Zubo
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-06 Nintendo DS Action/Adventure E10 (Everyone 10+) EA Bright Light / EA

Credit must be given when game developers decide to take chances. While sequels of course have their place in the market, and in fact have provided some of my best gameplay experiences, there is always something to be said for a fresh taken on a genre, or a game like EA's Zubo, which throws every established genre out the proverbial window and creates one of their own.

In Zubo, the world of Zubalon, a normally peaceful, fun-loving environment inhabited by friendly Zubos, has been taken over by Sleepy Head, a floating hologram, and his minions called Zombos, which are actually fake Zubos that are desperate to take over the Zubos way of life. Using nothing but the stylus (and occasionally the microphone), you are tasked with saving the world of Zubalon from the evil Sleepy Head and returning peace to the land.

Zubos are like Pokémon that can speak in a language humans can understand. Like their Zombo enemies, Zubos are blocky, Lego-like creatures, separated into three classes, based on their particular move and skill sets.

And just like Pokémon, each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, with each class (Performer, Fighter and Defender) being susceptible to more damage from one group, while having a distinct advantage over the third in the trio. That is, Fighters are strong against Performers, but weak against Defenders; Performers are strong against Defenders but weak against Fighters and Defenders are strong against Fighters, while weak against Performers. To put it simply, it's a big game of rock-paper-scissors that is far less complicated than in might initially seem.

As you journey to defeat Sleepy Head, you will be joined by 50+ Zubos (your party is limited to three Zubos at a time) and will find yourself traveling through the sprawling world of Zubalon, which is comprised of multiple themed areas (a graveyard, swamp, royal gardens, park, and so on). Along the way, Zombos will attack, sending you into battle, where the real humor and zaniness of the title shines through.

Each battle is turn-based, but instead of simply tapping on an "attack" command and letting the game take care of the rest, Zubo instead incorporates rhythm based, interactive attack sequences in the vein of Elite Beat Agents.

After you pick from your three active Zubos and which attack you wish to employ (the total amount of damage possible is listed conveniently next to the attack's name), movement is taken over while you are left to tap on the bottom screen at set intervals. During attacks, your character is surrounded by a red ring. Yellow rings will approach the red ring from the four corners of the touch screen, and when the two meet, you simply tap on the touch screen to register that part of the hit.

Along the bottom of the touch screen rests a damage calculator bar that fills as you tap the screen correctly, with larger boosts being obtained for exact precision. In other to do the maximum amount of damage, your tapping must be 100% accurate. Tap too early or too late (within reason) and you still fill a bit of the gauge, but just one mistake will cost you at least 5 points of damage, or many more depending on the move you were attempting.

These moves themselves are highly varied, clever and witty affairs. The leap frog move, for instance, has your character luring in the naive Zombo to a seemingly innocent game of leap frog only to kick them in the rear as they make their hop. The slam dunk move has you dribbling your opponent around the battlefield like a basketball, while the "Thriller" command is an especially amusing choreography impersonation that allows you to heal either yourself or your allies. There are over 100 moves to choose from in all (each Zubo knows four), with moves incorporating everything from loudspeakers and guitar solos to farting and juggling.

After each battle, the game introduces a few RPG elements to the mix, by rewarding experience points that translate to increased levels, greater attack strengths, more hit points, and so on.

A couple of small complaints do arise during battles, however, but these will only be issues for the very youngest players of the game, who may be lacking in the reflexes department. Seeing that you have no control over character movement during battles, it is at first difficult to determine when a line is ready to sync with your Zubo, creating an experience that is a bit disorienting until you have enough practice.

Furthermore, while there is the option of fast forwarding through your opponents' attacks, that still doesn't stop each battle from being extremely long, made even more so by the fact that the odds will normally be stacked against you. This is particularly true in boss battles, where your enemies have considerably more hit points than you do, so whittling them down takes quite the chunk of time.

One slight oversight to point out comes once you have made it to Sleepy Head's lair. During the multiple battles there, the background is comprised of geometric shapes colored in almost the exact shade of yellow as your attack prompts, creating an unneeded sense of challenge and frustration that sees you missing prompts altogether because you literally couldn't see them coming (but again, this is less of an issue as you become accustomed to the very slight variance in shades - or simply memorize the timing in each move).

Despite its flaws, Zubo has a charm that sneaks up on you, and before you know it, you're hooked. The entire draw of the title is made complete when looking at it from a technical perspective. As if the farting and belching sound effects during battles weren't enough to elicit an immature giggle, the rest of the sound effects add to it, by presenting comical, lively music and sound effects throughout, each fitting the theme of the current battle area (spooky, haunting music for the swamp and graveyard and upbeat, light-hearted selections for the colorful forest, as examples).

While the graphics themselves are far from extraordinary, containing blocky characters and environments, the lack of intricate detail seems to have been deliberate. After all, you have been transported to a digitally enhanced world, filled with floating computer shops and a pixilated narrator, so the geometric appearance to everything within Zubalon seems to fit.

Likewise, while each individual aspect of the game may seem like ingredients that would never be in the same recipe, when everything comes together, it simply works.

It's a rare occasion in today's video game market to find an entirely new property, one that's not a sequel or tied to a television show or other established media, that is actually good. When looking at Zubo from EA, you are looking at one such rarity: a surprisingly solid rhythm-based semi-RPG which, while aimed at children, is fun for members of the whole family.


Special thanks to Katie Carrico and EA for providing a copy of this title.