Zanzarah: Comparison to Pokémon

Given the extreme and enduring popularity of Pokémon, it’s strange that it hasn’t been widely imitated, especially on other platforms. Zanzarah is the only obvious Pokémon imitation that I can think of. And when I say “obvious”, I mean really blatant, right down to the level of trivial mechanics: fairies that evolve on reaching particular experience levels, a complicated system of elemental resistances and vulnerabilities, and so forth. At the beginning, you have a choice of three fairies based on different elements: “Nature” (plants), Water, and Stone — just one element different from the Grass/Water/Fire choice that I’m told is at the beginning of every installment of the Pokémon franchise. Before you can catch your first wild fairy, you need to obtain a magical silver sphere capable of drawing it into your fairy bag. (Gold and crystal spheres become available later, allowing you to catch more powerful fairies.) At first, I wondered why I wasn’t able to catch more than one fairy. It turned out that catching a fairy actually uses up a sphere, which didn’t make intuitive sense to me — until I realized that the designers were thinking of it as a pokéball.

Apart from the relatively minor matter of the 3D world, the one big gameplay difference is in combat mode. Where Pokémon‘s pokéfighting is turn-based JRPG-like selecting-maneuvers-from-a-menu, Zanzarah‘s is a minitature tag-team FPS. All combat is played on various floating arenas in the astral plane (a little reminiscent of like the “ethereal combat” in Etherlords), which makes me wonder what’s supposed to be going on in the material world while the player is busy controlling the fairies. Is Amy watching the combat too? Is she, in-fiction, controlling her combatants’ every action through some kind of creepy mind-meld, and if so, what’s preventing other wild fairies from attacking her while she’s outside her body?

The different types of fairy have different stats, and those stats govern things like how fast your attacks charge up and how long you can fly before resting. (Flight is done by pressing a button to flap your wings, Joust-style.) And this affects how you play. For example, one of my fairies, a rock-type called Jumjum, has a very powerful attack that takes a long time to charge up fully, so I spend a lot of time with him hiding behind cover. Even so, the astral arena sequences quickly feel samey. I don’t like to use the word “samey” in describing games, because it implies a design philosophy that repetition of any sort is to be avoided, and I disagree with that rather strongly. But there it is. When you get down to it, though, it’s no more samey than combat in Pokémon, which, in most battles, consists of just pressing the “A” button whenever you’re given the opportunity. But that seems more acceptable to me, as it requires less attention. The mind wanders while executing those button-presses. Sometimes it only wanders as far as planning out long-term in-game goals, but it certainly isn’t fully occupied by the immediate situation. Zanzarah‘s realtime battles occupy just enough of my mind to make me earnestly wish there was more to them.

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