ZIGGURAT and the end of the world during coffee break
ZIGGURAT is a videogame developed by Action Button Entertainment LLC and published by Freshuu Inc., for the iPad and iPhone. The iPhone version was played for the purposes of this review. It was directed by TIM ROGERS.
A wise man once wrote what I believe to be one of the core tenets anyone who calls himself a game reviewer should have in mind: if you want to know if a game design works, imagine that game with an endless mode. It’s one of those advices so simple and obvious only a genius could have thought of.
And now that genius went off to make his own endless game, ZIGGURAT.
It’s one of those things that leaves me both excited for the results and frustrated about my own inadequacies. Just like when Erik Wolpaw, who used to write hilariously astute reviews and commentary on games in his Old Man Murray website, went off to write arguably one of the best videogames ever made: Portal.
The result is that Tim Rogers, the number one defender of friction in games, made what is, together with Canabalt, the game with the most friction you can find on the iPhone. ZiGGURAT is a genre great game with so much friction I have the impression my iPhone is rumbling even though it lacks a rumble feature.
After the mandatory and completely useless tutorial (with controls as intuitive as these, a tutorial is almost insulting), the game starts off with the silhouette of a solitary man on top of a mountain with what initially seems to be a huge erection. Then the lights come on. It’s not a phallus, just phallic imagery: in this case, your huge crotch-mounted gun. You are atop a ziggurat, the ziggurat, and a myriad of “alien freaks” are assaulting you from left and right.
That man is the Last Man on Earth – everybody else was already killed by the alien freaks, something the Kill Screen keeps reminding us of so there are never any unwary hopes about someone actually beating this game. He is not the Brightest Man on Earth, else he wouldn’t have picked such a terrible defending position, open to attack from all sides and angles, but he needs to survive as long as he can regardless.
ZiGGURAT is like Angry Birds had Rovio had the balls to make the pigs fight back. You must charge your shots, point them at the enemy and let them fly. You do this by sliding your finger on the lower part of the screen – which is refreshing, for someone finally realized the biggest problem with touch screen games: I can’t see the game if my finger is covering it. If you do hate brilliant control mechanics though, or like Angry Birds a bit too much, you can always change the control setup to “slingshot mode”.
On the surface, the game is an homage to the arcade shooters of yore, particularly Treasure’s. Graphics are 16-bit, and the alien freaks, despite different tactics, only differentiate themselves through color and size (though I confess I was unable to meet all of them, and doubt that I ever will). The soundtrack is made up of chip tunes whose tastiness is comparable to the best Capcom could offer.
As we delve deeper, however, we realize how nuanced the shooting is. The basic rules are: (1) if you hit an alien freak, he will blow up; (2) any other enemy caught in the vicinity of the explosion will also explode. Therefore, the game is not only about shooting aliens, but making sure they truly explode. But there are other, non-obvious rules as well. The size of your blast, for instance, will diminish in both size and speed after reaching its charging passed its point of maximum. This is more evidence of brilliant game design – and one that should be followed. Had the charge shot kept its size, the only result would be that we wouldn’t stop pressing the charge button all the time. ZiGGURAT throws any incentive for that away. After all, if you press the charge button all the time your shot will lose power.
But even without full power you can still cause a nice blast if you manage to pull a headshot right when the enemy’s head is all swollen up. This is another interesting detail: the size of the alien heads keep swelling up and down – and the bigger the head, the bigger the outburst.
So there is strategy to be found here. ZiGGURAT is anything but mindless. It’s a game that actually requires you to make a series of quick prioritization decisions. You may find yourself surrounded and the right shot at the right enemy at the right time will cause an almost simultaneous chain of explosions that may wipe that ziggurat clean from enemies while you gaze in astonishment of how awesome you are. You are in the safe, for the brief moment.
The game joyfully throws little touches of artistry here and there, like painting the screen completely red when you die. A Kubrickian touch that, together with the high-pitched screech you’ll hear, delivers a much stronger impact than any triple-A game released last year.
You will never die immediately after starting up the game, though. Like the first Goomba will never kill you and the first Tetris block will never give you any trouble, so will the first alien freak that pops up. New types will appear once you survive long enough, never randomly, and that may be the only aspect in which ZiGGURAT is merciful: it won’t demand you to keep on your toes at least during the first seconds of gameplay.
This lends the game a sense of progression. A new enemy found is an achievement greater than any of the silly official achievements offered on Apple’s Game Center. Every second, in fact, is a little victory, as the sun rises and sets in the background towards the end of the universe.
Let it be no mistake here. ZiGGURAT is tough. Before dying, I managed to kill only “136 of the alien freaks who killed everybody else” (I then tweeted it). That accounts to mere 122 seconds, which means this game probably has the largest “number of words written per minutes of gameplay” ratio I’ve ever done in a review. Casual games are so defined because they don’t need pacing or anything of the sort. They fit so inconspicuously in the cracks of our daily lives that the ephemeral minute(s) they provide already serve as the climax to coffee breaks, particularly a game about the Last Stand of humankind – and it’s that context that ties it all up together.
I think that’s what gives the game a meaning and makes a difference. ZiGGURAT is pure. There are no counters, numbers, words and exclamation points all over the screen. No useless statistics after you die (though those can be found at the game’s menu). There are only the Last Man, the alien freaks, the tricky layout provided by the ziggurat itself and a very powerful context. In Canabalt, if you die, you just start over again. You barely look at the score. Here I want to know how much my effort meant. Then I start over again. My goal is to survive until the end of the universe, finish my coffee, and get back to work.