Zool 2 – Atari Jaguar
Platform: Atari Jaguar
Developer: Gremlin Graphics
Release Date (NA): 1994
Genre: Platforming games
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by Space Invader
An imaginative, colorful and creative-to-the-point-of-madness platformer, Zool 2 crawled onto the scene just as the tides had turned against its host console, the Atari Jaguar. No 2-D platformer could have quelled masses of drones hungry for some way of quantifying what “64-bit” should look like.
Yes friends, Zool 2 is a victim of history. To understand why, we really have to talk about pepperoni pizza, because it is the game equivalent of a truly delicious pepperoni pizza — but that’ll have to wait, because to understand the pizza analogy, we must journey to a magical land known as 1992, when the specs of the Jaguar-to-be were released. Technical demos of the year made then-current 8- and 16-bit machines look like kids’ toys, which in all fairness video games generally are. The Jaguar burst on the scene the following year, boasting a 64-bit architecture that encased five processors, enough RAM to put a then-average PC to shame, and a built-in measure for rendering gourad-shaded polygons (ask your dad) from a database programmers would merely need to populate with data.
The powerhouse seemed ready to unleash an industry-changing revolution.
Instead, the Jag would limp along for a few years, before dying pathetically with a whimper. It didn’t help that the public, along with the magazine writers and editors of the time, really had no idea of what a “bit” actually was. The whole analysis of what a “bit” is belongs to a different article, but suffice it to say, expectations were strange and huge for a public that had somehow come to associate “bits” as nothing more than a measure of improved graphics.
Atari, unfortunately, was basically stumbling drunkenly along a ledge called bankruptcy. This modern foray into video gaming had them desperately pulling items from their bag of industry tricks, chief among them, rushing developers to release software that was clearly not ready — an Atari trademark since the ’70s that continues in the modern version of the company to this day.
As an example of the hope that once existed, Cybermorph, now derided by the public as an unsightly misstep, was upon release accepted as something of a promise of better things to come.
Except they didn’t improve very much.
Enough with the history lesson
When Zool 2 came to the Jaguar, an already disenchanted public that doubted whether the Jaguar had the “bits” to back up it’s aggressive “Do + the + math” ad campaign (which its slew of under-cooked and rushed releases did little to support) didn’t want to see a “16-bit” style side-scroller on a “64-bit” machine.
As a result, Zool 2 was greeted rather coldly, with mediocre-at-best reviews that, naturally, mentioned that the game seemed to run 48 bits short of expectations.
That’s what makes the game such a tasty peperoni pizza.
Just another ninja shooting geese and stuff
Basically, the only hope for a colorful, odd land requires one of two ninjas to destroy all these possessed animals and collect a lot of weird PEZ-looking candy stuff. This will save the day.
You take on the role of either a boy ninja or a girl ninja. They each posses a slightly different set of moves, and they’re fun to control. Each can shoot, back-flip, spin-jump, and break through bricks. The spin-jump destroys enemies by either landing on or ambushing them from below. The fire button releases a weird yellow bullet, which will destroy most enemies and piss off others.
The controls require a certain learning curve, but it isn’t long until you’re merrily bounding through the levels. The game is fast, but it punishes newbies who try to blow through its levels without learning the secrets of surviving the masses of enemies while moving along at Mach speed. Once you get the controls down, blowing through these levels makes you feel more like God than a garden-variety acid trip.
There are odd bits of candy, or something, lying around all over the place, and as a ninja rescuing an entire society of possessed animals and appliances, your job is to collect 99 percent of these in each level. Even in levels you’ve traversed umpty-zillion times, you are constantly finding new secret passages and new routes, which speaks well of the level design. The same can’t really be said for the design of the bosses, which chip away at the rest of your lives while you fire useless yellow pellets at them.
Each set of levels has a “theme.” The first three find our ninjas in a completely normal land of giant egg cartons and enormous geese firing yellow pellets whilst little Easter eggs scurry beneath your feet. The next three take you through a power plant of sorts, populated by angry bolts of electricity and seriously pissed-off desk lamps scampering about. The next three have an ancient Egyptian feel, and that’s as far as I could get.
But those nine levels are quite an achievement. Zool 2 is no cakewalk. In fact, it’s a real controller thrower. There are no continues, but you start with nine lives. You will need all of them.
Ripping off a plumber and a rodent
Many Zool 2 detractors sniff that the game is little more than a blatant Sonic the Hedgehog ripoff, but that’s not entirely true — it also rips off Super Mario Bros. Throughout the game’s many levels, the colorful designs and need for speed echo everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog, while the occasional need for slow, deliberate gameplay and hitting things with your head bring to mind a certain morbidly obese, Italian plumber.
That the developers managed to bridge the gap between Sonic’s manic speed and Mario’s secret-loaded dreamland is one of Zool 2‘s great successes. Additionally, the game sprinkles some features of its own, such as the ninja moves and the Breakout-style bonus levels, to say nothing of the absolutely zany design. Friends and family who have witnessed my playing of Zool 2 have alternately shaken their heads incredulous, saying “who made this game?” or have queried “Is there a single normal game for this system?” Any media that so easily confounds my deranged friends and family counts as an effective release in my book.
What about that pizza analogy?
If you’re still reading, you may be wondering when this pizza analogy of mine is going to come full circle. So here it is.
Zool 2 is an incredibly tasty pepperoni pizza, baked during an era in which the public was clamboring for deep dish specials with all the meat and veggies atop it, maybe with cheese baked into the crust.
If the Jaguar never quite got off the ground as a assembly line for deep-dish deluxe pizzas, we can appreciate in retrospect the way some of its titles nominally bested their 16-bit peers. While the game could easily be imagined as a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, it wouldn’t have come out like this on either machine.
With its speedy 68K processor, Genesis titles tending to be fast, high-resolution screamers with great synthesized music that nevertheless featured a garishly limited color palette and scratchy voice samples. SNES games featured a vast array of simultaneous on-screen colors, mode-7 support and clear speech synthesis and samples, but its comparably slow processor encouraged a more plodding pace to its games, requiring a co-processor (the “FX chip”) to really take advantage of the pseudo-3D capabilities, not to mention a slightly more limited usable resolution.
Titles such as Zool 2 used the machine’s advantages to slightly best its 16-bit cousins. With all of Sonic’s speed and none of his slowdown, the Jag sends our ninja heroes briskly through its stages, with resolution that made the Genesis blush and more colors than even the SNES could produce. The Jag featured a dedicated processor to handle sounds and music, and it again has the best of both worlds, with clear samples and sounds a la SNES, and nicely synthesized music a la Genesis.
Do the math
It might not be quite fair to compare the Jag to its contemporaries. Using its five processors to slightly best weaker machines is a little like sneaking the worst professional basketball player into a street game that otherwise comprised average Joes.
Nevertheless, the Jaguar’s polygon abilities, technically impressive thought they may have been when first thought of, were ugly, as were the best polygon graphics of the day. Games that employed 60% of the Jaguar’s potential were often better than those that went for the full 100%. Polygon-based Jaguar games were like under-cooked deluxe pizzas, full of many toppings, but often using ingredients of poor quality.
Zool 2 is, on the other hand, one of the best pepperoni pizzas you will taste.
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