That’s right; we’re back in the nineties with another bright, colourful action/platformer. This time we’re looking at one of many attempts by the Amiga to copy SEGA’s success with Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991), Zool: Ninja of the “Nth” Dimension (Gremlin Graphics, 1992), which was ported to the Mega Drive by Electronic Arts. Given that it released about a year after Sonic, and about a month before Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team, 1992), Zool was one of the first videogames to ape Sonic’s success and even beat the franchise to the punch in some ways. Hell, just look at his eyes; they’re almost exactly the same style as Sonic’s!
One of the main things that sets Zool apart from Sonic is its use of text-and-picture cutscenes in the game’s opening and ending to tell its story; this story was also elaborated on through a charming little comic included in the game’s manual. It would be some years before Sonic videogames even used in-game sprite animations to convey their story, much less text-and-picture cutscenes.
As we saw in Cool Spot (Virgin Games, 1993), Zool also includes some rather unsubtle product placement; the entire first World is littered with Chupa Chups, quite possibly the most generic lollipop sweet there is. Quite how Zool contributed to the sale and advertisement of Chupa Chups is beyond me but perhaps it was this advertising revenue that allowed the videogame to be ported not only to the Mega Drive but also to MS-DOS (where it would later be surpassed by the far superior Jazz Jackrabbit (Epic MegaGames, 1994)), Game Boy, Game Gear, Master System, SNES, and even the Atari ST.
But let’s start from the top; upon beginning the game, players are immediately tossed into an absolute blast of bright, vibrant colours and catchy, rock/electronic music. Zool, a little gremlin ninja thing from the “Nth dimension”, must jump, blast, and spin his way across seven equally animated and colourful Worlds (each with four Levels), defeating the minions of Krool in an effort to return to his home dimension.
Despite wielding energy sticks on the game’s box art, Zool’s primary form of attack is to blast enemies with energy projectiles; however, unlike other sidescrolling shooters, Zool can only fire projectiles in the direction he is facing. Zool can also perform a spinning top attack when jumping to attack airborne enemies or break certain level obstacles or, thankfully, simply jump on enemies to defeat them. Zool can also scale walls by either climbing or jumping up them, slide under spikes and through narrow gaps, and fire projectiles whilst ducking.
Arguably, Zool plays a lot faster that Sonic, however the game lacks some of the polish of SEGA’s iconic platformer; controlling Zool is like skating on ice on the Moon as Zool darts across Levels and soars through the air seemingly in defiance of gravity. While this doesn’t stop the game from being extremely fun to play or make navigating Levels that difficult, it can make some of the game’s attempts at precision platforming trickier.
What does get in the way of navigation is the game’s primary gameplay mechanic; in order to clear a Level, Zool must collect a certain number of items. These change as Zool visits new Worlds (being anything from various fruits to CDs and bath toys) and the number you must collect depends on the difficulty you set the game to. Once Zool has collected enough items, he must follow an extremely vague arrow in the game’s HUD to reach a coin and be spirited away to the next Level or World.
Zool must do all of this while battling against not only respawning enemies and level obstacles such as spikes and disappearing platforms but also while traversing the game’s maze-like Levels. Some Levels are considerably more labyrinthine than others, to be fair, and sometimes the game cheekily hides your route behind a wall that must be blasted open…though, as there’s no visual distinction between walls, it’s easy to miss these routes entirely.
Zool’s enemies are as wacky and outrageous as the game’s Worlds; Zool must contend with the likes of anthropomorphic jelly, killer violins, floating screws, projectile-spitting liquorice treats, and evil fruit (the implication being that sweets are good and veggies are bad…which I can get behind). To clear each World, Zool must also battle equally weird and wild bosses, such as a giant cactus and a screaming pink head with a spring-loaded boxing glove for a tongue!
Luckily, Zool has plenty of things to assist him in his mission; Zool has an energy bar and can take three hits before losing a life, can blast various checkpoints to respawn at a number of different points throughout a Level, and can collect numerous power-ups that increase his jump height, give him a shadow to double his firepower, increase his time, destroy all onscreen enemies, or make him invincible.
There are a few hidden secrets to be found in Zool as well; when I played the Master System version, I distinctly remember accidentally finding a warp point that simply took me straight to the game’s ending. There’s also some mini games and arcade games that can be played by doing certain actions in some Levels to add a little intrigue and variety to the proceedings.
Zool isn’t especially difficult, even on its hardest difficulty setting; 1 Ups are scattered across Levels (sometimes extremely liberally) to increase your chances, enemies often drop health, and the bosses have very simple attack patterns. However, there are some frustrating elements; the time limit, for one, and having to collect enough items to access the exit point, for another. While there are no bottomless pits, there are some frustrating platforming sections that require Zool to jump to very small, disappearing platforms and, if you fall, it can be a chore to get back up, especially as the enemies will respawn.
Perhaps the biggest letdown of Zool, though, is the ending; after defeating the final boss, Zool successful escapes back to the Nth dimension where he is greeted by Zooz, his female companion. Although she congratulates Zool, she reveals that Krool has invaded another handful of worlds, essentially making the ending a giant tease for its sequel, Zool 2 (The Warp Factory, 1993). This might be fine but, unfortunately, Zool 2 never received a port to the Mega Drive, all but forcing players to invest in an Amiga or other such console to play the sequel. I did own Zool 2 back when I had an Amiga and remember it being a pretty fine little game in its own right; this time, players can select between Zool and Zooz, with each character playing slightly differently (Zooz had a whip…) and being able to take alternative routes through Levels. It’s a shame that Zool 2 didn’t get the same cross-platform release but I guess that does go some way to making Zool the unofficial mascot of the Amiga.
Unfortunately, despite these two titles, the myriad number of ports Zool received, and even a couple of young adult novels, Zool has pretty much faded into obscurity. Quickly surpassed by Sonic 2 and other similar action/platformers, Zool never quite managed to outshine Sonic like the Amiga probably hoped he would. Zool’s time in the sun was very brief and it’s a shame, really, as, despite the game’s slippery controls, the character has a unique design and his games were extremely bright, energetic fun with some nice levels of animation. When it comes to a re-release, port, or HD remaster, I’d like to say “never say never” as even the similarly-themed, arguable more obscure Superfrog (Team17, 1993) got a nifty HD version in 2016 but it does seem like Zool’s brief flirtation with fame has long since passed.
Do you remember Zool? If so, which version did you play? If you haven’t, I urge you to track down a copy and give it a whirl but, either way, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.