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…

On Orders and Ecclesiastics

The 2D Castlevania series of games has existed safely nestled within the tropes it established for itself since its 32-bit (arguable) masterpiece, Symphony of the Night. Almost every game since has featured metroidvania free-roaming castle exploring, experience leveling, and red herrings appearing halfway through. It was a pretty good formula, especially given the usual high quality of the music and the tiny tweaks made to vary the titles. Even the occasionally frustrating touch-screen feature in the first DS title, Dawn of Sorrow, was welcome and neat. It changed the atmosphere ever so slightly, which was necessary given that it was a direct sequel of Aria of Sorrow.


The new DS game, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, attempts to shake-up the formula by introducing a feature abandoned after the 16-bit console games – linearity. For the most part, the incredibly large, living castle of previous games is abandoned for individual stages. The stages are relatively short, but they do each contain their own miserable little pile of secrets, including multiple exits which open up additional stages. However, after you complete a stage, you do not need to travel through it again to reach either the stages before or after it. There’s a simple map that lets you jump from place to place instead. While I find it odd, I must commend its ease of use.

The staging is something I find much more interesting than the new character’s supposedly unique abilities. Again, since Symphony of the Night, ever protagonist has brought something new to the table, usually in the form of powers. Shanoa, the first female lead protagonist since Sonia of Castlevania: Legends was officially retconned out of the official timeline, borrows and expands on the powers held by Soma Cruz in Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow. Like Soma, she absorbs powers from enemies – but unlike Soma, the powers are the only weapons she’s given. It’s a neat idea, actually. Most powers can be equipped to either her left or right hand, so she can duel-wield weapons or spells, or even one weapon and one spell. An additional attack, using hearts collected (another old staple of the series), is accomplished by holding the up button and pressing an attack button – unifying the two powers into an even more powerful attack. It’s neat, but it’s only neat.

Other than that, the tropes are still in place. How does this work out? It’s not a very good brewing. With the stages being linear and unnecessary to traverse to get from one to another, it creates a much shorter game. Backtracking was certainly annoying at times in previous titles, but it added depth and helped establish a world in the minds of the players. I just think they were lacking in save points, but that’s common in most attempts to create challenge. Ecclesia ramps up challenge in its shorter stages by making enemies much stronger than they were in previous games. No matter what armor you equip, it’s hard to protect Shanoa because I’m pretty sure she’s made of paper-mache. There are three solutions to this: more conservative fighting (which only goes so far but was my chosen technique), leveling up before attempting the newer stages, or being lucky enough to score a random power drop that greatly enhances Shanoa’s ability to progress.

Shanoa’s lack of physical constitution appears to be a bane for many players of the game because of the handful of boss encounters. Before I go on, I have to say that I enjoyed fighting the bosses. Not necessarily because of the challenge but because they were strategically placed obstacles to block a player’s progress. Some boss encounters are at the end of a stage, blocking a mandatory power that the player must get, and then the player has to trek back to the beginning of the stage to escape. Some bosses are in the middle of a stage. The occasionally boss is at the beginning of the stage, catching most players off guard. Aside from that, many of them fight like Gradius-bosses. They have set patterns you have to recognize, moments where you can’t fight but instead have to spend time dodging, and your character certainly will die if you get hit more than a handful of times. For this reason, the game actually rewards players with in-game medals if they beat a boss without getting hit. (Note: I received not a single medal and don’t plan on it.)

The difficulty boost was necessary because, with the stage setup and everything, the game was just so short. While I’m known to prefer shorter games, this fails to be a good pick-up-and-play title because you can’t zip through it, especially not to the good ending. Shortening the game but adhering to other Castlevania tropes puts this game in an state of being. Shortness suggests quickly shooting through the game; but the experience system suggests that you can’t just run through and get to the end of a stage, the luck stat-based power drop means you won’t necessarily pick up almost necessary abilities for advancement, and the red herring mid-game boss requires you do some exploring of every stage to find what you need to advance. Strangely, this game doesn’t provide any hints to what is necessary for passing the mid-game boss safely until after you’ve defeated him and have achieved the “bad end”. (Even then, it doesn’t share that you’ll have to do some classic Castlevania secret-finding – meaning hitting all walls to find out if they break. At least one was hidden in a Donkey Kong 2-esque manner – just ask Sirlin, who doesn’t seem to enjoy the hotlinking of his pages or something:

Like the Castlevania handhelds before it, Ecclesia tries to bolster its replay value with further exploration, a bonus dungeon, and additional play modes that include a boss rush and the ability to play as another character. Like the Castlevania handhelds before it, I’m uninterested in the additional modes. I’m actually less interested in this game than I was the previous ones because of its length. The short level design and short overall feel of the game made me feel detached from the game playing experience. I wasn’t presented with a world that made me not want to leave it. There’s no longing to exploring the pirate ship under the sea. There’s no longing to return to the “Giant’s Dwelling”. And why do I want to go to a bonus dungeon? It just sounds like more work. The boss rush mode is compelling, but I’m not into timed game play unless I’m playing a racing game. I attempted playing with the new character, but the mode completely foregoes a narrative and provides a strangely overpowered character – who continually levels up mind you, so there’s never a concern about difficulty. The character has ranged attacks, so I was hoping that it would be like playing as Mega Man in a Castlevania-themed world, but it didn’t work. Mega Man feels right because he is consistently powered through the game. One shot to take out weak enemies and between 3 and 10 for stronger ones. So long as you stick to the arm cannon, this is consistent as you progress. This character in Ecclesia kills most enemies in the beginning with three or four shots of his weakest ability – and you’re given four different attacks from the beginning. I played through two stages, advanced a few experience levels, and started killing the most weak enemies with a single shot. One would think it would be fun to take a previously challenging world and walk through it without having to take a breath. It’s not.

Order of Ecclesia is a game that I can’t recommend buying at full price. It’s worth playing through once for the experience of it, because it is another Castlevania game. It’s just lacking something. It feels like a transitional title. The series creator probably wants to change the direction of the series, and this was only a step. Well, here’s a suggestion: Dropping one cliché at a time until something new comes up is not the way to go; newness is not a variant but rather a revolution. (Or, in the case of Mega Man 9, a devolution.)

The Short List
What it did right: the music was the usual high standard of Castlevania titles, the control was tight and concise, each boss was a unique and fun experience in itself, and the map function between stages created an appreciably easy function for advancement…

What it did wrong: …which unfortunately made for an even shorter game than would have been experienced with its already short stages, the powers weren’t varied enough, leveling seems out of place in this style of action-adventure game, the story was boring with the plot twists fairly cliché (for the series), and there’s little to no replay value unless the player is a neurotic completist or obsessed with Castlevania titles