Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #14 - Zool

Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension (1992)
Publisher: Gremlin Graphics
Designers: George Allen and Ade Carrs

(“This game is going to go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.”
-- Ben Styles, Amiga Computing 54, Nov. 1992)

Imagine that it’s 1992, and you’re Commodore. Up until now, you’ve been making a name for yourself as a worthy competitor in the home computing arena against the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh with your Amiga line of computers, but due to a handful of boneheaded decisions you’ve posted a pretty significant revenue loss this year and there are stormclouds on the horizon. You notice that the home videogame console market is booming, so you decide that your new strategy, the one that will ultimately be responsible for saving or sinking your company, will be to market your home computers as game machines which have the benefit of doubling as productivity machines, sell your systems in toy stores, and become a viable dark horse candidate in an industry dominated by only two major rivals. All you need now is a mascot. After all, Nintendo has Mario, and Sega has Sonic. Both are somewhat ridiculous in concept (an Italian plumber named Mario Mario and a speedy, electric-blue hedgehog? Ludicrous!) but the kids seem to love ‘em both. Put it out to marketing and see what they come up with.

Thus was Zool born. Actually a product of Gremlin Graphics, who were contracted to provide the Amiga with a flagship title, Zool is the sum total of the following grab-bag of adjectives: green-skinned, alien, gremlin, ninja, from the Nth Dimension, cat-eyed, remarkably fast, and presumably miniscule, if his oversized surroundings are any indication. Zool is the Poochie of videogames. To make matters worse, Commodore included blatant product placement from Chupa Chups, of all things, at regular intervals throughout the first world (which is, appropriately, candy-themed). The effect was disconcerting, to say the least.

Critical reviews in Amiga-based publications, from Amiga Computing and Amiga Format to CU Amiga and Amiga Power, were deliriously positive, achieving final scores of anywhere from 90% to 97%. Not surprisingly, Zool became the Amiga’s best-selling game, and it seemed that Commodore had the mascot they were looking for on their hands. Of course, when the company folded in 1994 after its foray into 32-bit CD-based gaming systems with the imaginatively-named 32CD, Zool became a footnote in the history of videogames, and has all but remained there ever since.

What is surprising about Zool is that, for all the crass commercialism and marketing wonkery surrounding its development, it actually wasn’t that bad a game. Certainly there was not much to recommend it over its spiky blue or mustachio-sporting counterparts - both of whom had begun incorporating novel new narrative and gameplay elements into their franchises - but it had a few things working in its favor. To begin with, the level design was singularly creative, with each world, and its respective enemies and obstacles, conforming to a different theme, from the saccharine-sweet candy world to the music world, filled with audio cables, CDs and stereo parts to the plywood-and-steel-plate motif of the tool world. Each one was a study in absolute thematic conformity, and players were motivated less by a desire to beat a particularly challenging boss than they were to simply see how the next world might make use of its thesis. Additionally, it was built on a very solid engine, and while platformers were by 1992 a dime a dozen, that also meant that designers Allen and Carrs could have just recycled code and probably gotten away with it. The fact that they took the time to deliver to Commodore a quality product makes them the unsung heroes of the tragic tale of Zool.

All things considered, it's strange that Zool has been consigned to the dustbins of history, and is remembered nowadays as, at best, a cult game. Not because Zool was a cynical and formulaic attempt at creating a mascot - there have been dozens of examples of this, from Bubsy to Aero The Acro-Bat to Alex Kidd - but because Commodore believed so strongly in Zool that they put their best foot forward and gave Amiga owners an altogether solid, if not spectacular, flagship title. If anything, Zool was a little too on-the-nose, a little too preoccupied with itself as a game and a mascot character designed to compete with the big boys. As far as inauthentic attempts to cash in on the burgeoning home console market go, Zool came the closest to success before tumbling into near-total obscurity.

Despite the fact that Zool was intended to be the Amiga’s exclusive videogame icon, the game has to date been ported to an impressive array of other systems, including the PC, the Atari ST, Nintendo’s Game Boy and Super Nintendo, Sega’s Game Gear, Master System and Genesis, a rare arcade version, and even a port to the RISC-based Acorn Archimedes home computer. The original Amiga edition is still widely considered to be the finest of the lot.

(In 1995, Zool received a pair of tie-in young adult novels: Cool Zool, by Stan Nicholls, and Zool Rules, by Ian Edginton. Edginton is best known for his work in comics, most notably his run on X-Force and his contributions to legendary British compilation monthly 2000 A.D., while Nicholls, a journalist and fantasy author, has written the Quicksilver trilogy, the Orcs trilogies, and the Nightshade Chronicles trilogy.)

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