Review: Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

Zan Wiki ReviewFor a moment in late December, and just for a moment, I was transported back in time more than 15 years to a period in my life when desktop computer towers had Turbo buttons, clocked out at around 44 MHz and even the nails-on-chalkboard ping of a consumer-grade 14.4 modem was still a twinkle in some telcom engineer’s eye. It was, truly, a frightening time with much uncertainty.

But this momentary time travel, contained wholly in my mind’s eye, was not so much a sadomasochistic jaunt into non-digital caveman times as it was one into a time period that also happened to be steeped in rich video game/PC gaming nostalgia. You see, while the technology we used was enveloped in an now-unimaginable Dark Age, the game genres we played upon it were some of the most imaginative the world had ever seen. Within minutes of loading a new game, we gamers were transported to fantastical new worlds complete with pirates or space quests, and the mechanical wheezing of a struggling 250 MB hard drive was relegated to being a minor annoyance in the background.

One of the earliest and best examples of this phenomenon was the point-and-click adventure game. 

Rebirth of the Adventure Game: Wii-lease Me

Que the early 90’s and a constant accompaniment of Pearl Jam/STP/Soundgarden mix tapes…

After my neighbor’s 44 MHz Compaq Presario — encased in the kind of textured manila plastic shell that would make a modern day Steve Jobs projectile vomit — would load up Monkey Island, the next few hours would be filled with our simple silence. The quiet was filled on occasion by some MIDI music and sound effects and a generous amount of mouse clicking, but other than that we’d be engrossed in the colorful world before us and the plethora of options available to explore it. What was really amazing as I look back upon it all was the fact that those worlds, while populated with barely moving sprites and choose-you-own adventure styled structured storytelling, were ten times more rich and engaging than their Cell-processor powered offspring are today.

When I was finished getting my butt kicked in Monkey Island I would head home to my family’s Apple PowerMac 6100/60AV and play the original Myst (well, I’d load it up and then go have dinner — those FMV sequences with the nasty blue and red brothers bantering on about their books took a while to load into memory, didn’t they?). It was much more hands-off in terms of what kinds of directions the game offered the player, but the premise of the adventure game was still there in earnest: everything you needed to complete it was available on screen for you to discover (through conventional or decidedly un-conventional thinking and clicking).

But back to that moment of Zen I had back in late December…

I had heard about Zack and Wiki earlier in the year, during the summer doldrums that see every video game publisher ramp up the ports, the Hannah Montanas and the general shovelware schlock that signifies they recognize the fact that little boys and girls prefer to be outside when its sunny and mild, and not couped up playing Halo or Mario on Dad’s new 42″ HDTV (I’ll make one exception to that — Mario Strikers Charged was and still is a blast). It’s part of the business, but then again it’s always nice to see this time used wisely; as in to promote new, original IP for a system that absolutely craves that kind of content like a Spears sister craves being pregnant.

Capcom did just that with Z&W. The Wiimote and the point and click adventure are a duo that is more Calvin and Hobbes than Calvin and Hobbes, and apparently some genius within the publishing behemoth Capcom saw that and got to work. That Z&W would be the first such adventure game for the Wii had me worried at first, but then again the fact that a publisher was even taking a risk and trying in this day and age pretty much negated those worries as the progressive in me took over full force. Luckily for both Capcom and myself, any worry I had about game quality was also overcome when I popped the disc in the day after Christmas.

Barbaros’ Treasure: Mastery though simplicity

Graphically, Z&W is pretty slick. It’s got that half-anime vibe going on, and developers take note: I think this kind of style will mesh well with the Wii’s hardware. Either that, or go the No More Heroes route. Or Celda. The list continues, but the point is you can have a graphically superior game on the Wii today so long as you use more than the “it has to look super realistic to be fun!” ideas adequately compartmentalized and away from the Wii SDK. I was never once removed from the spirit of the game due to a graphical glitch or out of place sprite. There are no Tiger Woods 2007 deer polluting the background of this title, and never once did I see anything graphically that led me to believe developers had run out of ideas.

That said, the game mechanics also work because of other subtle graphical choices made by the developers. Because this is point and click, static backgrounds can be colorful and simple, and the focus can be on the items that matter to the player and completing the level. One of the criticisms of earlier games like Monkey Island was that key items could often be lost or “invisible” to the player, making some levels hard to beat regardless of skill level. Other criticisms involved too much information or too many commands. Maniac Mansion, which will be remembered as a solid adventure title for the NES, falls into this category.

In this regard, LittleBigPlanet, which at first was on my list as a potential 2-D platform trailblazer in the next-gen era, is quickly becoming the antithesis of a game like Z&W, and is indicative of the confusion, IMO, that pervades the horsepower segment of the industry today. Case in point: Controls have been rated sub-par for this title even as viewers gush over the graphics and voluntarily ignore the interactive level design menus, which as far as screenshots can tell number into the hundreds if not thousands. An underlying theme of “what’s the point?” also runs through each and every discussion of that game, even as “it will save the industry!” quotes ride alongside. Peculiar, although not entirely unexpected. Regardless, it’s good to see a simple, fun and sharp looking game like Z&W proving that formula will be easier on players and therefore better for publishers. Throw in a basic level design editor invoking a few tools that can be used in hundreds of ways and I think you’ have one of the more “almost perfect” games on the Wii thus far.

Simplity is beauty

With Z&W, the point is simple: solve puzzles using the tools available. A pre-level fly by gives you some points of interest and then its up to you to use logic and sharp observations of your surroundings to figure out the rest. Quirky Wiimote controlled actions conjure up images of Metroid Prime 3 and Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, and do so without feeling tacked on or too difficult to execute as intended.

You need a torch? Grab a wooden stick that you just made from a locked gate using a saw that used to be a centipede and then hold it over a nearby fire. Oh, you turned the centipede into a saw by waving the Wiimote in your hand like a bell (that turns your flying monkey Wiki friend into a bell). Sound confusing? It’s not, and many of the actions you perform involve a variety of positions that are shown graphically to you the first time though (again, think Wario).

Speaking of Wario, Z&W is the first example of an effect that I mentioned back when that title came out: While Smooth Moves might be seen as a worthless collection of mini-games by some, those games were actually serving as the foundation and inspiration for other games in the future. So, be critical of the fact that a system seems to have a lot of mini games, but don’t be critical of the innovation those individual games might be fertilizing for the future, ok? Of course, that involves long term thinking.

Monkey Island Wii

Sure, Monkey Island is a PC game, but the big bucks today are in the console business guys! Doubt it? Compare units sold of any game that’s come out for both PC and Xbox, or PC and PS3, etc. I sincerely doubt we’ll see another Crysis-like undertaking any time soon, for a variety of money- and time-related issues.

Like the mini games that undoubtedly inspired parts of Z&W, I hope that Z&W will inspire developers to see what’s possible on the Wii. Even if Z&W is not a commercial success (which, sadly, it might not be), it is an artistic success. For a system that’s currently ripe for some serious 3rd party development, I’d argue that for now at least, an artistic win is as equally important to monetary one.

Even so, you’re doing your game library (or GameFly account) a disservice by not owning this game. It’s fun, simple, and boasts character that games with 10 times the budget and buzz can’t touch. Here’s hoping other publishers sack up like Capcom did and continue to create new titles in this medium, refine them, and then create some more.

3.5 stars out of 4

Food for thought and related reading: When the heck is AmbrosiaSW going to start pumping out Escape Velocity ports onto the Wii Ware service? Point and click combined with Asteroids on super steroids and a killer arcing storyline? FTW already!!!