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Sunday, April 16, 2006.

Zuma 2006

The best frog balls around.
by Charles Onyett

January 4, 2006 - The Xbox Live Arcade has yet to disappoint. As of right now, Zuma represents the height of addictive and deceptively engrossing gameplay. One look at a screen of Zuma and you most likely won't understand what you're seeing. In fact, you may grow so confused as to cause the onset of a massive migraine headache. However, after a few healthy doses of aspirin and a few minutes of play time, you won't be able to put your controller down.

What is Zuma? Quite simply, it's a puzzle game. It's available on PC through developer Pop Cap Games' website as a trial, and the full version can be purchased for 20 American dollars. The XBLA version can be downloaded for a preferable 800 Microsoft Points, which translates to 10 Washingtons.

The goal in Zuma, like in so many other puzzle games, is to group together three of the same colored objects. In the case of this title, you need to group strange aboriginal balls. To form groups and rid the screen of balls, you'll need to strategically spit out the colored spheres form the frog idle, conveniently located near the center of every stage.

If this screen doesn't make perfect sense to you, die.

To control the 2D frog you'll use the joysticks to circle him around 360 degrees and use one button to shoot. There's a recess at the rear of the frog that indicates the color of the next ball, and should you need it more than the one ready to fire, you can switch to it at the press of a button. Each stage takes place on a flat board with a groove running along it. It quickly fills up with balls, and your job is to make sure they don't get to the end of the groove or you lose.

Stopping the balls requires you to match like colored ones and trigger power-ups, but the real strategy is in setting up combos. When you blow up three or more same colored balls, it leaves a recess in the advancing ball line. If the two balls on opposite ends of the recess are not the same color, it will simply fill in. However, if the two balls are the same, they will attract each other and collide, pulling back the entirety of the line. If those balls happen to have three or more around them of the same color, they will then explode and leave another recess, and the process can just go on repeating itself.

You'll absolutely need to use these combos as you get further into the game, as the balls come at you at increasingly faster rates. Pulling off combos is by far the most effective way to move the line back and lengthen the amount of time you can survive. So, Zuma works as a puzzle game because its core combo system integrates extremely well with the goal of the game. Combined with the fact that they're very satisfying to pull off, you're going to be glued to the screen for a long time after downloading this one.

Greatest storyline ever.

Zuma offers two modes of play, Adventure and Gauntlet. In Adventure you'll progress through a series of stages and temples and even be treated to some over-the-top story scenes. Gauntlet is a continuous mode of play where the challenge keeps increasing until you lose. Across Adventure and Gauntlet modes you'll find yourself on many different maps, some of which feature simple spiral grooves and others which flaunt more complex curvilinear designs and grooves that actually go under the board. Though extremely challenging, some of the tougher boards in the game are still a blast to play.

The game can be run in HD, though there isn't all that much to be seen in the first place. It's bright and colorful, as with most puzzle games. The animations are smooth, and that's all that matters for a game like this. Soothing tribal music and chants dominate the soundtrack, and are a real pleasure to listen to. You might also mistake the clack of the balls with a frantic pool game, but it's entertaining nonetheless. One thing you won't find in Zuma is a multiplayer mode. While that would be a cool addition, it's not necessary to make this game fun. Zuma should downloaded immediately; it's one of XBLA's finest.

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