I remember Zoombinis from when I was younger. My sister and I would play it obsessively. I don’t think we ever finished it, though. Revisiting it now feels somewhat strange – I don’t really remember enough for it to be nostalgic, but it’s interesting to try and see what entertained me as a child (and by extension, most children – Zoombinis was pretty popular) from an older perspective.
The puzzles are very varied and pretty nonsensical, though it’s clear they have a lot of love and thought put into them. The tone of the game is clearly comedic, wacky, and absurdist, but it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into the designs. The cartoonish art style makes characters extremely expressive, even before factoring in the surprisingly-decent voice acting. The hand-drawn aesthetic style isn’t really something you see nowadays, and it’s interesting to contrast that simpler, more stylized form with the extremely high-tech, polygon-based graphics of today. (It’s especially notable for contrast with later Zoombinis games, which abandoned this aesthetic in favor of 3D textures and models.)
One thing I do remember as a child is how interactive the campsite areas are. Almost everything is interactive, even if it’s not immediately apparent, and, in fitting with the zany cartoonishness of the game, a lot of them are pretty silly and ridiculous – like ordinary-looking stones in a pond turning out to be a stone giant taking a bath, or firewood sparking itself to get a fire started. I think it’s pretty amusing, and it must have been especially good at capturing the attentions of little kids if it’s one of the few things I can remember. I’m only a bit disappointed that the same interactivity does not extend to the actual levels, but that’s reasonable.
As for the actual gameplay…it’s fun, and actually gets pretty complex and challenging later on, but wow is it repetitive. The idea of the game is that you need to move all 600 or so zoombinis from point A to point B, but you can only move 16 of them at a time. This means you’ll be making the journey many, many times if you want to get them all across. Fortunately, the path does branch around the halfway point, so there is some variety there, but the two paths rejoin for the final trek.
The puzzles themselves are a mixed bag. Most of them deal with the highly variable traits of your zoombinis. All zoombinis have four classes of traits – hair, eyes, nose color, and feet – and five variants in each. Most puzzles involve sorting your zoombinis based on these traits – for example, you might have two paths, one of which only accepts zoombinis with orange or red noses and one of which only accepts zoombinis with sleepy eyes or glasses. A few don’t have anything to do with zoombini traits at all, though.
A big problem with this is that many things are completely up to chance. You often need to throw a few zoombinis out to test the waters before you can even begin to deduce a pattern. If the whims of chance don’t align in your favor, you can very easily end up losing some of the levels through no fault of your own. One in particular is almost completely up to chance – you need to make a pizza for some “pizza trolls” (who look like animate tree trunks), and have to figure out which toppings they’ll accept and which ones they’ll reject. The logical way to do this is one topping at a time to test the waters, but if they only accept toppings that are near the end of your list or ask for a highly varied combination, it’s virtually impossible to get through without losing a zoombini or two. This can be very tedious and frustrating, especially since you need to go through the levels so many times.
The last section of the game is a particular drag. The first level claims random chance and trial-and-error gameplay as a legitimate feature (on the hardest mode, you get no hints at all and have to go through virtually blind); the second level requires going through a rather elaborate matching puzzle for every single zoombini in your party, and it’s very easy to let a mistake slip through if you get even slightly tired or careless (which is practically a given if you have to do it long enough); and the third level requires you to navigate the zoombinis through a very complex maze where the precise order is very important (on higher levels, it’s easy to lock yourself into an unwinnable state if you screw up), and if you’re too hasty sending your zoombinis through, they can collide, making you lose two at once. The levels are quite time-consuming and tedious, and it’s very easy to make mistakes. At the very least, the latter two don’t rely on random chance at all, although the first one kind of balances that out…
However, I don’t think I should hold the game’s repetitive nature against it too much. It is supposed to be an educational logic game, and repetition is actually very important in helping young kids learn. Even if they pass, they may not completely grasp all the intricacies involved, so repetition helps with that. The repeatability also means they’ll keep coming back to it, and the fact that you’re using different zoombinis every time means the puzzles will always be slightly different. And yet despite all this, the game actually is winnable – there are a finite number of zoombinis to move. (Although this might cause problems if you’ve moved them all out of the starting area and have less than 16 at one of the checkpoints…? I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far.) (It is not.) I like that – it gives a stronger and more concrete purpose to the game, a goal to journey towards. Arcade-style games with no real ending or resolution always feel shallow and pointless to me, so it’s nice that there’s a possibility of closure here. Difficulty also scales pretty well – the game automatically increases the difficulty of the levels, but it depends on how successful you’ve been at them. If you consistently ace them, they’ll upgrade quicker than if you’re struggling, which I think is also conducive to learning.
For the rabid completionists like me, there are also achievements for getting a perfect run on each set of three levels in the game. There’s also one for each difficulty level, and it seems like the game doesn’t bump up the difficulty until you get at least one perfect, which is very soothing. I always hate it when things can be permanently missed or lost in games.
The story, inasmuch as there is one, has a surprising amount of care put into it. The initial opening video shows that the zoombinis were originally highly successful traders and producers. They were eventually approached by a group of people called the “Bloats”, who made all sorts of promises about improving their trading capacity and quality of life if the zoombinis allowed them to integrate – the zoombinis, “being trusting sorts”, agreed. Unfortunately, this was actually all just a ploy for the Bloats to gain access to the zoombinis’ resources, and before long the zoombinis are enslaved, being treated only as work drones to meet the insatiable demands of the Bloats. They quickly get fed up with this and make a secret escape tunnel, crossing the sea to make a home in a new land. Uncannily applicable story, isn’t it? I think it’s a good message that we don’t often see anymore now that mega-corporations have succeeded in taking everything over. The opening narration also makes an offhand mention that the zoombinis were successful despite their myriad differences, which seems to be a message in favor of diversity and cooperation as well, which is always nice to see. (Weirdly, though, some puzzles are easier the more similar your zoombinis are.)
The setting that the zoombinis arrive in actually has a surprising amount of consistency to it as well. Much of the additional story information is hidden in randomized flavor text and short snippets. The levels don’t all exist in isolation – some characters (and the narrator) will actually reference other characters and areas, and in the final area (which is a pretty typical “gloomy abandoned caves” level), the narrator occasionally makes mention of artifacts left behind by an ancient civilization. You can even encounter an entire other species of creatures that at first appear to be random blockades to your progress, but are actually revealed to be an evolutionary offshoot of the zoombinis, mutated by a batch of bad mousse. (It’s cartoon logic, just go with it.) At higher difficulties, some levels even make references to the fact that they’ve seen the zoombinis before. The setting is reactionary and evolving, even if only slightly, which I think is a very nice touch.