A creative adventure that transcends the boundaries of four popular genres to bring their elements together into one continuously flooring puzzle-solving spectacle
The entire concept of genres revolves around the idea of tidily organizing the overwhelmingly big quantity of games that have been released into clearly defined categories, as if the gaming universe were a messy library in desperate need of order. Such a division does come in handy when gamers need to figure out whether or not they will enjoy a new title, or when one needs to define their taste in a few concise words. Still, both their existence and power of description are brought under an inquisitive light whenever games that refuse to perfectly fit within their domains, like broken jigsaw pieces, surface. Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure, one of the Nintendo Wii’s first and most original third-party efforts, is definitely one of those products: a game that does not belong to any genre in particular because it borrows elements from a handful of them to create something entirely original.
Zack & Wiki could be qualified as a point-and-click adventure in the vein of numerous LucasArts classics such as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After all, our two heroes – Zack, the pirate; and Wiki, his pet monkey – move around the world that surrounds them as players point the Wiimote towards the screen and click on the location they must go to. However, its plot, which sees Zack join a gang of corsairs in order to fulfill his life’s dream of finding the treasure of the most legendary pirate who has ever lived, is neither the title’s guiding thread nor has enough meat for the game to comfortably share a spot with storytelling masterpieces that play like interactive books.
One could also easily call it a puzzle game, given the activity gamers will be engaged in during the title’s twenty hours will invariably be puzzle solving. Yet, Zack & Wiki decorates its riddles with so many extra ornaments, such as a storyline and scenarios whose constructions sometimes resemble those found in Zelda dungeons (albeit in much smaller scales), that it seems unfair to limit the perception outsiders have of Capcom’s quirky epic to the straightforward presentation most titles of the kind have, such as Dr. Mario and World of Goo.
As a final attempt, a very dedicated – and somewhat stubborn – archivist might attempt to label it simply as an adventure game, which would make a great deal of sense, because Zack and Wiki spend a whole lot of time exploring 3-D scenarios in search for items that will either fill up the lowest deck of their ship with sweet riches or help them get to the end of the levels. Sadly, the label would quickly go through a weird process of self-combustion, as Zack & Wiki’s neat division into thematic worlds, which are in turn broken into individual levels that are sometimes joined by plot developments, is much closer to what players would find in a traditional platformer than to what is contained in games that are, undeniably, a part of the adventure genre, like The Legend of Zelda.
Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure is, then, clearly, hard to qualify. All of its more than twenty stages, though, are joined, in different degrees, by overarching themes. There are drops of action here and there, as enemies, which sometimes need to be avoided at all costs and sometimes need to be defeated, are present throughout the game. There is a great level of exploration, as examining the characters’ surroundings and becoming aware of all resources that are available in the stage are absolutely necessary in order to reach the golden chests that serve as the game’s ultimate goal. And, most importantly, there is an incessant requirement for reasoning – both inside and outside the box – as Zack & Wiki is nothing but the solving of an immense chain of puzzles that will lead the characters from their starting point as rookie pirates to the position of holders of the world’s most incredible treasure.
It is a long path, but Zack & Wiki masterfully guides players through it. Although the game takes an approach that is delightfully hands-off, invariably dropping the characters into levels without any sort of explanation and leaving it up to them to figure out what needs to be done to get to the golden treasure chest, it teaches via a level of difficulty that increases smoothly. The game lays down its basic features via brief tutorials, and then proceeds to abandon gamers to their brains and luck.
Zack & Wiki’s brand of puzzle-solving involves scanning the environment; interacting with switches, levers, and other objects that are available; and figuring out how they must be employed to clear the road ahead. There are two great twists, though. Firstly, Wiki becomes a bell with transforming powers whenever the Wiimote is shaken, meaning that enemies and other creatures can become usable objects in a flash: bats, for example, turn into umbrellas; whereas snakes become grippers that let Zack obtain items that are initially out of reach. Secondly, when those objects are employed in any situation, players must replicate – with the Wiimote – the movement of their use, as if they were holding the objects themselves. At one point in the game, for instance, Zack will face off against deadly pirates from a rival gang by using a sword, and gamers will have to defend and attack by performing accurate motions.
Accounting for the fact some objects can be used in more than one way, the game presents a whopping total of 80 possible movements. Although it is undeniable motion controls have considerably evolved since Zack & Wiki’s release, the implementation of the actions players need to perform still holds up quite well for the most part, as they are relatively simple. Most importantly, though, they are enjoyable and provide a nice little layer of interaction between gamers and the world they are invested in; those who are averse to motion controls, however, will definitely feel those actions could have been done in a different way. The only problem related to the controls stems from how sometimes Zack will refuse to move to the location players have pointed to; yet, not only is such an issue rare, it is solved with good old-fashioned insistence.
The game’s greatest highlight is how it uses those building blocks in astonishingly creative ways. It all starts pretty simple: in the very first level, for example, one needs to figure out how to get to a treasure chest that lies on the other side of a chasm with a raging river at its bottom; a problem that is solved by cutting down a tree to make a neat bridge. However, before players notice, they will be trying to make an ancient gadget that functions like a Rube Goldberg machine work towards clearing the path ahead instead of murdering the titular characters; manufacturing ice keys in the correct shape; concocting potions via visual cues left around by a clumsy scientist; finding a way to sneak past a very violent tribe that stands between the pirates and their treasure; getting rid of a famished fish; figuring out the secret of a haunted art gallery; fighting mighty bosses via sheer puzzle-solving; and more.
Zack & Wiki’s string of surprises is as long as the chain of puzzles it presents, meaning that with every level, and with every riddle that composes them, the game never ceases to amaze. They are, at least, as inventive as those found inside the very best Zelda dungeons, and the game does it by tackling environments that are as small as a room and as big as a fortress, and every scope that lies in between those poles. There are so many intricacies to them that even the smallest levels can sometimes take more than thirty minutes to be fully figured out; and one of the final levels, in particular, is so huge and complex it certainly demands more than a couple of hours of players’ attention.
Due to that, Zack & Wiki is a far harder game than its appearance lets on. Such difficulty is compounded by how, in stages where it is possible to actually die, the heroes may meet their demise with one tiny mistake, which makes them restart the level from the beginning, therefore opening the door to a good deal of dull backtracking. However, a couple of items are helpful in those regards: Oracle Dolls, which will reveal a hint with details of what needs to be done next; and Platinum Tickets, which work as continues that let players restart from where they stopped in case of an unfortunate death. Yet, given those items are expensive, and thereby not available in abundance, the former – positively – somewhat decreases the game’s difficulty but does not make it overly easy; and the latter – negatively – fails to completely do away with the backtracking problem.
Given Zack & Wiki is basically made up of lots of puzzles, and puzzle games tend not to have such a big replay value because once the solutions to the riddles are discovered the element of surprise goes away, subsequent playthroughs lean towards the uninteresting. Aware of that, Zack & Wiki tries to address these problems, and succeeds to a certain degree. First of all, when completing each stage gamers are given a score based on what they did and how quickly they figured out how to use a certain item, so the chance to improve one’s score towards perfection will be an allure to completists. Additionally, there some stages that can be completed in two or more ways, so figuring out all of the possible paths can lure dedicated players into coming back for more.
Zack & Wiki’s gorgeous cell-shaded art style; its soundtrack, which conjures feelings of adventure and exploration; and its beautiful graphics, which sadly lead to some frame-rate drops in stages that feature too many foes or a big boss; may indicate it is yet another one of those games that tries to appeal to children based on looks and feel alone. However, these assets hide one brutal and creative adventure that transcends the boundaries of four popular genres to bring their elements together into one continuously flooring puzzle-solving spectacle. It is so utterly unique it calls for the creation of a genre in which it can exist by itself; it is so surprising it will leave the cleverest solutions to its greatest puzzles forever imprinted in the minds of those who go through it; and it is so unfairly overlooked it should be ranked way up high in any list of the best titles most gamers have never played.