Mobile game of the week: Zoombinis

Zoombinis is a gentle but engrossing puzzle game. It stars a series of little blue folks with different combinations of features, and you must convey them safely through a series of logic puzzles that rely on those features.

It's a remake of a beloved and, for some, iconic, educational CD-ROM released in 1996 called Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. It's a pleasant memory from an era when computers were novel and rare, yet educational software was usually no thrill to children. The world of the Zoombinis was different—not explicitly "teachy", it let players intuit how variables and interdependencies work, and learn how to discover rules and patterns, just by sorting the little blue Zoombinis by their eyes, noses, hairstyles and feet types.

The imagination and attention to detail still seems magnificent even today: the player interacts with whimsical contraptions, from pizza makers and bubble fields to crystal mines and mud flingers, and each of them puffs, chugs and splats like a plausible machine, flinging Zoombinis about cutely as you solve puzzles.

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There's a great USA Today feature about the history of the Zoombinis and why the old game was important, and here is my favorite quote from one of the original developers, Scot Osterweil:

"We were probably plumbing our own self-consciousness, but over time we realized that the Zoombinis were kids," Osterweil said. "They were persistent. Our joke was that they were knee-high to everything they met. The world was full of bigger creatures. And if you think about it, rules in a kid's world are arbitrary. The kids shouldn't have to sort themselves by feature — they don't believe in that. But the world is full of these big people who tell them to sort."

The feature does a good job of explaining how the old 1996 CD-ROM came to Kickstarter and raised $101,716 for a desktop and tablet remake. Now that Zoombinis is on your tablet device, it's a perfect time to revisit it, or to introduce it to your kids.

Actually, I still very much enjoy Zoombinis as an adult. As you progress through the game, bringing groups of Zoombinis successfully through all the puzzles, the difficulty level increases: You'll have to solve for multiple rules instead of just one, or figure out a stage's rule with far fewer clues. Playing it on harder settings gives you that fun sense of flexing a brain-wing you haven't used since you were younger and a more agile thinker.

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If you are an adult player, you'll have to plod through some levels that are probably much too easy for you a few times before the difficulty becomes engaging. Related: the only real shortcoming of the tablet adaptation of Zoombinis is that it's not really adapted for tablet play. Audiences who are used to having the things they touch explained to them, or to having their options highlighted (for example it's not visually clear that you can choose from two paths at a certain juncture, as you might not notice the muted arrows on the secreen) are unlikely to know what to do, where to touch or how to play at first.

There is an intro film and a generally-unhelpful help button, but I worry that people who've never tried Zoombinis before won't know what they're looking at or doing in the age of no manuals and graduated tutorials. And while the game is scored based on how many Zoombinis you bring successfully to "Zoombiniville" at the puzzles' end, I wish players could select their own difficulty level from the start rather than having to complete areas multiple times to advance.

Zoombinis remains a wonderful game, and if I could figure it out and be transfixed by it as a young person there's no reason today's players of all ages won't be able to be drawn in. There's something to be said for the old days of letting people learn and experience on their own. I note these shortcomings mostly because I think you should be prepared to overlook them. But if the developers do future updates to the mobile version, I hope they'll do just a little bit of modernizing for the mobile audience, so that as many folks of all ages from an entirely new generation of players have a chance to be delighted by this game.

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  1. i remember this from way back when -- there was a sound clip
    "I am the great zoombini" that my roommate would yell at the top of his lungs when a little inebriated.... nightclubs, bars, restaurants. just about anywhere.

    and the 2 or 3 people who laughed? knew what he meant.... smile

    So cool to see a reboot!

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