Nintendo isn’t the only publisher in town when it comes to leading the casual games charge. PopCap’s lineup, which includes the likes of Feeding Frenzy, Bejeweled, and the surprisingly awesome Peggle, has quite a presence, and has undoubtedly created an impact on the mobile and PC markets. Harkening back to the days of old, Popcap’s games focus more on reaching a high score, rather than the nuance and atmosphere that usually go hand in hand with current generation titles. Zuma, which bears a striking resemblance to the 2006 PSP game Luxor, looks to fill this gap for the Playstation Network.
Zuma’s concept is relatively simple. A frog canon in the middle or side of the screen is instantly surrounded by a constantly replenishing snake-like line of colored balls. With the ball-line always advancing, the game is over if the line makes it all the way to the end point. The canon can fire colored balls, which, when matched in a set of three on the line, will dissolve and reduce the length of the line. Essentially, your goal is to eliminate the line, piece by piece, until no more of it remains. Kill the whole line, win the level, rinse, and repeat.
As with most casual games, simplicity is the core, but not a limitation. A considerably deep scoring structure is present, easily eclipsing the straightforward impression one may initially receive. Combos, where one line is erased and then the two same colored split sides instantly run into each other, can be initiated, which significantly ups the points scored. Link enough combos together and a chain will be formed, which, while difficult, greatly increases your score. Assuming you create a large enough hole, you can fire balls through the gap in the line, cutting the snake off at the tale while yielding a ridiculous amount of points. The number of incoming balls appears to be dependent on the amount of points you’re racking up, so it’s usually a good idea to try and score combos whenever possible.
A couple other random elements are thrown into the mix. Occasionally a few coins appear on the map, and nabbing a few of those will dramatically increase your score. Additionally, specially marked balls frequently appear in the line, offering a wealth of powerups. The accuracy ball deletes the delay in firing and instantly places your ball in its intended direction, the bomb ball detonates anything in the vicinity, the backwards ball reverses the line (temporarily), and the slowdown ball brings the line’s forward motion to a crawl. The accuracy ball, in particular, feels like a godsend, as the analogue stick controls feel like they were built for something as precise as a mouse. Anyway, all of these also add points to your total, which greatly assist in your end-level score.
Some concessions were made to help round Zuma out of its Flash origins and onto home consoles. An adventure mode is present, which starts you out with three lives (more can be earned) to navigate through 13 levels. Some levels only have four stages, but a few have six and, either way, the progression in difficulty is fairly standard. I was breezing through the game until I got to 4-3, when I seemed to hit a wall (protip: chains are important!). A gauntlet mode is also present, which is basically an infinitely long survival mode. Trophies round out the package, which have objectives like beat a stage in eight seconds or make twenty straight chains.
Zuma’s presentation leaves a little to be desired. The intro and loading screens like straight out of the 8-bit generation, and the actual game lacks any sort of distinctive flair. Similarly, the sound effects are crisp, but merely passable and free of any bells or whistles associated with current generation software. Looping the same background song over and over won’t score points with many people, either. Given, a gameplay focused casual title like Zuma shouldn’t really need to blow you away with eye and ear candy, but it would have been nice to see something that would stop reminding me I could probably be playing this in my web browser.
That point also presents the question of necessity. I liked playing Zuma and I think it’s competent in its design, but I don’t feel that a game like this belongs on the PS3. I wasn’t expecting an exceptionally produced, full retail title or anything, but I was in search of a unique experience. With similarly priced games like Flower, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, or PixelJunk Eden available, who has the desire for something as mundane as Zuma? I want my tastes to be challenged and I want to feel like I’m playing something only possible on the current generation of hardware, not a rehash of a game I could easily find in a bar or on a cell phone. Zuma is a fine game and I’m sure the intended audience won’t know the difference, but I don’t feel that it’s an appropriate use of the medium.