Reviewing a puzzle game is not an easy task. Most the ideas have already been taken, and each game is a slight modification of someone else's brain-child. Not suprisingly, the basics remain the same and no other game has been cloned more than the all mighty Tetris. With all this in mind, it's suprising to find a game that's totally original, and it is this sceptism that makes most puzzle game reviews a difficult and usually biased process. Zoocube at first glance is no different from your average puzzle game, yet giving it a quick spin you'll soon realise that you're into something special.
Zoocube's strange name comes from the device that you are primarily in control of, the Zoocube. This cube is used to transfer various shapes back into their original animal form (NO JOKE). You see, a strange guy called Dr. Buc Ooze started experimenting on animals and changing their shapes, as such causing havoc in the world as we know it. Alas the zoocube was born to undo the damage.. not that the game needs this story but anyway.
Essentially zoocube is a match-and-disappear puzzle game, similar to the basics of other classics such as columns. It is only here that Zoocube is similar to any other puzzle affair. The game starts with a fixed view of the cube, in which the player can only see 3 of the 6 sides at any one time. One by one, the animals (in their deformed shapes) start moving towards the cube, coming from 3 possible places (lower left and right corners, and top middle of your screen). These places correspond to the side of the cubes visible. Once an animal touches the cube, it is fixed to that side, while if an animal drops on another which is of similar shape and colour, both of them disappear thus earning you points and breathing space. So you see Zoocube is just a matter of matching similar shapes. But, as the game is based in a true 3d environment, this "simple" task becomes very taxing, and quick reflexes and a sharp eye is the only way out. As the game progresses, more and more different shapes are introduced, making our task more difficult. Add to that the possibility of 5 shapes per side of the cube (why 5? because the game ends if more than 5 shapes are on the same side), thus giving us 30 animals to worry about on 6 different faces! All this makes the game extremely playable and very addicting. The learning curve is cleverly made to start easy and steep up to a point of near frustration, but that's what makes all puzzle games nice. Another nice addition is that the speed does not change during progression (as other puzzle games tend to depend on faster speed for more difficulty), but can be set from the setup menu in the beginning.
Controlling the cube was never easier, with the d-pad controlling rotation on 2 axes (X,Y), while L-shit + d-pad rotates on the 3rd axis (Z). Pressing the A Button will assign an animal to a side, thus making it's descent faster and freeing you to move the cube for another incoming animal (once an animal is assigned to a side it rotates with it until it reaches). Another useful idea is shuffling. Using the R-shift or B button, you can shuffle any stack of animals so as to change the series of the animals. Useful when a certain shape is coming and it's counterpart is at the bottom of a stack, just shuffle up or down to bring it up. Finally, there's the smartbombs (L and R shift), these bombs get rid of the lower most animals on each side (those closest to the cube). Useful in emergencies! It may sound complicated, but this game is very easy to pick up but takes ages to master.
Various powerups appear from time to time, which the game prefers to call "mysterious pieces". If you manage to clear the cube of all animals, a "knockout" bonus level appears, consisting of a set number of animals on the cube and their counterparts descending. You just have to clear the cube again to earn the bonus. A multiplayer link-up function is also available, either co-op or versus.
Despite the small (and dark!) GBA screen, Zoocube manages to keep everything nice and tidy and very visible. The HUD of the game (showing score and next pieces etc) is out of the way and the camera intelligently zooms out when lots of animals are stuck to your cube, and zooms in again when things are quiet. The animal shapes are well distinguishable and are drawn neatly with a good sense of depth. The cube itself is a simple affair. The only slight problem is that the lower side of the cube is sometimes hidden when there's alot of action on screen, but this in itself adds to the action in my opinion.
Backgrounds are lush and colourful also.
The sound fx are a basic matter of explosion sounds and strange wooshes when you pick up powerups or knockout the cube. As this is not a concern in any puzzle game yet, they do the game no injustice. The music though is totally out of place, and seems to be taken out of an early 90s racing game (Chase HQ comes in mind!). Luckily you can turn it off so that's no concern either
Zoocube is a brilliant puzzle game. Despite the apparent simplicity, it actually delivers a stronger blow than expected. Easy to pick up, addicting challenging game play, and a long replayability and life time, this game is a definite must for every GBA owner. It's one of those games that you can play during the half time or waste a whole evening on. Playing zoocube on the move couldn't be more fun either. This is just what the GBA was made for, a must for both fans of puzzles and sceptics.