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…

About Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

Posted on January 26, 2009, in the short list, video games. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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