Zack and Wiki’s most excellent adventure! [game review]

When I learned of the creation of Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure for the Wii quite a while back, I was excited to play the game. I was someone who always wanted to play the old LucasArts adventure games but never got the chance. My brother and I played Full Throttle, which was beyond great, but it wasn’t enough. Fast-forward to the release of the game…and I picked it up a month or so later. Sales for the game were not great due to the fact that it wasn’t well advertised. That and the fact that the game looks like a game for children but plays like one that only adults can get through. Fortunately, that’s the kind of game I appear to like. I remember enjoying the game when I first started playing nearly a year ago, but school and life got in the way of my finishing it. Now that I’m done, I can talk about it.


The Short List:

What it did right:

  • The return of point-and-click adventure gaming
  • Colorful cartoon visuals
  • Sometimes appropriate waggle controls
  • Mostly intuitive game play

What it did wrong:

  • Confusion beyond intuition
  • Punishment for asking questions
  • Wiki should be silenced!

Zack & Wiki is a game about pirates on a journey to collect treasure. That’s it. This oversimplified plot is all that’s necessary for the game. It’s not about the pirates, although their narrative strings the stages together. The game is about facing the challenges in each stage so that the little pirates can grab their treasure. It’s you versus the environment – not the characters versus the environment. They’re your tools in this endeavor.

That’s what I’ve missed about adventure games. While many of the classic LucasArts adventure games have always had a fairly rich narrative, the structure of the game was so that you didn’t connect too much with the character on screen. You are some outside force aiding that character to the goal, fighting the environment together. If you were in greater control of the character, you would probably take fewer risks because that’s you. But in these games, they’re your tools. You have to try out different things to see what works.

This game really allows players to disconnect from their characters, which is necessary. The complexities of the puzzles require that you be able to move beyond the characters line of sight in order to properly plan the sequence of events necessary for the goal. Literally, the game lets you zoom out to see the stage as a whole.

Point-and-click games are a natural fit on the Wii. I’m sad to see that this is the only one available, and it didn’t sell well enough to start a trend. This is the type of game that should be selling the Wii beyond the introduction of Wii Sports. “Hey, aside from beating up on dad in the boxing game, you can even play a game like this. Move the Wiimote like a mouse over the landscape. Click there, and the character moves where you want him to go! See? Those controls aren’t too complicated for you. How do you know you can interact with an object? Hover the cursor over it. The star turned purple, so click A. Easy, right?”

Apparently wasn’t easy enough for Capcom to sell it to the public at large.

Tired as I am of the average title released for systems since the launch of the PSX, I quickly gravitated to the colorful graphics in this game. I like cartoons. I like interactive cartoons. (Hello Dragon’s Lair.) Zack & Wiki isn’t a perfect cartoon, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s a video game. The visual styling is a great escape from the drudge of dark and dank scenery offered up by most of the more popular releases. Sometimes it’s nice to have a game whose visuals are just cheerful. But a problem with this is the fact that most people would look at this and assume it’s game for kids, despite the fact that this would quickly make kids quit playing after a few levels. It’s hard!

For those wondering, there are Wii-specific waggle controls. Most objects require some twisting, turning, or shaking of the Wiimote in order to make them work. I’ve heard this referred to as a gimmick before. I can’t say that’s totally untrue. There are some cases where using such controls is totally unnecessary. Why can’t the lever just be pulled? I already said the block goes in the hole, so why do I have to pretend to place it there? But there are other situations where it just seems right and adds some sense of immersion to the experience. There was a level involving a lighter that just felt right. And there was something very appropriate about Wiimote manipulation during a certain boss fight (Note: the following boss video shows one of the possible solutions against this boss. This mirror formation, I believe, is only appropriate every other battle):

I’ll admit that the necessity of ringing the bell does get tiresome, and the rhythm game sections are a pain, but overall the controls are just fun. They definitely add to rather than detract from the overall experience. Plus it offers for a ending event totally in the player’s hands, much like Metal Gear Solid 3 – minus the emotional drain, but you’ll get yourself a tired wrist instead.

Then there are the puzzles. Almost every stage requires that you turn enemies into tools Zack can use on some part of the environment. It starts off very simple, with snakes turned into wrenches for plucking items down from high places. Then it starts getting creative and requiring that you get creative. You may be certain that the mole in the lower left of the area will be necessary for something, but he randomly pops out of three holes. I have a hammer, but whack-a-mole isn’t working so well. And what about those pirates I just turned into pegs? And that’s only about a third of the way into the game. Things get a lot more crafty from there.

…which is a problem to a degree. The game requires the player to think outside of the box, which I like. It’s a game I’d say to share with one’s kids because it requires creative solutions. However, some solutions are so creative that it’s not even fair. When you’re playing around in a fantasy toolbox in a fantasy environment, it’s not unfair to expect fantasy solutions – but it is unfair to expect such solutions to come easily. I have to admit to having gotten stuck quite a few times later in the game because I didn’t exactly know how the fantasy environment would react to my manipulation. One normally only tries solutions with an expectation of an outcome, but how are we supposed to know that a wind is suddenly present when we stand on that specific ledge? It’s not fair to expect people to hover the cursor absolutely everywhere on a huge stage.

Fortunately, the game has a built-in hint system for those of us who can’t come up with fantasy solutions. The only problem with this system is that you have to pay for it in not one but two ways. First you have to use money you’ve picked up along the way in order to pay for the items that give you hints. Then, if you complete the stage after receiving hints, your final score is docked for having used these items. I feel like it discourages the player from even asking for help, which is a shame because I don’t think it’s humanly possible to know all of the answers otherwise. There’s always going online, but that’s literally cheating despite it being the more economical solution in the long run. The experience has made me think a lot about help systems in video games – which is certainly a topic for a future entry.

I guess it comes down to my complaint being that of frustration compounded with frustration for even asking the game to help me. The game is a happy and fun experience until you get stuck. Then you just want to be past that part so you can be happy again. What didn’t help me in the experience was the voice of Wiki. The golden floating monkey makes the most annoying, high pitched sounds for no good reason. Every time you continue, after Zack gets up and releases his weird battle cry, Wiki rushes after him with an annoyingly pitched, “Za-kku-!” (The minimal voice work used for this game was in Japanese.) Every time I heard it, since I generally didn’t hesitate to put Zack in danger to see if it was a solution or death, I wanted Wiki to die. That thing got captured a few times during the game. My one regret is saving the monkey…

I can’t recommend this game enough to Wii owners. This is the type of game that goes hand-in-hand with the type of interface offered on the console. Plus it’s got a multiplayer component that I’m sure would make it an interesting party game or an enriching experience with family. I didn’t get to play with that function, unfortunately. Then again, I’m stubborn about puzzles and have this need to solve them on my own. The mere fact that the game allows others to draw on the screen to either point out hints to player one or cause a distraction is a step in the right direction. I remember the days of the NES when the one-player experience was somehow often a group experience. People would take turns playing through a game or backseat gaming was encouraged because video games were a new (or renewed) experience to which few people had access. With games being more popular, you don’t see that as often. Built-in backseat multiplayer looks like solution. But I digress. This is a great game for racking one’s brain and simply having fun with the console. If I rated games, I’d give this 4.5 out of 5 stars. But I don’t, so it simply gets my strong approval.

The trailer, for those interested:

Is that a giant robot in the end? I was certainly not surprised by Keiji Inafune’s involvement at that point. Felt like something X or Zero should fight…

Make mine Marvel in 2009

Keeping up with the latest stories in comic books isn’t as hard as some people make it out to be, especially at roughly 30 pages a pop. The issue is in paying for the comics, which are hardly even collectibles anymore. When was the last worthwhile issue 1 of any series? I often feel like comic books are disposable, not unlike most television. Consume and then remove it. Easier said than done. My proof is in the stacks of comics sitting in my room. It’s hard to remove things in which you’ve invested money.

So might as well buy smart. If one is going by brand alone, I’m putting it out there that I love and support Marvel comics coming into 2009. The past year of comics haven’t been that memorable. I’m not going to lie. The plots and pacing weren’t great, but the aim was true – make comics fun again. The past year of Marvel comics were fun and exciting.

DC wasn’t bad, but the truth is that I found myself only reading the Batman family of comics and Teen Titans. Everything else was negligible. I dislike both Superman and Wonder Woman, I think the Flash is only good on a team (plus Bart/Impulse/Kid Flash/new Flash/vapor is gone), I think every third Green Lantern issue is good, and Final Crisis is boring. The Batman books have been good, and despite the negative feelings people seem to have going in, I’m looking forward to the storyline wherein a new Batman will be established. It’s just taking too damn long.

Meanwhile the past year at Marvel has been awesome. While people have made a point of bitching about the One Day More storyline and subsequent Brand New Day in The Amazing Spider-Man, I’ve grown to love it. What gets me is the fact that I’m pretty sure the writers didn’t necessarily agree with Joe Quesada’s decision to magically unmarry Peter and Mary Jane via Mephisto, Marvel Comics’ devil. There are little jokes referencing all of that, particularly in one of the last issues where Peter mentions to Harry that he’s not sure who knows what anymore – because it seems to be made up as they go along. But that joking adds something to it. It’s like the writers are saying, “We know you’re unhappy with how we got here, but we’re on the same page for the rest of the ride.” And the ride’s been fun. Can’t go wrong with a weekly Spider-Man title, and Peter Parker is back to being the everyman who has to struggle each day in order to get by in life. I can relate. Peter’s having married one of the most beautiful women in the Marvel Universe was fine for a while, but he seriously lost his everyman status at that point.

Then there’s the X-Men titles. Despite his being my least favorite character, the Wolverine-led X-Force book has been an amazing ride. When describing it to people, I call it the X-Men hit squad. It’s true. Just a group of violent characters whom Cyclops sends out to kill people who need to die. The most amazing thing the book did was bring back Archangel. Sure, Warren never died, but that persona didn’t logically exist. The re-emergence of Archangel doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it adds something to Warren’s character and brings a version of his character that was loved by so many. The rest of the X-books have been great as well, and Cyclops is a great leader and badass.

The biggest misstep with the books was letting Joss Whedon write his own series. Not only was it an overall forgettable series, but he locked Kitty Pryde in a giant magic bullet that floats through space just because he felt it was the right thing to do. Sure, he brought Colossus back from the grave, but he basically killed off Kitty Pryde – a character who, up until Whedon started writing, was mostly retired for the time being. It was like writing for shock value.

On that note, Secret Invasion. It was a great premise and would have probably gone over very well if kept in the two Avengers books like planned, but blowing it up and involving the entirety of the Marvel Universe was a bad move. It felt pretty crammed with every hero being involved and the story being drawn out like it was. And then they killed Janet Pym, the Wasp. Why? Who knows? There wasn’t even enough focus on her in the book for anyone to actually cared that she died. She was the second founding member of the Avengers to die in such a high profile situation, but the way it happened was disappointing. And while I like the idea of Norman Osborne taking on such a high profile position in the security of the United States of Marvel Comics, his rise to the top was a bit underwhelming due to how quickly it happened. Plus everyone knows he’s psycho, so it doesn’t make sense without having built it up more.

What everyone should really be excited about is the state of the Ultimate universe after Ultimatum. Things leading up to Ultimatum seemed forced, but I can understand that the writers were working under a very limited time frame. For the world that they want to create after Ultimatum, I get that they wanted certain characters there and others gone. The wave in the first issue also wiped clean a number of characters, mostly X-Men. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here, though. It looks like the possibility of a world with bigotry accepted worldwide against people with powers or who look like mutants. It’ll be a world that will be an interesting read for minorities.

That sounds serious. What’s fun about that? For one, Spider-Woman looks like she’s returning to the books, with the Human Torch chasing her tail. Yeah, look up her information if you don’t get what will be so fun about it. Also, Power Princess is probably joining the Ultimates, and a character who is a parody of Wonder Woman but willing to screw the Hulk is OK in my book. I just hope Ultimates becomes a monthly title.

There’s all these great possibilities open in the future and more, so I don’t hesitate when I say, “Make mine Marvel.” In 2009, Marvel has most of my attention.