Side-scrolling games used to be few and far between on modern consoles; passed in favor of the greener pastures of more alluring 3D gaming experiences. Someone somewhere must have made it public knowledge that they were still fun, however, because the last couple of years have seen something of a revival take place within the genre. While the day hasn’t arrived that there’s been a triple A budgeted side scrolling game developed, we are getting some pretty awesome 2D titles. It’s with all that in mind that there was an opportunity for Zack Zero to really make something of itself, and create a captivating 2D game that stood above the rest of the pack. Is that the case? Sadly no, and it’s actually painful to say for once. Crocodile Games comes off like a big group of swell guys and gals just trying to make and awesome game in this big crazy world of video game development. For once, I’m not being patronizing here. That is essentially the tone that their website elicits when telling the story of the development of Zack Zero. It’s a story charged with real drama about financial troubles, playtesting, and friendship and one that is more interesting than the game itself.
As mentioned before, Zack Zero is a 2D side-scrolling game that puts you in the shoes of the titular character and charges you with moving from left to right. Your motivations for moving so far to the right in this case are because of an inept girlfriend who has managed to get herself kidnapped by aliens on a hostile alien world. This invariably leads to her being imprisoned under a dungeon surrounded by lava and force fields. Can you recall a time when you landed on a hostile alien world and didn’t get imprisoned in an underground dungeon surrounded by lava, laser beams and force fields? I thought not. On the whole, the story doesn’t really matter for much. Confusingly enough the developers elected to tell it through cartoonishly paneled cutscenes instead of using their decent 3D/2D hybrid engine. Graphically, the game actually manages to be fairly impressive in some respects within its constraints. You can tell that a fair amount of work went into the 2D/3D hybrid engine that the game uses. Environments are colorful, vibrant, and full of glow-ey bits here and there that show off the game’s use of particle effects. Zack Zero’s levels are almost certainly the highlight of the game however, with the rest falling pretty short.
Zack himself isn’t particularly exciting as a character that you get to control for a handful of reasons. You should probably accept that whenever you play a videogame you will be some variation of a guy with a crew cut in powered armor, and here it’s only a little different. Different in that Zack’s suit can change to any of four modes on the fly and alter his powers and attacks. You’ve got the normal suit which lets Zack throw some kind of projectile when enemies aren’t close, and comes equipped with an arm blade for melee. You can also switch between fire, ice, and stone. Fire lets you roast things, and sail through the air on flame gusts, while ice lets you slow time and freeze things. Finally your stone powers make you stronger, and enable you to smash walls and move objects larger than yourself. Theoretically Zack’s super powered suit should make him and the game more interesting to play, but the problems become fundamental pretty quickly. While the idea of the powers themselves are pretty cool, it isn’t exactly novel in the world of platformers. So to play through this and find that at times it doesn’t even posses the same level of polish and follow through as other games that tread the same path before is puzzling. More so when you continue to play through the game and find a disturbing lack of puzzles that are power dependent for a solution. It would be a wholly different game if the solutions to the simple puzzles presented here were novel uses of the simplistic versions of the powers they give you, but there’s not even that much follow-through in the design of the game where it’s evident that it even crossed their mind, save for a few scant exceptions.
Saving graces often come in the form of a game that has decent fighting if everything else has gone awry; that’s not happening here. The combat is a one button chore that is unsatisfying almost from the start. Weak melee hits that don’t always connect are only surpassed in mediocrity by the flimsiness of your mid range ninja star projectile. Neither of these attacks are satisfying to use, and you have to use them constantly. While you could change yourself to any of the suit’s powered modes and perform a certain type of special attack with the suit, these are pretty much useless and made almost superfluous by the suit’s main abilities. Enemies provide just as much lack of external or visual stimulation and vary only between boring and annoying on the scale of interest and difficulty; but there is not a real challenge or natural progression here at all. It’s probably no surprise that the game ends abruptly and with a flimsy sequel tease. The rest of the game feels incomplete, so why shouldn’t the ending right? Right.
Zack Zero could have shot for the star of “inoffensive mediocrity” and gotten higher marks for the effort. What’s on display here, however, is the product of a game development fiasco that dragged some seemingly good people through a gauntlet of emotional and financial insanity. Turmoil doesn’t define a project, but I can’t help but wonder if herein lies the example of when it can and absolutely does. Maybe Zack Zero will improve with the sequel they teased, but for now its name is more telling than the developer may have intended.
Version Reviewed: PC