Retro Review: Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension (SNES) – NichePlays

Released in 1992, Zool is a 2D platformer for the Commodore Amiga. The game revolves around it’s titular gremlin on a quest to become a ninja as he travels through several worlds loaded with baddies, fruit, and collectables waiting to be nabbed.

Prior to it’s release, Zool was heavily marketed as a Sonic the Hedgehog killer, due to the games emphasis on speed based action. Rifling through a few of the ads that were out at the time, you could tell that the games developers, Gremlin Graphics, were really out for blood and that they were interested in trying to cement the character as the de facto mascot of the Amiga. However despite strong reviews for the Amiga release of the game, Zool wasn’t really destined to stay a system exclusive, and would make it’s way over to a variety of other devices such as the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo (which happens to be the version that I’ll be reviewing today and was published by GameTek). 

Now I’ve personally never played Zool, but I do remember seeing the Genesis and Super Nintendo ports of the game for sale at my local retro game store fairly often when I was younger. Zool kinda reminds me of Bonk or Bubsy in the sense that, while I never played his games growing up, I feel a weird attachment to his character through the familiarity of seeing his game everywhere over the years.  

And seeing as the character was intended to compare with Sonic the Hedgehog, my favorite gaming character of all time, I was honestly pretty excited to play through this one.

But… does it hold up?

Because while Zool’s Amiga release got good reviews and a sequel, it’s not like anyone has really done anything meaningful with the character since the 90’s, which makes me a little worried for how well his game fares on the Super Nintendo. While the Amiga has it’s fans and is a console I’d love to one day properly dive into the catalogue of, the fact that Zool didn’t continue to get sequels on the SNES or Genesis makes me worried that his first adventure may not stack up when compared to the platforming competition that those consoles have to offer. And that’s not a knock on any Amiga or Zool fans out there, it’s just that Nintendo and Sega’s 16-bit hardware have some really steep competition when it comes to platformers.

Gameplay

Zool takes place across 7 different worlds, with each of them containing a different theme such as a candyland, a music world, or a toy room. In each of the levels, you’re tasked with collecting a set number of that stages pick up that’s shown on the bottom left of the screen, before following the arrow next to it in order to reach the exit. From there, it’s just a matter of playing through each of the world’s four stages, fighting the boss at the end of that last one, and then rinsing and recycling that process on the next level.


Zool has a couple of abilities up his sleeve to help you fight enemies and navigate through each of the games levels. Aside from the genre staples of running and jumping, Zool has the ability to throw projectiles at his enemies in order to eliminate them, and can even perform a spinning attack while in mid-air. He also has the ability to do a power slide, which allows him to travel underneath spiked areas and can serve as an attack.

Zool also happens to be a quick little Gremlin who blasts off at full speed from the slightest tilt of the D-Pad, a quirk that honestly leads to him feeling really hard to control and that’s sure to make players approach these levels all the more cautiously. If you’ve ever played Bubsy’s 2D games, Zool’s movement feels really similar to that in the sense that both games scoff in the face of acceleration. If you compare the movement and physics of a game like Zool to Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s night and day. Part of what makes Sonic’s 2D Genesis games so fun to play is the amount of control you have over the characters movement, and how the physics of that movement operate within the confines of a fairly realistic, but greatly exaggerated, understanding of concepts like acceleration and gravity. But Zool? Well, it’s more like Flubber doing it’s own thing.


Honestly though, the games central idea of being a 2D collect-a-thon sounds alright on paper, but fails to live up to it’s potential in execution. I personally found that it forced a level of exploration onto the game that it didn’t seem optimized for. I feel like Zool may’ve been better suited as a game with a simpler objective, such as trying to reach a goal, than as a game that wants players to traverse every nook and cranny of it’s levels for otherwise meaningless pickups, and getting lost in the process. 

And yeah, that’s probably going to end up happening to you at least a couple of times when you’re playing through the game because levels like to recycle assets and seemingly even some of their layouts, leading to things becoming a confusing and frustrating hall of mirrors for the player. And the worst part? While the game encourages, if not vaguely forces, exploration onto the player by throwing an increasing number of dead ends your way as the game progresses. The most you’ll likely get out of exploring these levels is the opportunity to score more of the levels pickups that are needed to complete the level, but in my playthrough I never really had an issue collecting enough of them to beat the stage without needing to stop and explore to begin with. In fact, the only reason I ever stopped to explore the stages was because I had either gotten lost trying to find the exit, or because the path that contained the exit was obscured behind a hidden wall. Which was really annoying by the way, as the game doesn’t really do much to hint at this being a thing. I even went as far as to track down a copy of the games SNES manual on the Internet Archive to see if they mentioned it there and nope. Nothing.

The manual did mention that, as a valued GameTek customer, you could be eligible for a free introductory membership to Compuserve though.

So that’s cool.

Anyway, the game kinda even teases you into thinking that it’s going to be a laid back linear adventure by having the first stage or two of each world start off with a straightforward and fairly alright linear layout, before sprinkling in maze layouts and gimmicks as the level progresses.

Take for instance level 1-4, which has a chocolate river gimmick that makes Zool move slower than molasses and takes away your ability to jump unless you’re at the edge of a platform. I know I was complaining about how fast this character was just a minute or two ago but that didn’t mean to tie anchors to his legs. It’s almost as if one of the devs was playing Sonic the Hedgehog and wasn’t really impressed until he got to Labyrinth zone, when he went full Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born over the slow moving, trudging gameplay and decided to include that in the game.

However, I don’t think that level gimmicks are necessarily even a bad thing. In fact, games like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze show that, when done right and with a gimmick that isn’t teeth grindingly invasive, they can actually really make for a fun and unique experience. I guess one of my main issues with stuff like that here though is that these gimmicks provide a diversion from the title’s standard mode of play by… making things worse. 

That’s not to say that Zool’s baseline gameplay is anything to write home about though. As I mentioned earlier, movement feels way too sensitive due to the lack of acceleration, and while the inclusion of a projectile attack seems like a good inclusion but can sometimes be frustrating to use due to how hard it can be to actually hit some enemies when you’re in mid-air. 

Plus some of the controls and physics just make little to no sense. For example, Zool slides down inclines automatically, which isn’t that bad in and of itself, but can get frustrating when there’s an enemy on said incline. Plus, you can’t even run up inclines in the game to begin with. Like, you can try to, but Zool’ll just slide down them. Instead, you have to keep jumping up them in a way that quickly grows annoying. It kinda reminds me of trying to force your way up a steep hill in Super Mario 64, only you’re required to do that in order to progress in this game. And while we’re on the subject of jumping, there are a ton of moments when you’ll need to basically take a leap of faith and hope that you won’t land on a spike or enemy that was just off screen. Zool already moves pretty fast to begin with, but once you throw trying to do blind jumps into the mix, avoiding obstacles quickly becomes annoying. It also doesn’t help that the hit detection feels a bit sensitive when it comes to obstacles, as walking into the side of some vertically placed spikes can damage you just as much as falling on top of them would. Could you imagine if that happened in a level like Green Hill Zone?

I know I’ve really been ironing in the Sonic comparisons this week but, when the games marketing goes out of its way to claim Zool is that much better than Sonic and stuff, it’s kinda hard not to. 


Visuals´

Zool does have some pretty great graphics though. Each of the game’s characters are colorfully designed and well detailed, and the game honestly has some great parallax scrolling going on in the backgrounds. The game feels really layered and alive, and even works in some foreground elements to great effect in a couple of its stages. Plus, with unique enemies and pick-ups in each of the games worlds, there’s no denying that Gremlin Graphics did a great job building Zool’s world

However, while Zool looks good on a technical level, the actual implementation of those graphics leaves a bit to be desired. While the level of detail and layering on display here is impressive, it’s also a bit overstimulating due to how fast you move. There’s also something to be said about the game’s color palette, which tends to use darker and extremely saturated colors in a way that I found a bit too contrasty and jarring for my liking. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a darker color palette, I suppose, but it just feels like it obfuscates the designs of the on-screen sprites and makes things a bit harder for the player to process. There are also instances where colors really clash with each other, such as in the background of the Fruit themed level, which doesn’t feel right from a color theory point of view. Going with a lighter, paler color palette may have provided a solution to this issue too, as it would’ve meant that those contrasting colors were less saturated and may’ve blended together a bit better.

Music

As far as Zool’s soundtrack goes, it isn’t terrible and actually has a few pretty memorable songs that sound great coming out of an SNES. I do have to point out that the game tends to use sounds that try to sound… well, “oriental” though for lack of a better term. And while that makes some sense due to the game starring a Ninja and stuff, it also feels kinda weird given the fact that, outside of that, this game has nothing to do with Japan. While kinda weird and something that probably hasn’t aged all that well, it’s mostly downplayed and stands more of a relic in its composition than anything.

Parts of this game soundtrack are really catchy though, and the music in general carries a really light and cartoony vibe to it. If any of you guys remember that Vapors song “Turning Japanese” from back in the 80s, it’s a bit like that, or how movies like Rush Hour loved to play with eastern motifs.

And I’m not even saying whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, or whether or not that’s offensive, because I honestly don’t have a definite answer there. What I can say though is that it is a part of the games soundtrack and that, if you aren’t a fan of that sort of thing, it’s something worth knowing about. Something that’s actually pretty cool about Zool’s music though is that it can actually be disabled from the games options menu when you boot it up, which feels decidedly modern as games didn’t always offer stuff like this back in the day.

Closing:

So does Zool hold up? Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to say that it doesn’t, as I honestly had a hard time getting into it. I get that there are a decent number of people that grew up playing Zool and that really like or maybe even love the character, but I personally found the games level designs to be lacking and the movement/gameplay to be a bit too fast and stiff for my liking. While the game may have been pretty good back in the day, I think this is one of those cases where it hasn’t aged well due to how many other better platformers have come out after it. I wouldn’t call it a bad game or anything, just one that didn’t really stand out to me as being particularly special.

I also feel like the games marketing may have ultimately hurt the game for me, as selling it as a Sonic the Hedgehog killer made it hard for me not to compare the two, with Zool mostly being unable to compete with Sega’s blue blur. And that’s not to say that I went into this game not wanting to like it, because I see the appeal that a game like Zool must’ve had for players back in the day though, and I’m genuinely glad that the game recently got a re-release. While I myself didn’t like or particularly care for this game, it’s awesome that there are people out there who did, and I genuinely have no issue with them for liking it. It’s kinda like how I enjoy games like The Karate Kid for NES; we all just have different tastes in games and that’s part of what makes talking about them in videos and stuff interesting. 


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