Creativity can be found where you least expect it
was developed by Ablex
, a small Korean team whose previous work included the flawed, but charming Little Witch
. Even a superficial acquaintance with their games made me realize that they were one of the most talented, sadly underrated developers in their homeland. Zis
is probably their best work, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most enjoyable platformers I have ever played.
It's hard to believe that the fairly inexperienced developers delivered such an astonishingly complete and varied game. Zis
is simply bursting with creativity. It is one of those rare games where imagination and attention to detail become a design rule. Zis
has zero "fat", it eschews filler material and goes straight to the core on every level. It is, in a way, a brilliant testimony of the best time period of game development, where love to your creation mattered more than sales and catering to the mainstream.Zis
is built like a traditional platformer and doesn't deviate much from the tried-and-true structure. It's the execution, the variety, and the inventive power in every little detail that make it so good. The game consists of six worlds, each divided into three stages. As expected, the worlds are drastically different (hills, harbor, mysterious mansion, desert, caves, etc.), but the diversity goes way beyond style and setting. Every single stage has something that other stages don't, and every single one is memorable. It would be difficult to find another example of a pure platformer where surprises await you each time you see a new stage.
There is a horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up stage; a ride on the back of a dolphin; rushing forward on a skateboard, being carried away by birds, floating on magic cushions, sliding down diamond-filled slopes, and much more. There are many recurrent elements that make playing the game a more homogeneous experience than, say, the even more diverse Mr. Bones
; there is plenty of traditional platforming, shooting, key-hunting and alike. But as much as variety is encouraged in a traditionally-built game, Zis
really pushes it to the limits. Zis
is a shooter as well as a platform game: most of the challenge lies in dealing with the enemies, and the little hero's weapons are all ranged. Every weapon is satisfying, and finding the right power-up can often spell the difference between life and death. Even the default slingshot feels right, requiring you to hold down the attack key for a short while rather than mashing it. Some of the weapons are extremely inventive, such as a magic hat that releases a swarm of birds.
While Little Witch
suffered from poor programming and control issues, the gameplay of Zis
is flawless. The scrolling is perfectly smooth, with none of the choppiness often associated with PC platformers. Controls work like a charm: the protagonist responds to your input impeccably and does exactly what you tell him without delay. Jumping and shooting feel tight and graceful, without the slightest annoyances that so often poison your enjoyment in platform games. Zis
is a heart-warmingly friendly game. It is one of the most fair platformers of the era, designed to entertain the player instead of maddening him. There are no bottomless pits that will kill you in an instant just because your jump was less than millimeter-perfect. There are no bosses that will still decimate you after repeated attempts (actually, there are no bosses at all, and I could totally live with that). There are no cheap deaths of any kind. Make no mistake: the game is challenging. Particularly later levels require you to plan your moves well and arm yourself accordingly, otherwise the flying, aggressive enemies will reduce you to mincemeat. But at no point in the game did I feel that somebody out there was just trying to extend the life of his game by driving me crazy with unfair tasks. Unlike so many other platformers, Zis
is very low on frustration.Zis
is irresistibly charming. You may be sick of the Japanese "cute" aesthetics, but Zis
is full of genuine sweetness that makes your heart melt. Backgrounds, enemy design, and all those little weapons and gadgets are just adorable. Simply firing up the game and loading any of its stages makes you want to smile. The cutscenes are unique in their almost child-like touching naivety. Zis
has beauty and appeal that are hard to explain and can be achieved only with true talent and love.
The game's glaring flaw is its save system. You can't save your game at all and must complete it in one sitting. The possibility to replay any world with unlimited continues makes it much more passable than all those games that throw you back to the very beginning should you fail enough times somewhere in the middle, and the game's forgiving difficulty makes it much less aggravating than it may sound. Still, it is unfortunate that this abominable, artificial challenge has found its way into an otherwise magnificent game. I actually managed to make my way through it without saving, but I strongly advise to download the unofficial DOSBox build with a save feature.Zis
is not always technically immaculate. There are a few graphical bugs here and there, and a couple of not-too-serious balance issues. Also, I'm fairly certain most hardcore platform fans will find it too easy.
The Bottom Line
Real gems are often hidden in the murky depths of regional video game history. Zis
is one of them: a wonderful platformer made by a small Korean team, little-known even in its homeland. You can find more polished platform games than Zis
, but there aren't many that can compete with its generous soul.