Help the Zoombinis find a new home in a puzzle-filled journey.
PC Release: October 28, 2015
By Ian Coppock
My review of Star Wars: DroidWorks led me to realize that there’s a hole in my reviews. The overwhelming amount of content I have is fit only for mature audiences, but especially as the age of the average gamer rises, I forget that many of you have kids. It’s never been explicitly asked of me, but I’d like to continue this week’s theme of edutainment with another review of a child-friendly game. Whether you’re looking to start out a child on video games, or find something fun to do together, Zoombinis is the way to go.
Zoombinis is an isometric puzzle game loaded with logical conundrums. Originally released in 1996, the game was known by the much clunkier title of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. The version that I’m reviewing now, simply known as Zoombinis, is the one and the same game updated with newer graphics and fit to run on modern systems. This new version was released on Steam last fall.
The titular Zoombinis are a race of small, blueberry-looking things whose home gets conquered by the evil Bloats. The little creatures band together to escape their home island and reach the mainland, where they hope to find a new haven. It’s up to the player to guide them inland in small batches, solving puzzles to reach the mythical Zoombiniville.
Zoombinis come in dozens of designer options. You can have your Zoombinis get around on roller skates or propellers, and customize them with different accessories, noses and hairstyles. Customizing your Zoombini is no mere matter of cosmetics; it’s actually one of the core mechanics of the game.
In each of the puzzles between you and Zoombiniville, each Zoombini’s feature corresponds with a feature of the puzzle. Zoombinis with propellers, for example, might be able to make it across a certain bridge, but Zoombinis with roller skates have to find another path. The preferences in each puzzle are purely arbitrary, and players have to logically deduce which Zoombini features are acceptable for which path. A few other puzzles deal with deduction in a different way, like figuring out which toppings to put on a grumpy troll’s pizza.
The further inland you get, the more difficult the puzzles become. It starts out pretty simply, with a pair of stone cliffs that will sneeze on certain Zoombinis who walk on their bridges. The Zoombinis also suffer encounters with hostile wildlife, grumpy pizza addicts and obsessive-compulsive ferrymen. Most puzzles contain a few different paths that only certain Zoombinis can tread safely. Experimenting with different paths is the only way to deduce which Zoombinis can go where, but be careful; make too many mistakes and your Zoombinis will start getting punted all the way back to the start of the game.
For the Zoombinis who make it, though, Zoombiniville is a pretty bitching place. As more Zoombinis immigrate here, you can build a new town replete with pizza parlors and swimming pools. The more Zoombinis you can escort, the bigger the town becomes.
Each puzzle, even the ones at the beginning, become more difficult the more Zoombinis you bring in. The infamous pizza troll puzzle, where you have to discern a grumpy highwayman’s favorite toppings, grows from one troll, to two, to three, as you progress through the game. The puzzles later in the journey become similarly difficult, until even an adult player might have a tough time getting every Zoombini to Zoombiniville.
Players must also keep an eye on their Zoombinis’ physical traits. Early on, it’s easy to create a bunch of Zoombinis with similar characteristics, but the game deliberately prevents you from making the entire group identical. Eventually you’ll be stuck escorting a bargain bin of misfit Zoombinis who were snipped off the backs of a dozen other expeditions. This, when combined with the puzzles’ escalating difficulty, makes Zoombinis challenging for anyone.
I appreciate that the developers of this Zoombinis update kept the game faithful to its original content. Too often, kids’ games released these days focus less on educating a child and more on distracting them. Contemporary kids’ games seem to focus on bright colors and loud noises instead of substance and subtlety.
Zoombinis is truly a game of a bygone era, towering above its peers in terms of the logic lessons it has to offer, and the charm of its content. Nothing in the game has been dumbed down for a contemporary audience, which is outstanding. The graphics and interface have received hefty refits, but that’s about all that’s changed since I played this game back in the day.
Though the graphics of Zoombinis have been polished up while retaining their cartoony charm, the audio has not been touched up at all. I’m glad they didn’t re-record the maniacal narrator or the little sounds the Zoombinis make, but 90s video game sound design was not great. Every sound effect and bit of music sounds dulled down, and you can still hear the heavy static from whatever toaster they used to record this. It will sound nostalgic to the adults among you, but it might make today’s tech-savvy children scream in terror.
Apart from the sound design, there’s really nothing wrong with the rest of Zoombinis’ production. The game is very tightly wound around the concept of logical deduction, and neither the original version I played in the 3rd grade nor the updated one I played last week had any bugs or glitches.
If you’re a gamer out there who has a small child, why should you consider Zoombinis? Well, if teaching your child about the wonderful world of logical deduction ain’t enough reason, Zoombinis is a great game because it teaches its players how to think critically. Each deduction puzzle revolves around this theme and gets tougher the more you go in. The charm of the Zoombinis and their little world serves as the catalyst for your kid’s interest. It’s also a game that they can play themselves or with you.
That’s about it for tonight, folks. Zoombinis is not a narrative masterpiece or the latest masterwork of some indie story studio, but it’s the best edutainment game I’ve ever played, and I played a fair share back in the day. The modern Steam remake retains all of the original game’s charm and challenge, but your computer won’t have an aneurysm trying to run it. I highly recommend Zoombinis, especially if you’re looking for a place for your kid to start their own video gaming journey. Give it a go and see how well you do making pizza for trolls.
Word to the wise: trolls love mushrooms.
You can buy Zoombinis here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.