Saturday, 21 October 2017

Zool 2 (Amiga)

Developer:The Warp Factory|Release Date:1994 (A500 1993)|Systems:Amiga, DOS, CD32, Jaguar

Today Super Adventures has been struck by extreme serendipity. I've been playing Amiga games this month to celebrate the Amiga 500's 30th anniversary, but today is also the Amiga 1200's 25th anniversary! Also, and I didn't even realise this until someone else pointed it out to me the other day, this is my 1200th post on the site.

Seems like this is the perfect time for me to go back and replay one of the very first A1200 games I ever owned: Zool 2: AGA Version. I found it packed inside the same box as the machine itself, as it was one of the three games included in the 'Computer Combat' bundle. Shame I couldn't find the bloody code wheel that came with it ever again, after I took it out and left it somewhere. I had to play Brian the Lion instead, which kind of took some of the shine off my brand new computer.

Well that, and the fact that the A1200 turned out to only be a slight upgrade from the A500, with games that were typically the same except with obnoxious backgrounds added. It wasn't exactly the leap from NES to SNES. But I'm writing this to celebrate my beloved computer, the first I ever owned, not point out its numerous flaws, so I should get to pointing out Zool 2's flaws already.



I pressed 'fire' for options like it asked and got this distorted image of the box art to look at. For some reason, they've stuck the writing over the bit that isn't empty space, but you can still just about make out that there's a second character on the right, and it's her whip that's forming the number 2 in the title. So that's cool.

The first game gave me the option to change the game speed, number of continues, amount of inertia and the style of music, but I've been presented with a more traditional selection this time around. They've even given me a music/fx option that doesn't let me pick both, which seems pretty damn old school for a game from 1993.

I'll switch it to 'music' because I'm sure I'll do just fine without any audio feedback to let me when there's danger or I'm taking damage. Stick me in an isolated bubble of music entirely cut off from all audio stimulus.

It's officially confirmed: Zool is a green dude wearing a black ninja mask.

Now I have to choose whether I want to play as Zool or female Zool (Zooz). There's absolutely zero difference in their gameplay and moveset as far as I remember, so this is mostly a cosmetic choice. Except sometimes Zooz will be able to smash through a bit of floor and take a different route to Zool.

The plot of the game is that a guy called Mental Block is attacking the mind lines of imagination to submit the Nth dimension to total boredom, and Zool has to stop him. But it's too dangerous for him to go alone this time, so he has to take a partner... who never appears with him in the same level. Even in two player mode the two characters take on each of the stages separately, with players basically alternating between two unconnected playthroughs whenever someone finishes a level or dies. It's not great.

The game never actually reveals any of the backstory in-game by the way, it's all in the manual. Though the CD versions utilise the immense storage capacity of the compact disc to include this clip of Zool knocking himself out on a wall like an idiot.

CD32
How could have not seen it? The wall's the only object that exists in his world. Well, aside from Zooz, but she's leaning against the thing!

Then again, whenever I see that face of hers getting closer I get an urge to look the other direction too. 90s CGI can be cruel.

Fortunately, they decided not to pull a Donkey Kong Country and render the whole game like that, so I can look forward to hand-pixelled art from now on.

Man, look at how much attitude Zool has there; he could give Sonic the Hedgehog a run for his money when it comes to standing there and waiting for the player to do something. In fact, I'm still not 100% convinced he isn't Sonic in a ninja costume.

Oh damn, I'm so used to seeing Zool standing next to Chupa Chups logos that I almost didn't notice that they've infiltrated the sequel as well. I guess that lollipop product placement deal must have worked out for everyone involved first time around.


SWAN LAKE, STAGE 1.


Zool status: yes. Yes it is.

This is exactly the same as the first game, just polished up a bit. Zool is still a nimble little ninja gremlin-thing capable of spinning through the air with his blades out, sliding across the ground, shooting energy bullets, and landing on heads, all with a one-button joystick! Though he can't land on these things because that seems to hurt him, weirdly.

He also has to collect a lot of floating trash along the way, some of it spilling out of the enemies he kills. Because sometimes baby birds have ducks in them and they must be collected in great quantities to open the exit.

Zool himself has had a bit of an overhaul between games, getting streamlined ears, gigantic eyes and a bigger belt buckle. I guess he skipped leg day though because they haven't changed one bit.

Here's a YouTube link to the music by the way. It's... alright I reckon.

Hey, I found a Chupa Chups logo! These are the item blocks I can headbutt to get a powerup (a Z shield in this case). Now I just need to find my Zool sprite so I can get him over there. It's not a great idea to have a green and black background when you're going to put a black and green character in front of it.

I should be jumping from egg to egg across this pit, collecting all the floating junk along the way, but now I've got Z shield invulnerability I feel like jumping in and seeing what I can find down there. I have to get something like 99% of items to escape the exit, so I really need to explore every corner.

Though somehow I expect that % meter's up there's going to reach 99 long before I've cleaned this place out...

... especially if I keep finding secret passages behind destructible walls leading to additional treasure! Jumping into the pit is paying off.

I'm having a bit of problem though with all this crap that gets sprayed around whenever I destroy something. I'm trying to pay attention the bullets that bird in the background's spitting out at me, but all I can see is wall debris.

The game's technically amazing for an Amiga platformer considering how slick it is, but it suffers from a real lack of readability. I can't identify enemies, items and pickups at a glance against the busy background and flying particles.

I mean look at this mess. The birds are tiny, the feather item looks like the background, and the red dots from an exploding enemy look like the little hitpoint heart that just flew out of it.

It'd be helpful if I could see those hearts immediately as they're not dropped all that often, they tend to fly away on tiny wings, and I need them to live. Maybe they could've made them glow or flash, or given them an outline, or perhaps made them bigger than 7 pixels across.

Amiga 500
Taking away the parallax background really seems to help though, as I'm finding the Amiga 500 version to be easier to play. The occasional slowdown helps too as it gives me more time to react.

Apart from that, I can't really see much difference between the A500 version and the A1200 AGA game, aside from the transparent HUD making the less advanced version look more modern. All the art in the foreground looks pretty much identical to me here on both systems.

Atari Jaguar
The game wasn't ported to many systems this time, but it made it to the Atari Jaguar and this time the level art did get an upgrade, with a shinier Zool sprite and enhanced egg gradients.

Those terrible mountains and clouds in the background don't look like they could've been a step up from anything, but that flat blue colour is exactly what the objects in the foreground aren't, and that's a big help when it comes to spotting them in the chaos.

Zool (CD32)
It's definitely better than what happened when they gave Zool 1's backgrounds an upgrade. There's nothing about this that's helpful!

Ah, this is one of those branching paths I was talking about earlier, where Zooz can smash through the floor and Zool has to go around the other way and break through a ceiling. I'm at 88% items now though so there can't be much of the level left.

I beat the stage, and my reward is... fireworks and some items I don't need anymore, great.

Actually, I like that it pauses for a moment to let me savour my victory. It's another little touch that makes the game feel more polished and finished than its predecessor. Zool 1's far too busy for this kind of thing; it immediately cuts to black the moment you touch the exit medal and then jumps directly to the 'level complete' screen.


SWAN LAKE, STAGE 2.


Zool can climb walls now instead of just hopping up the side, which is cool, but he still can't hurt the creatures that are invariably patrolling the sides. I even tried smart bombing them with one of the bomb powerups that have been floating around me with zero effect.

I'm all out of hitpoints so I'm likely going to get blown up trying to leap over to the next bird feeder, but there's nothing else I can do. The controls are really good and responsive most of the time, but man I struggle with walls.

Oh for fuck's sake...

I was 19% short on items when I reached the exit, so I had to go backtrack for items and ended up running into one of those bullets I can rarely see. On the plus side, I found another bonus icon during my doomed run, and it won't take long to get back here as I hit a checkpoint recently.

MS-DOS
Aha, I knew that empty wall behind the bouncing bonus pickup would be destructible! Inside I found a stash of lollipops big enough to get the item meter to 99 without the hassle of backtracking further or grinding enemies.

This is the DOS version of the game, though you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for the Jaguar version as looks pretty much the same. It's a hell of a lot better looking than the PC version of Zool 1, as it's got backgrounds and everything.

I love that nest full of baby bird beaks by the way; it's an imaginative way to dress up spikes. They're still going to hurt though when I screw up trying to headbutt the Chupa Chups box and fall right in. These walls are going to be my doom.

CD32
The only other port I'm aware of is the CD32 version, which is basically just the AGA A1200 version, except with CD music and toilet rolls. Stacks of toilet rolls, as far as the eye can see. Also a frog in a bubble.

They've gone and added this new world, Paper Plains, at the start as a beginner level to get people used to the game before they're dropped into the deep end of Swan Lake. It makes sense to me, as the bird stages are a harsh introduction to the game. They're likely less cruel than the first world of Zool 1 though.

Also, the magic of the CD32 means that you can have music and sound effects at the same time! It's not the same music though, as for some reason they decided to do new tracks instead of remaking the original tunes.


SWAN LAKE, STAGE 3.


Oh damn, so many perfect and semi-perfect wall jumps in a row! Then I screwed up twice and it ruined everything. Game over.

I'd choose to continue, but they took the continues out this time, and there's no passwords, so all I can do is accept defeat. Then I'm going to knock the difficulty level down to 'easy' and try again as Zooz. I should probably make a second attempt to get somewhere on normal difficulty first before making it easier, but I don't want to, so I won't.


BACK TO SWAN LAKE, STAGE 3 AGAIN (EASY MODE).


Man, even the levels with a boss at the end want me to get 99% items before he'll appear. Sure would be nice if I was exploring the levels because I want to, not because I'm scared it'll send me backtracking to collect more trash if I don't.

Anyway, this is the villain, Mental Block, and this me shooting him in the chin and eyebrow. I also jump on his head sometimes, just to take a break from getting hit by those little boxes he shoots out of his brain hole. It's a simple boss fight, but I'm able to make it look challenging.


BULBERRY HILL, STAGE 1.


The second world has a very electronic theme to it... just like world 2 of the first game. Though this time the harmless-looking cables along the walls give me a shock when I touch them.

Safe (Zool 1)Deadly (Zool 2)
Funnily enough, the giant laser beams being fired across the screen are actually harmless. In fact, I have to walk on them to get around. I guess the moral of the story is: just jump onto stuff... you can always grind to get hit points back if it hurts you.

Sonic 2 much?

To be honest I'm happier with them ripping off a good game than I would've been if this had been a complete clone of world 2 from the first game. There's no giant pianos I have to remember tunes for here, no violins shooting me whenever I try to get up onto a ledge, no blind drops over spike pits... well okay there might be a tiny little bit of that last one.

Another thing it does differently to the first game is that it actually has a different tune for this new world! In Zool 1 you pick your music at the start and stick with it. Or better yet, you don't, because the sound effects are more helpful and immersive. I should've switched this to 'fx' when I started again as Zooz and had the music playing on YouTube instead.

I finally found a third bonus icon! My reward: more loading. It's what I deserve.

Okay, it seems like the bonus stage is... and it's gone. Well, fuck.

I guess I'll just go and collect another three dog icons and try again then.

Amiga 500
Here's the Amiga 500 version of the bonus stage instead, seeing as I didn't immediately lose this time around. It's basically Arkanoid, except there's a twist! The twist is that there is no twist. You bounce the ball off the dog(s), hit the bricks, collect the power-ups, get extra balls, lose them off the bottom of the screen, and so on.

I don't really want to bounce balls off the dog though; Zoon seems like he's suffering enough already. Well, half of him is anyway.


BULBERRY HILL, STAGE 3.


I've reached the second boss, and it's the same bloke as the first boss! Seems that Mental Block's going to pull a Robotnik and harass me through the whole game.

This time he's slamming down on me in the form of a glass light bulb, which is apparently the toughest light-themed device he could think of. Meanwhile, the electrodes up there are sending sparks down that I also have to dodge.

The bad news is that I really suck at dodging them both. The good news is that when I lose a life in here I don't lose any progress; I just continue the fight from exactly where I left off.


TOOTING COMMON, STAGE 1.


Defeating Mental Block cost me the last of my lives, but I've made it through to the Egyptian Zone!

Sometimes game artists look at their own desk for inspiration and you get a bunch of disks and joysticks as collectable items. This time it seems he looked over at his Deluxe Paint manual:

I was doing pretty well on this level... until I started doing badly and got Game over'd. In my defence, I can barely see the little blue saw blades on the walls against the green background. Not that I'd be able to dodge them even if I could.

I'm going to give the game one last go, but this time I'm switching to the A500 version where I can at least see things against the background. And I'm remembering to turn the sound effects on.


TOOTING COMMON, STAGE 2.


Amiga 500
Agh, bright magenta? I'll be lucky if I can see anything at all after I'm done staring at this.

It doesn't help that I've been stuck in this same stage forever trying to figure out where it wants me to go. I've barely made any progress and I'm already at 65% items due to all the respawning enemies I've smashed.

Though I'm doing better now that I've worked out that I can shoot invisible intangible blocks to make them manifest as physical objects. The hidden blocks occasionally gleam for a half-second to let me know where they are, so I've got to look out for that as I'm spinning around the level full-speed.

Amiga 500
At least I figured out the trick to getting past this bit on the first try. Zool's got a new move in the game that lets him pull off a ninja somersault that gets him a little extra height, and this is apparently the part of the game where it's useful! This one block, right here.

I'm definitely getting a lot of use out of his classic aerial spin move lately though, as it's much easier to pull off than in the first game. Spinning lets me kill enemies in the air and even seems to deflect bullets, so it's rare that I ever let go of the fire button. In fact, I might as well keep 'jump' held down as well seeing as I can only spin while I'm in the air. I'll just keep bouncing everywhere.


TOOTING COMMON, STAGE 3.


Amiga 500
The level design hasn't been as frustrating as in Zool 1 so far, but it's getting there.

Here I have to ride pillars up and then jump to shoot invisible blocks to form platforms for later. It took me a long while to figure this out, especially as I kept slipping and falling back down to the start of the level. In fact, it took me too long, as now I've only got 47 seconds left; not enough to for me to make it up there to use the bloody things. I'm hoping they're going to have the courtesy to stick around for me after Zool explodes and reappears at the last checkpoint with one less life in the tank.

This is actually the first time that the timer's been a problem for me, probably because I keep getting Zool killed and resetting the time. Makes me wonder why he even got the time bomb implanted in him in the first place.

Amiga 500
Hey, look who it is again. Mental Block's attacking me pretty much the same way he did when he was a light bulb, but this time he's slamming the pillars down a little each time he lands and I'm fast running out of floor here.

Amiga 500
Well, that was never going to end well. Still probably a better boss fight than the ones in the first game though.

That's about the halfway point of the game I think. After you beat this guy there's Snakes and Ladders world, fizzy drink world, one stage of imagination world (without checkpoints) and then you're done. Then you get an ending picture of the heroes posing in front of a strange domed city menaced by spooky sky eyes.

Look at that creature's expression on the right. That's the face of someone who's just realised which end of the dog he is.


CONCLUSION

The original Zool is a pain in the ass. Sure it was a real technical achievement to get a mascot platformer running so slick on an Amiga 500 and it's fun for a while, but I found it to be a real drain on my patience and the second boss is as far as I'll ever get in it.

Zool 2, on the other hand, is a little bit less of a pain in the ass. Harlequin developers The Warp Factory took over from Gremlin Graphics and improved on their gameplay in almost every department... slightly. The levels are a bit less cruel, the bosses are more interesting, the terrible AGA backgrounds are less terrible, and it's much more fun to bounce around blade-spinning everywhere now. It's got a good feel to it and it doesn't look bad either.

On the other hand, it's still just as much of a collect 'em up, forcing you to take stupid risks to grab as many floating items as possible to avoid getting trapped near the exit and having to grind enemies for items as the timer ticks down. It's also really easy to slip while you're doing this and fall right back down the level, and this only gets more likely as the game goes on. Those later stages are a real nightmare sometimes even with invulnerability on and 99% items unlocked from the start (I... may have beaten the game with cheat codes afterwards to take that screenshot of the ending picture).

Plus they've taken out the option to have continues and there's no passwords, which seems unreasonably harsh. Also, the two-player option is less useful than just passing the joystick between players after each stage, and having to pick between music or fx is just archaic (and if you choose sound effects you have to put up with a bloody heartbeat sound throughout the game). And I've already gone on about the lack of readability. You can’t always recognise threats, bullets, and collectable trash at a glance, and considering how fast everything comes at you from all angles that’s not good.

But there is one nice thing I can say about it: all the ports are recognisably the same game this time, music and graphics aside, and none of them stood out to me as being terrible:
  • Amiga 500: Bland backgrounds and some slowdown, but you can see what you're doing better.
  • Amiga 1200 AGA: Slick and hard to see what you're doing.
  • Amiga CD32: Same as AGA, except with CGI clips, simultaneous music and fx, a bonus world and no floppy disks to swap.
  • MS-DOS: Pretty good, with more colours, less distracting backgrounds and no loading times.
  • Atari Jaguar: Same as the DOS game more or less, except with a bit of slowdown.
I didn't hate Zool 2, aside from the times when I did. "Oh for fuck's sake..." was exclaimed many times this day in anger. But then I thought about the 50 other Amiga platformers I've played over the years and I can't honestly say this compares badly. In fact, this probably makes my top 10, maybe even top 5, which is a definite sign I need to find some better Amiga platformers. You could do much worse than this though; it's extremely competently made if nothing else.



Amiga month will continue with... another Amiga game. Unless it doesn't. I've given up trying to predict the future.

Hey, leave a comment maybe.

1 comment:

  1. The Zool games have always frustrated me because they were almost good. If only there had been a little more playtesting and quality control, they would have been remembered as classics.

    ReplyDelete

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