Review: Wizorb

Wizorb

There is a difference between ripping an idea off and taking something and making it your own.  One need not look far in the video game business to see examples of developers, primarily in the mobile market, preying on and playing off the success of others or creating a general confusion amongst screen-tapping consumers to make way more money than they have a right to.  Zynga’s – I’ll be polite and say – “reinvention” of Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower is a legitimate, legally distinct product, but it does raise questions of whether or not it is worth anyone’s time or money when the original is equally accessible on the platform.

An idea is not copyrightable, the expression of one is. This is a good thing because unlike the countless slew of rip-offs and rehashes of Arkanoid (which draws heavily from Atari’s Breakout, which is itself a single player variant of Pong), Wizorb manages to bring something new to the table.  Something that would be lost to the public if it was possible to hold a monopoly on the idea of a game where a ball bounces off a paddle and destroys obstacles, as Wizorb would not then be able to exist (without a license from the ideaholder).  Tribute Games’ fresh title offers classic gameplay and puts in enough context and character to make it worth playing even if you’ve already gotten a little sick of pounding virtual balls with a paddle.

Upon loading up the game, players will be presented with a title screen and attendant sound effects that are straight out of 1986.  A tinny sword slash and simple emulation of an organ score accompany a giant orb landing as the “O” in the blocky text of the title and a pixelated, becastled kingdom is visible in the background.  All of the menus are consistent with this design and are very reminiscent of old-school, console-based role-playing games.  A time when boys were Dragon Warriors, they didn’t go on Quests.  The story setup is as simplistic as it was back when people wore Walkmen: the Kingdom of Gorudo has been devastated by a wave of badness and it is up to the kindly, old wizard Cyrus to save and rebuild this colorful 8-bit kingdom and defeat the remaining forces of evil with his magic and long, white beard.

It is a bland and basic setup, but the means Cyrus employs are unique.  Starting out on a screen filled with a few enemies and a multitude of colorful blocks, the mage looks to the heavens, intones mystical words of power, transforms into a sphere and launches himself at his foes and bounces off his telekinetically controlled wand should he come in danger of flying off the bottom of the screen.  This  magical rite allows the game to transform into a classic paddle game where the only goal is to bounce the ball off of all of the destructible objects and enemies until they all vanish, thereby clearing the level.  The difficulty lies in the increasing speed of the ball and the potential for a lost life should the ball reach the bottom of the screen without the paddle in front of it.  Such a path leads to failure and a very disappointed face on Cyrus’ portrait displayed at the top right of the screen.  To get the happy face that accompanies success, players will need to anticipate where the orb will head as the path of the ricocheting sphere is predictable to those who can think fast enough.  Twitch skills are not enough as the paddle is not as fast as the ball can be.  It’s table tennis for one, where the ball is involuntarily being hit harder with every stroke, more or less.

Beside the standard Arkanoid gameplay within it, the wiz in Wizorb does allow for a few magical methods of freshening up the action.  Spells and charms can be used to aid in the noble quest of bouncing the ball off of everything in sight.  Some will slow the ball down, others will make it an unstoppable fireball that will destroy all in its path for a short period of time, and it is even possible to summon a gust of wind to change the direction of the bouncing to keep it in a confined area, for more bouncing.  As objects are destroyed, some will cause jars full of magical energy potions or money to fall down to be caught by the wand.  If it can get there and still keep the wizorb in play.  Money is largely used to buy extra lives and charms at shops that can be bounced through big doors in some levels, or sometimes behind locked doors.  Shops, as a nice retro touch, feature three items laid out in front of a seated merchant with the amount due next to them.  One cannot say that the developer was not committed to the classical theme.

Other than the fact that the game fills up a 16:9 screen nicely, the visuals and sounds are right out of the Nintendo Entertainment System era of console role-playing games.  The haunted realms are filled with colorful, if somewhat blocky, creatures that will wander aimlessly about the screen just waiting to screw up your shots and bounce the wizorb in a direction you didn’t anticipate.  Giant eyeball monsters, teleporting wizards, weird werecats and cute little green slime guys are all on display.   The bosses which top off every level are the most impressive and diverse looking.  These screen-dominating monsters have unique attacks that will try to mess up Cyrus’ wand or randomize the ball’s path, probably leading to a lost life.  It is a shame that there are not more of these encounters in the game as they are far more interesting and visually appealing than a bunch of Breakout levels with different visual themes and generic monsters.  The levels are diverse from one another, from a haunted village to abandoned mines, but after six maps or less of seeing the same assets, things start to wear out their welcome and you’ll just want to get to the end of the area.  It would have served this game’s appeal significantly if there were less maps to clear before the end of a zone.  As it is, if you buy Wizorb, plan on play sessions of at least a minimum of half an hour to accomplish anything.  It is not clearly documented how this works, but there does appear to be a suspend option that allows players to pop in for a few levels, enjoy the old school vibe, and then go do something else.  Again, this is not clear from the documentation or game prompts, so don’t count on it.

To break up the action, the illustrious wizard can travel back to town in his non-orb form to have a chat with the locals.  They do not really have a lot to say; mostly they are upset that the township and their property within it is in ruins.  After they complain a bit, a prompt asking if the player wants to donate some amount of money pops up.  The game could be clearer about this, but the purpose of the donation is not to increase Compassion or some other weird meta-goal, it is to provide the funds to rebuild the pile of rubble the man or woman, or dog, is standing in front of.  The things to be rebuilt range from humble dog houses to a grand inn and other multi-level structures.  Grateful citizens, and dogs, will shower the mage with keys, extra lives or other bonuses for use in the next dungeon.  Everything is pretty basic, but it is fun to see the town come back from a mess of destroyed hovels as the game progresses.

Though no one would accuse this game of being the most original thing out this year, or any year since 1992, it does take some old ideas and combine them into an enjoyable package.  This is not going to change anyone’s mind about virtual bouncing balls and paddle games, but if the solely score-based nature of this genre of games in the past held little appeal for some, the old-style JRPG trappings may make things more appealing.  Depending on how good or lucky one is, the game can be finished in relatively short order.  But it is equally possible to play the game, get a series of bad rounds where that last block just, will, not, get, hit, and have to try a world over again several times.  Making for a longer, and more frustrating, experience.  Wizorb is not a great game in long sessions, but it is fun to fire it up in between doing other things.

You can pick up Wizorb for a song on Steam as well as on the Xbox Live Indie Games Marketplace space.  The only difference between the two, other than the platform, appears to be that the Steam version has achievements that are account wide.  The game is configured by default on both the PC and Xbox to use a 360 controller.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Good retro style
+ Fresh twist on classic gameplay

Cons:
– It is easy to get frustrated when trying to clear some levels
– Vast majority of the Achievements are more dependent on luck than skill

Game Info:
Platform: PC, Xbox Live Indie Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Developer: Tribute Games
Release Date: 3/14/2012
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.