Release Date: October 23, 2007
After the Wii tore up the hardware sales charts last Q4, what followed was a "software drought" that owners lamented and detractors seized upon as a message board argument. Much of the trouble was getting third parties that had previously given up on Nintendo to reconnect with the company now that it had a winning machine, and figuring out what kinds of games to sell for the Wii. Games from basically any traditional genre would look and possibly sell better on the 360, so a company's Wii titles needed to be something special that took the hardware's strengths into mind.
For the most part, this has led to the console's best-selling third-party titles being ports and sequels that presented familiar themes to go along with the new motion controls. No third-party programmer has yet pushed a completely successful new IP via the Wii, although there have been many almost-rans and near misses. Capcom's Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure seems likely to be the Wii's first tremendous third-party success. Although it's slated to ship at the budget price of $39.99, there is nothing cheap or slapdash about this title. From the clever gameplay to the beautiful cel-shaded graphics, this is likely to become one of the Wii's must-own titles ... and it might even drive system sales.
Now, what could be so special about it to do that, you ask? Well, simply put, Zack & Wiki is an adventure game, more akin to the Sierra and LucasArts titles of the early '90s like Sam & Max and Maniac Mansion than the action titles that are usually Capcom's forte. This is not to say Capcom's any stranger to producing winning adventure-game gameplay: Their Phoenix Wright series for the Nintendo DS is one of that portable's first major hits, and by now as synonymous with the hardware to fans as any of Nintendo's first-party DS titles. Zack & Wiki is in much the same position relative to the Wii hardware as the first Phoenix Wright was to the DS hardware when it streeted, with both games even set to launch at a budget price.
What makes Zack & Wiki so uniquely suited to the Wii, though, is that its take on adventure gameplay perfectly reflects the fact that the Wii is the only real "family system" on the market right now. While a 360 or PS3 player can be safely assumed to fit into the male 18-35 demographic that dominates video games, it's harder to make any sort of meaningful assumptions about who's playing Wii titles. Accordingly, Zack & Wiki is clearly a game that anyone of any age could play ... or that entire families could work on playing together, in much the same way that families once gathered around the family PC to work on King's Quest or Monkey Island together.
Zack & Wiki is ideally played while sitting on a comfortable couch, perhaps with a few friends around, and no distractions from the simplicity of the puzzle before. Like classic adventure games, Zack & Wiki is almost nothing but constant and increasingly devilish puzzle-solving. Unlike a classic adventure game, each puzzle is presented as an individual level. You don't have to worry about bringing items from previous levels into a current one. Each puzzle is designed such that every item you need to solve it can be obtained within the confines of that level. The puzzles are split up into a series of "areas," each guarded by a "boss puzzle" that has to be completed to gain the right to progress into the next area. Each area offers from roughly three to five levels, and completion is rewarded by letting the player collect one of the 16 missing pieces of Captain Barbaros' body.
The puzzles are hard to describe, because each level's challenge is incredibly different from what you might find even in other levels in the same area, and there are only a few commands in Zack & Wiki that aren't context-specific. You can move Zack anywhere in a stage by pointing the star-shaped cursor and clicking the A button, and Wiki follows along behind him. If you highlight an item or location that can be interacted with, the cursor turns pink and you get a little rumble feedback (one of the smartest uses of the rumble feature yet). If you encounter enemies, you can hold the Wiimote upright and shake it to summon Wiki, who turns into a magic bell that Zack can ring. The enemy turns into an item, based on its type — Snakes always turn into Slither Grippers, Frogs into Frog Bombs, etc. The function of items isn't fighting enemies, an activity in which Zack & Wiki is wholly uninterested. You use items to try and manipulate things in the level around you.
For instance, the game's second level features a simple puzzle where the treasure chest you need to open in order to win is hidden behind a locked door. The key to the door is dangling from a circular stone slab that sits atop a high stone pillar, which in turn sits on the top of the small hill within the treasure chest is concealed. To get the key, you need to find a particular pot and try to break it; this causes a Snake to appear from within the pot. Ring Wiki, and the Snake turns into the Slither Gripper you need to use to grab the key (which is otherwise too high off the ground to be reached). Once you open the door, you find a deep spike-lined pit still stands between you and the treasure.
Crossing the pit doesn't involve trying to find some way to leap it or build a bridge across; instead, you solve the puzzle by picking up the Slither Gripper you used before, and pulling on a metal ring that dangles from the ceiling. This causes the stone pillar above the underground room to collapse through the ceiling, filling the pit, and the circular stone slab above it topples down to perfectly cover the top of the pit. Then you simply walk across to claim the chest. The Slither Gripper, like all of the game's tools, is manipulated by the Wiimote in a mimicry of how you'd use the real-life equivalent of such a tool (in this case, an extension gripping arm). This action component is relatively low-pressure and helps break up the point-and-click foundation of the gameplay nicely.
Note that this is an example of a very simple puzzle. The farther into the game you go, the more complex the chain of actions required to solve a puzzle become. Some puzzles have areas full of enemies who can't be turned into items and have to be somehow avoided or knocked out. Others may involve using both ends of an item (such as using an umbrella's curved handle to slide down a vine, then opening it while holding it right-side up to survive a fall). When you pass beyond the initial Jungle Ruins area, you go into an ice-themed area where the puzzles revolve around the in-game properties of ice.
One puzzle calls for you to create a key by pouring water into a mold and freezing it; unless you properly use the level's clues to create the correct key mold, all of your efforts are for nothing. Another involves using mirrors made of ice to bounce a laser toward a given target, a puzzle made more devious by the fact that it can proceed in at least two different ways depending on the actions taken by a boss who's guarding the treasure. Pass beyond the ice area into the "lava" area, and you'll find puzzles growing even more monstrously complex, with levels that call for the player to carefully maneuver ancient robots without accidentally overloading part of the level's stone infrastructure and causing a tumble into the lava waiting below. Another puzzle involves correctly constructing a course so a boulder can run down a mountainside and knock over a titanic basin of water onto a lake of lava, cooling it into stone that can be traversed. Simply put, these are not boring puzzles or ones that feel overused from older adventure titles; if anything, they feel like the work of a 3D platformer's level designer going mad on the job.
Although the game's graphics are in full 3D, the levels are always viewed from the side, a perspective that happily simplifies the gameplay. Players can use a Camera feature to examine an entire level at once, zooming in as necessary, or hold down the B button to carefully examine the area around Zack without having to move in. Puzzles that screw over a player by making a necessary item hard to see or highlight, leading to the boring activity called "pixel hunting," are absolutely absent. The only time puzzles become difficult for reasons other than logic are a few situations that call for twitch reflexes, moving Zack to a particular location to avoid enemies who otherwise kill him. These can be frustrating the first few times you encounter them, but the game's built in a few clever support systems for making it hard for that frustration to build into a desire to stop playing entirely.
A player who dies during a level can opt to resurrect Zack for the cost of one "Platinum Ticket," an item that can be purchased between levels using coins that randomly appear when certain types of objects are destroyed. Likewise, a player who is stumped in a particular level and can't proceed can sack an item called an "Oracle Doll" to get a hint from the game's Hint Oracle. Sometimes these Hints are exactly what a player needs to proceed, and sometimes they're not incredibly helpful, but overall it's a smart mechanic to put into an adventure game.
Adventure games have been so completely out of the spotlight as a commercially viable genre that picking one up feels fresh and new even if rationally, you know it isn't. Zack & Wiki captures a lot of the humor that helped turn Phoenix Wright into a DS darling, and if anything, Zack & Wiki's gameplay is far stronger thanks to the involvement of the Wiimote. Although the official count cited by a lot of previews is 20 hours of gameplay (and most puzzles can be finished in about 10-20 minutes once you know the solution), most players can expect to spend a lot longer with this game.
Figuring out the solutions to the puzzles is always just intuitive enough that you can drive yourself mad using every item in a level, thinking you're just one step from solving the entire thing. Sometimes you are, a satisfying reward for the deep thought and concentration the game demands of a player. If you already own a Wii, Zac & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure is shaping up to be a title that's not to be missed (and especially if you share your Wii with children or other young gamers). There are few games that legitimately allow for team play outside of the bullet-ridden world of FPS, and getting a group together to try and solve puzzles in Zack & Wiki can make for a very pleasant time.
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