega Drive/Genesis]
Taking out a sentry

If you’ve ever played a lovely little arcade game called Asteroids or even Lunar Lander, you’ve pretty much played Sub-Terrania’s less advanced and less visually impressive ancestors. I am sure I don’t need to tell you that Asteroids is a highly successful arcade game, which along with PacMan and Space Invaders began the Golden Era of the Arcade, it was also a progenitor of the multi-directional shooter, a sub-genre to which Sub-Terrania belongs. Other progenitors include later Atari titles like Thrust and Gravitar’ and Amiga games such as Rotor and Zarathrusta (not a typo).

Released in 1993, Sub-Terrania is the first production to come from Zyrinx, a small developer from Denmark. Interestingly, Zyrinx was co-founded by long-time music composer for the Hitman series – Jesper Kyd. Naturally, the self-taught composer created SubTerrania’s soundtrack, one of his earliest video game compositions. The soundtrack is indeed a great one and sounds impressive coming out of the Sega’s FM hardware.

Set on an unnamed planet, the events of SubTerrania follow an attack by alien enemies on a mine occupied by human miners. The attack traps the miners below ground and it is up to our heroic ship pilot to rescue the miners, destroy any and all threats and complete various tasks across the games 10 challenging missions.

While Sub-Terrania is a tricky title, most of the challenge involves not enemy attacks or standard obstacles but controlling the games experimental ship. As mentioned previously, gameplay is reminiscent of titles like Lunar Lander, Thrust, and Gravitar. The player’s ship can turn 360 degrees with forward and reverse thrusters, however, the ship is at the mercy of gravity and will gradually descend to the mine floor if not controlled.

Sub-Terrania [Sega Genesis/Mega Drive]
Sub-Terrania features some epic and crazy boss battles

Hitting the floor or walls of caves damages the player’s ship, if not positioned to land, but thankfully the games hit detection is spot on and controls are nice and tight. Shooting enemies and destructibles while trying to pilot the ship does require some significant practice, as even the ship’s energy-based projectile attacks are subject to gravity, falling to the ground in an arc. This adds an extra layer of challenge. Piloting the ship, avoiding cavern walls and firing at enemies requires careful positioning of the player ship with accurate aiming, doing all three is quite the juggle. The game was criticised for its difficulty upon release, though developers had twice reduced the game’s difficulty before release.

Visually, Sub-Terrania is beautifully detailed and sharp, this is interesting when you consider that Zyrinx did not possess an official Sega Development kit and so bundled together one of their own. What they created is one of the better-looking shoot ’em ups available for the Mega Drive/Genesis. Visuals depict perfectly sharp details, the game’s enemies, the mine structures, and terrain feature vivid collar and depth. The early level terrain is a contrasting mixture of hellish deep reds, black and silver mining platforms, machinery and structures. Levels do vary as later areas change to depict a cavern full of verdant jungle-like plant life. Not that you’ll have much of a chance to check it all out, there are also underwater stages.

Once again, Sub-Terrania has a thumping, catchy electronic soundtrack, which in parts, is reminiscent of dark 80’s synth music, on its own merit its good enough to listen to outside of playing the game.

As soon as you become acquainted with Sub-Terrania’s tricky gameplay and you can pilot the ship with aplomb, you’ll find Sub-Terrania a fresh for its time, unique, excellent and a graphically sublime game, definitely one of the SEGA platforms hidden gems.

Vibrant and sharp visuals
Excellent soundtrack
Good and varied mission based gameplay
Brilliant unique boss encounters
None, though some may find ship controls too tricky

Review Summary

If you’re looking for a fresh take on the shoot ’em up genre, and a unique challenge then Sub-Terrania would be one to check out. Though some may find the game a little too tricky and frustrating, perseverance will reward you with a satisfying gameplay experience.

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David White

David primarily writes retro video game content for Culture of Gaming, he is almost exclusively a retro gamer and a collector of classic games and video game consoles. He fancies himself a bit of a video game historian with a deep love for video game and arcade game history and so is the host and creator of Culture of Gaming's Retro Rumble Podcast. He comes from Wales in the United Kingdom though absolutely loves the country and culture of Japan. He is a professional poker player and often listens to <i>The Cure, </i>metal, blues or jazz. When not, he spends most of his time gaming, hunting for classic video games, reading, practising the guitar, watching anime, sci-fi or horror movies and cooking Japanese food.

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