Zuma is a game by PopCap, and that should really tell you all you need to know. It’s neatly presented and brightly coloured, the gameplay mechanics are simple and repetitive, and it’s addictive to the order of making Colombian drug warlords slap their own foreheads and say “Oh, of course!”. It is available over Steam individually for a few invisi-dollars, or as part of a PopCap Favorites (sic) combo pack for slightly more invisi-dollars but you also get Peggle, Bookworm Adventures and Bejewelled, as well as something called Insanaquarium, which isn’t very good.
But: Zuma. It works a bit like this. A stream of brightly coloured balls rolls slowly down a winding trough towards a hole, and if the balls ever reach the hole then all the balls fall down the hole and it’s game over oh noes except you have three lives. In order to prevent this calamity you, as an immobile stone frog apparently on a Lazy Susan or something, must fire more balls at the ones already in the trough. In true puzzle game style, getting three or more balls of the same colour in the row causes them to disappear for some reason and we can all agree that’s basically a good thing and we can get on with our lives.
As you’d expect there’s a little more to it than that (but not much more) with special power-ups reversing the ball flow for a few seconds, slowing them down for a few seconds or even ‘sploding all balls nearby. Oh, and the balls are apparently magnetic, but only towards other balls the same colour, which can make fancy chain reactions.
There. That’s pretty much it. I’m done.
Like all good puzzle games it is horrendously addictive, and PopCap have this appalling knack of putting you into the Gamer’s Trance within a few short seconds of play, whereby you can continue to play more or less automatically, while the higher functions of your brain go on a little day out elsewhere. It is, in this way, great for occupying yourself while you listen to something good on the radio.
But if you’re able to keep your conscious brain on-task as well as the unconscious part, you might begin to notice something rather disappointing. As you move onto the next lot of levels you’ll find yourself replaying all the levels you’ve just beaten, only with an extra one tacked on to the end, and a new colour that the balls can be. Considering there’s only a few levels in there to begin with this feels incredibly lazy on PopCap’s part, especially when you consider that a level is nothing more than a simple bitmap image or two with a few waypoints for the ball stream to follow.
Which is a shame because this leads inexorably towards accusations of cynicism and apathy for the coders, and I’m not exactly sure how well they can be defended any more. PopCap really are industry leaders in making simple puzzle games that are harder to kick than the crack sandwiches, and they clearly know it. In this case Zuma feels a little like they spent an intensive morning making the game then lost interest around lunchtime and decided to just throw it out the door and get back to their real jobs of counting their money and cackling like an evil wizard.
If this makes me sound a bit like one of those conspiracy dicks it’s because I’m really having trouble saying I like Zuma, and it’s the poor collection of levels that’s to blame. Zuma is a lot of fun when your brain’s turned off (though it’s incredibly hard), but the second you snap out of the Gamer’s Trance you realise it’s been two fucking hours and you had all that stuff to do today. It even keeps track of the time you wasted playing, then throws the final figure in your face when, at last, you die.
What a bitch.
Score: I still play it anyway.