Zoocube is a lot of fun, but the game is hurt slightly by the confines of the GBA while at the same time being the perfect portable puzzler. Get the details inside.
At E3 I got a mere taste of the GameCube version of Zoocube. I found the game to be very interesting but also a bit confusing at the same time. Now that I’ve spent hours with the GBA port of the game, the confusion is gone, but the interest remains. Zoocube is a fun game at its core, but squeezing the game into the graphic capabilities of the GBA has sacrificed some of its playability on the alter of portability. Still, the game’s fun factor remains largely in tact, and the game is very well suited to the hand-held realm.
Gameplay in Zoocube is a bit hard to describe since the game is unique. The player controls a small cube. The goal is to collect pieces of varying shape on each of the six faces of this cube. The pieces fall from the top center of the screen, and the bottom left and right. To remove pieces, they must be paired with another piece of the same kind by rotating the cube so that the appropriate growing column of pieces will catch the incoming piece. When two pieces are removed in this way, they often give off little power-ups that add to your score and sometimes affect the gameplay (faster cube rotation, bombs etc.). The B and R buttons cause all of the columns on the cube to shuffle so that the top piece moves to the bottom or vice versa. The A button causes the closest incoming piece to be “locked” to that particular side of the cube so that even when you turn the cube it turns with it. The control pad causes the cube to rotate in the direction that the pad is pressed, but incase you didn’t notice, there are only four directions on the D-pad, but a cube can rotate in six. This is where the GBA port begins to encounter difficulties. The first problem is a lack of buttons. Ideally, L and R would handle the other two rotation directions, but instead L acts as a toggle in conjunction with the D-pad to pick up the other two directions (although the game is very playable without using the L button on the earlier levels, it becomes very necessary to survival in the long run). Then you have the column shuffling buttons, which would have been well suited to side-by-side face buttons, but the GBA only has two face buttons (and three are needed). Another problem is that the shape of the GBA screen severely cuts off your view of pieces falling from above. There are indicators (similar to the “next” indicator in Tetris) that let you know when pieces are about to fall, but both indicator styles are difficult to read. What this amounts to is that the game gets so difficult towards the end of level four (there are seven levels) that I can’t beat it. Still, the game is quite fun.
There are three modes of gameplay, however they are basically the same. Classic is what I described above. Knockout plays the same except that you start each level with pieces on the cube that must be cleared rather than catching and clearing. Finally, Knockout Blind is Knockout minus the color. All of the pieces are shaded gray forcing you to rely on shape. This is incredibly difficult on the resolution and lighting limited GBA.
Graphically Zoocube is pretty good, but it’s a puzzle game so you certainly shouldn’t expect mind-blowing graphics. The amazing number of sprites is notable though. Each piece (and there are over twenty shapes for the higher levels) has many pre-rendered animations so that you can recognize it on any of the six faces of the cube. Rotation is smooth on lower levels, but some slow down starts to occur as the pieces pile on (which incidentally helps you live a little longer on the harder levels). The designers wisely provided a software brightness and contrast control that can be accessed from the pause menu to deal with low lighting. Backgrounds change as you progress through the game. Most look nice, but some are also distracting to the gameplay. The game appears very crisp in normal lighting. With the Afterburner installed, the colors are a little bit less attractive, but everything shines vibrantly making it really easy to play in complete darkness if necessary.
The sound as heard through the GBA speaker is very offensive. The default settings actually have the sound effects on and the music off. I can understand because the music sounds dreadful through the GBA speaker. With decent headphones it’s an entirely different experience. The composition of the few musical tracks is a bit eccentric, but pleasing and appropriate for the game.
Zoocube’s replay value may be rather limited in the long run, but it’s difficult to tell from here. I doubt I’ll ever reach the game’s seventh level, much less beat it (on the GBA anyway), but that doesn’t mean I’ll try forever. Unlike in Tetris, the game’s levels aren’t simply a record of your progress and the difficulty of the game. Each level seems to be preplanned to an extent (the types and number of each piece if not the order that they fall in). This tends to hurt replayability a little. Overall, Zoocube at least provides the key trait of puzzle games, it’s very easy to pick up and play for a little while. There’s very little “overhead”. Ultimately, it may be wise to check out the GameCube version of Zoocube, unless you value the portability that the GBA provides.