Zanzarah: Types of Fairy

You might think that having all the combat creatures be fairies, on both the player’s side and the opponents’, would be kind of limiting. I remember thinking something similar when playing some Western-themed game (probably either the Lucasarts FPS Outlaws or Sierra’s Freddy Pharkas): what, it’s just cowboys? How much can you do with cowboys? But “cowboy” is just a category of person, and thus gives you the entire range of human personalities and physical types (extended, in both those games, by caricature). Similarly, Zanzarah applies “fairy” as a template on a fairly wide range of creatures.

zanzarah-fishSince pretty much all the fairies do is fight, they don’t get much opportunity to express different personalities, except by grunting in pain or cheering their victory in different tones of voice. But there’s a very broad range of physical appearance. Child-like fairies and sexy fairies and fairies with animal heads, ones with chiseled musculature and ones that look like plush toys, ones with dragonfly wings or butterfly wings or bat wings or wings that look like leaves or flower petals. A few kinds don’t have wings at all, and fly by riding other creatures or mechanical vehicles. There are fairies that, contrary to expectation, are bulky and ungainly-looking, at least in comparison to the other fairies. In the extreme cases, you have fairies that don’t look like fairies per se, but like imps or gargoyles. There’s a skeletal fairy with the bones of batlike wings. There’s even one kind that’s a fish. I don’t mean it has fish-like features (although there are fairies like that too), I mean it’s indistinguishable from a fish. The color text excuses this as camouflage. Another type looks like a mushroom with eyes, and flies by flapping its cap up and down.

I suppose the fact that the designers felt the need to go so far beyond standard fairyhood is an indication that fairies actually don’t have the range needed for a game like this. All of which leads us to one question: why fairies? It seems like rather a big risk. The safe path for game design has always been to play to the power fantasies of boys. Arguably, RPG-style level advancement of the sort seen in Zanzarah is one way that this manifests. And fairies don’t fit into that very well. They’re pretty much the opposite of macho. Even if some of them look like demonic bodybuilders, you can’t help but remember that they’re tiny demonic bodybuilders. I can only assume that the developers were inspired by Pokémon‘s success in getting a cross-gender audience. After all, they took inspiration from Pokémon in just about every other aspect of the game.

But also, if fairies don’t have the required range… what does? The designers of Pokémon, in retrospect, had it easy: by creating an entirely new category of creature, they were free to populate it with whatever they felt like, including plants and ghosts and robots. Fairies are magical beings, and thus at least have some excuse to come in many and varied forms. Pretty much the only other thing I can think of that fits the bill is aliens.

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.

Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal

zanzarah-elftownAnother random pick today. Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal has an easy three-word description: Pokémon with fairies. You play the part of Amy, an ordinary British teenager in unreasonably tight trousers (yes, this game is definitely post-Tomb Raider), whisked away to fulfill a prophecy in a magical land of elves and goblins who use their smaller winged brethren in the fantasy equivalent of cockfighting. I’ll describe the game content more fully in my next post. At the moment, I want to talk about my adventures in installing the thing.

My first problem was that the install disk was damaged and unusable, with visible abrasions on its surface. I assume this happened when I moved. Possibly it could be resurfaced: I’ve occasionally resurfaced disks in the past, with spotty success. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I turned to piracy. Now, I normally don’t pirate games. I’m aware of the arguments against copyright law in its current form, and generally agree with them, but the way I see it, that just makes it more important that I avoid behaving like a freeloader and undermining those arguments. But this situation here, copying something that I purchased legally but can no longer access, is one of those arguments. Once I had my freshly-burned CD, it was a little reassuring that the installer prompted me to type in a code from the original CD case, allowing me to assert my legal right to play it. But presumably these codes can be found on the internet as well.

Once I managed to install it, there was one more obstacle to playing it: the key configuration. Zanzarah uses the mouse/keyboard movement scheme familiar to PC gamers — mouse to turn, keyboard to move in the four cardinal directions relative to your facing. But by default, the movement keys are the arrow keys. Now, I could play it like that — certainly I played a number of games like that, before I discovered the superiority of WASD, along with the entire PC game industry — but if I could rebind the keys, it seemed worth it. And the game does in fact offer a key-rebinding menu. But on my machine, it doesn’t work. For mysterious reasons, whenever I tried to rebind something, it wound up bound to “Mouse Z Axis” instead of what I wanted to bind it to. So I had a merry time figuring out how to edit the configuration file directly, which involved blind guesswork with a hex editor. A word of advice to anyone writing a game system: Make your configuration files text-based. Someday, someone’s life will be easier if you do.

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