My mother loves playing Zuma. So does my mother-in-law. While I thought that the plink-plunk-plink-plunk of their favorite game wasn't for me, I discovered that the sequel might actually be a hardcore gamers' kind of game, for better and worse.
Zuma's Revenge is the PC/Mac sequel to the multi-million selling Zuma, itself one of those PopCap games from the era of PopCap games that seemed to be awfully similar to other, already-released games (in this case, see Magnetica/Puzzle Loop). The simple Zuma design presents single-screen level after level of snaking pathways that each point toward holes in the ground. Rolling onto the pathway are colored marbles that, if they reach that hole, end the game. To prevent failure, players control a frog-shaped turret that is usually placed in the middle of the screen. With clicks of the mouse in the direction of the desired target, the frog will shoot colored marbles at those in the advancing path. Marbles are eliminated by matching three of the same color, or by power-ups such as bombs, slowdown or direction-reversals. Eliminate all the marbles clears the stage.
Zuma's sequel adds a large helping of new content based on that concept — so much content that it took me longer to beat the game's main campaign than it did Halo 3: ODST. Moms may love this game too, but now I know the truth: With boss battles, a steep difficulty spike and an elaborate series of fights needed to clear its campaign, Zuma's Revenge might as well be a hardcore gamer's game.
The Going Gets Tough: The early, all-new stages of Zuma's Revenge's 60-level campaign are so easy that they can instill in a son the unhealthy skepticism of a mom's gaming ability. If her games are this easy, perhaps she's merely been wading in the kiddie pool of gaming all these Zuma-loving years? Then the game ramps up and mom is absolved. The marbles roll faster, and one learns that finding and using power-ups are essential. My favorite power-up, new for the sequel, eliminates all marbles of a certain color. One discovers the deep scoring system that makes a challenge out of even the easiest levels. The campaign got so brutal I thought I was playing a Capcom game on hard. That's a level of difficulty I can't enjoy in console action games anymore, but in a puzzle game that has so few parameters and that can be re-started and retried so easily, I welcome it. Moms who play this game far are in the gaming deep end as much of the rest of us. They are performing precision shooting, aiming with a mouse, you know (A suggestion to anyone who struggles: Don't play full-screen; the game's easier when played in a window.)
Smart, If Infrequent, Level Cleverness: In only 20 levels my complaints about the game's difficulty were disposed of. It took longer to get over my despair that the levels in Zuma's Revenge can be uninteresting. I'm sure there are a finite number of ways to snake a path of marbles past the rotating statue of a frog it seems. But cherish the levels where PopCap opted for ingenuity: Levels in which the fog can hop to another lily pad, needing to alternate between two of them for its sniping position; Levels in which part of the snaking path is shielded by stone; Levels that have two paths leading to two possibly game-ending maws. I wish the developers had included more design twists in their 60 campaign levels, but there wind up being just enough to make this a positive. The levels that don't break ground are still generally challenging and fun to play.
The Wrong Lessons Learned: If playing Zuma's Revenge introduces my mother to some of the worst design aspects of the last two decades' worth of hardcore games, then I think she deserves an apology. All of you game creators out there who are guilty, please say you're sorry. The first foul is locking a lot of content. In the year 2009, a puzzle game need not have its harder campaign mode, its ultimate "Iron Frog" gauntlet mode, and much of its 70 score-based challenge maps mode — all three modes which are displayed on the game's front menu from the start — locked off to the player until they've completed the game's campaign. That's an archaic amount of content-locking for a game that's been paid for.
Also undesirably old-school was the developers' decision to bounce the player back to a checkpointed level (the nearest preceding multiple of five) after the player runs out of lives. Level 57 might be a back-breaker, but there's no joy, after failing at it for five times, to have to replay Level 56. And boss battles… They add little to this game, as they add little to so many games (Hello, Arkham Asyum). That written, I have to acknowledge the hilarious inclusion of one hardcore gaming boss trope: The multiple-form final boss who will… not… stay… dead. I thought the game ended four different times.
You can download the free version of Zuma's Revenge and test most of my analysis yourself. Or you could ask your mom about this game, because there's a strong chance she's already played it or its predecessor. Let her teach you about games for once.
I was happy to play Zuma's Revenge, even if I wished for a little more progressive free-thinking and a little less adoption of some ideas I wish could just collect dust in the past. I feel like I understand my mother just a little better now. Plus, Zuma's Revenge has one of gaming's magically perfect maneuvers. Just as any self-respecting gamer should perform the triple-jump in Super Mario 64, shame on you if you never experience a Double Gap Shot in a Zuma game. Whether you pay to unlock the rest, well… judge for yourself.
(Zuma's Revenge was developed and published by PopCap Games on September 15. Retails for $19.95 USD. Cleared the 60-mission campaign in a whopping 6 hours, 41 minutes. Played some Challenge levels. Got beaten to a pulp in Iron Frog. Wondered if the people on my NYC-Tokyo flight thought I was a nut for playing the game on my laptop even though its omnipresent predecessor was available to be played on the small screens embedded in the back of every seat.)
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.