Zuma: Theme and Substance

Pursuant to the previous post, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised that Zuma, like most of PopCap’s earlier works, took its core mechanic from prior art. Also, despite the fact that I bought it because it seemed original, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Progress often works through incremental improvement, and even just looking at those screenshots of Puzz Loop, it’s easy to see that Zuma improved on the basic idea in at least one respect: breaking the spiral.

The core idea of the game is that a row of colored balls advance slowly along a groove. If they reach the end of the groove, you lose. You can fire additional balls from a rotating hub at the row, where they’ll stick; if you form a sequence of three or more of the same color, they’re deleted, possibly triggering cascades if the edges of the gap you’ve just created are the same color. In Puzz Loop, and in Zuma‘s first level, the groove is a spiral with the player’s ball-shooter at its center, making it necessary to get through the oldest balls before you can get at the newest additions. (The oldest parts being, much of the time, a bunch of isolated singletons, because you’ve already deleted all the pairs.) Making the groove go in different patterns may seem superficial, and probably wouldn’t have been a substantial enough alteration to win over the jurors in the K. C. Munchkin case, but it really does change how you approach the task. For example, where the angle of the groove is steeper relative to your shooter, it’s difficult to put the ball exactly where you need it to go. More strikingly, some boards feature more than one groove, so that you have to divide your attention.

Now, just on the basis of precedent, I suspect that Zuma provides more innovations on the model than that, but I can’t say for sure without more knowledge of the original. I am, however, puzzled by their decision to not alter it more in theme. Puzz Loop looks to have a general ancient-civilizations theme: those screenshots show backdrops of Egyptian art and the Nazca lines. Zuma has a vaguely Aztec theme. This might be considered reasonably far from Puzz Loop‘s theming if something about the game constrained it to rely on lost tombs and ancient artifacts, but that’s not the case. The gameplay is almost completely abstract. You could theme it around anything from space opera to gourmet cooking, and it would make exactly as much sense and have exactly as much relevance to the player.

And yet, when I look at MobyGames’ list of Puzz Loop variants, I see that lost ruins are the dominant paradigm, whether of Atlantis or Tír na nÓg or what I can only assume to be some kind of dinosaur civilization. Even when it’s used as a minigame in a larger work, it’s invariably a work about an archeological expedition. What gives? Are they all just imitating each other and not messing with the proven formula, or is there something about the scenario that I’m missing? Perhaps it’s just that grooves suggest stone carvings?

1 Comment so far

  1. Dan Shiovitz on 10 Aug 2009

    Someone should do a version of this themed around conveyor-belt sushi.

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