Reviewed: December 11, 2005
Released: November 3, 2005
Zathura is the brainchild of Chris Van Allsburg, author of the children’s books The Polar Express and Jumanji (for which Zathura is the sequel). Van Allsburg hails from my local area and is an icon of sorts in this region – so anytime one of his books is made into a movie, the whole of West Michigan swells with a feeling of pride over their hometown hero.
So, it’s only natural that when Zathura: A Space Adventure hit the big screen recently as a blockbuster film directed by the great Jon Favreau (Swingers, Made), followed by an Xbox game release – that I would do my part as a game reviewer and help cheer our local hero on.
Now I wish I hadn’t…
Zathura follows the story of two constantly feuding brothers, Walter and Danny, who find themselves (and their home) transported to an alternate outer space universe as the result of a mystical board game called Zathura – which is a bit like Monopoly® except that the Chance cards in Zathura end up coming true. If the card calls out a meteor shower, well you had better duck. If the card tells you that your robot has gone haywire, then you had better hide – whether or not you even remember having a robot in the first place.
This new outer space realm is big and scary, and the two young boys realize that in order to get their lives back in order, they need to put their petty differences aside and play their way through the dangerous Zathura board game together.
No surprise, the gameplay takes the form of your standard three-dimensional platformer that finds the boys (and eventually their robot) hopping, smashing, kicking, slingshotting and shooting their way through a variety of space-themed environments against assortment of robotic and alien foes. While the game generally takes the behind-the-character exploration, occasionally the game will move the action into a different perspective with pseudo-sidescrolling, turret-based shooting and vehicular (robotic) levels.
You have no choice in character selection for each particular level – the game decides whether you will control the younger brother, Danny (armed with a slingshot and basic combat moves), the older brother, Walter (more acrobatic and can throw objects), or the Robot (higher jumping and armed with a photon gun).
The collectible units are the coveted Zathura symbols, and each level is absolutely loaded to the gills with these little floating Z’s. Believe me when I say that some levels will leave you feeling like Pac Man gobbling up power pellets as the string of symbols leads you from objective to objective. There is also a overabundance of destructible boxes that revel either these Zathura symbols or a variety of health and ammunition power-ups.
Really, although the collection elements are incredibly annoying – they are the only element of true gaming challenge in the game as you try to figure out how to get to just-out-of-reach ledges and platforms and cursing yourself when you realize you should not have smashed that last box that would have given the added height to your jump.
As mentioned, the theme is very much outer space, so you will see your share of robot and alien attackers. Most can be taken out with a kick or two at close range, but some will require a projectile of some sort – whether it be the robot’s photon shooter, Walter’s thrown objects, or Danny’s variety of heat-seeking and explosive slingshot ammo – to pick the enemies off at range.
None of the enemies – bosses included – really pose much of a threat, and the liberal scattering of health power-ups will make it so you seldom need to worry about silly things like dying. But hey – it is a kids game, so we will give it some leniency in that respect.
But while you don’t have to give much concern over dying at the enemies’ hands – you will definitely be doing plenty dying on you own as a result of the absolutely atrocious controls. Whether it is the sketchy animations or often-awkward perspectives put on some of the fixed camera levels, the shoddy controls lead to many unnecessary platform plunges, drop-offs or missed landings. More than once I put my controller down in disgust over the controls, and if it were not for the sake of this review I would have never plated through the whole game.
Thankfully, experienced gamers can muddle through Zathura over the course of a single evening, so the overall experience is not too tedious. Then again, if I paid $40 for a game and it was not enjoyable and I finished it in one night – well, I might be a bit less than happy.
Zathura is simply a poor graphical package at best, and is the perfect example of the negative side effects we get from console porting.
It is quite obvious that the game was developed with the PS2 in mind – with bleak and uninspired areas, a minimum of texturing and shadows, stiff and rigid animations, and characters that look like they were hand-molded out of modeling clay (but not in a good way).
But the fun does not end there – the visual effects are simply mediocre, the camera is for the most part unmanageable, and the aforementioned perspective issues cause numerous unnecessary deaths.
On a GameCube or PS2, we have come to accept shoddy washed-out graphics, but on the Xbox we like have come to expect at least a bump in the framerate that comes with the increased computing power – but even that does not help when the screen starts to become filled with enemies and effects.
Really, there isn’t much good I can say about the visuals in Zathura – it just plain looks bad.
Zathura boasts some big names in the voice acting – not the least of which would be the voiceover director Jon Favreau (who also directs the movie). The characters are voiced by their on-screen actors, and the quality is quite solid overall. The music and sound effects are also derived from the movie, and generally have the large-screen feel you would expect.
Really, for what it’s worth, the sound is what carries game and it’s only too bad that the actual integration is so sketchy – with themes abruptly starting and stopping, and characters’ voices cutting in and out ever so often.
The biggest problem with Zathura is that it really feels like someone’s class project from the Sail Away School of video game design. It has all of the trapping of a textbook platformer – platform jumping, box smashing, item collecting, enemy kicking, slingshot shooting, etc. – but none are really all that impressive, especially compared to even the most dated of competition.
Really, the only reason to pick up Zathura at its full $40 price tag would be if you were a really big fan of the movie. For the rest of us, there are a handful of great Xbox platformers like Voodoo Vince, I-Ninja and even Vexx that would better suit your needs.
While it sounds like Zathura has all the goods to make for at least a serviceable platformer, the game’s shoddy controls and uninspired (or should I say overly inspired – as in completely unoriginal) design make it all but an aggravating exercise in, well…aggravation.
I know that making a standout video game isn’t the easiest thing to do these days – with stiff competition from the big-name studios; the smaller companies that are often contracted to do these movie tie-ins are already starting at a disadvantage. So, unless the subject matter and/or overall presentation are personally offensive, I really hate to knock on these smaller developers too much.
So, while the developers of Zathura tried hard to make a solid movie-to-game conversion, when it comes down to brass tacks the game just isn’t all that good.