I've come to the conclusion over the last few years that popular iOS developer-publisher Nimblebit has quite a talent.
It's not for pixel art -- though their games all have a distinctive, charming look about them that is instantly recognizable. No; it's for successfully convincing the world that the vast majority of its recent games -- Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes, Pocket Trains, Tiny Death Star -- are anything more than the same dreadful, aimless, tap-and-wait gameplay that we deride titles like EA's awful Dungeon Keeper for.
To be fair, none of Nimblebit's games are quite as bad as Dungeon Keeper -- they are, for the most part, a lot more generous in terms of how they dish out the premium "Bux" currency, for one thing -- but the fact remains that pretty much all of them actually become shallower over time, not deeper. All of them turn you into a slave to your device's push notifications, and the gameplay, such as it is, consists of firing up the game, tapping on everything with an icon on it, perhaps starting a long-term timer (such as building a floor in Tiny Tower) if you have enough money to trigger it, and then closing it down for another few hours. There's no strategy involved and certainly no skill; these games are little more than software toys to fiddle with while you're waiting for a bus or trying to nod off to sleep, and I'm frankly baffled at the widespread praise they've received over the years. They have an undeniably addictive -- or perhaps that should be compulsive -- quality about them, but that in itself isn't a reason to hold them up as an example of great design, because looking at them on anything more than the most superficial level quickly reveals them to be left severely wanting in a number of areas.
Things changed when Nimblebit released Nimble Quest. With that title -- an enjoyably original cross between Gauntlet and Snake -- the team proved that it was capable of building a solid, enjoyable, skill-based game on top of its trademark retro pixel art aesthetic. I still play Nimble Quest today, which is more than I can say for Tiny Tower, and it gave me a small degree of hope that the developer might favor games with a bit more meat to them in the future.
And so we come to Disco Zoo. Is it more Nimble Quest or Tiny Tower? Take a wild guess.
Disco Zoo was created as a collaboration between Nimblebit and Milkbag Games, a two-man team made up of Matt Rix (the man behind the legitimately excellent puzzler Trainyard) and Owen Goss (who brought us the inventive "touchscreen Twister" title Finger Tied), and, unsurprisingly, places you in charge of a zoo. I say "in charge;" your management responsibilities largely consist of tapping on animals to wake them up every few minutes (because they don't produce money while they're asleep) and going to rescue new animals for your zoo.
This latter aspect actually gave me a little hope for Disco Zoo, particularly given Rix's involvement; taking the form of a simple little puzzle game, it looked like it might offer some much needed skill-based gameplay to the otherwise mindless Tiny Tower tap-tap-tap formula. And indeed it certainly seems that way to begin with -- in order to rescue animals, you have to use a limited number of moves to uncover them on a grid, and each animal has its own unique pattern for you to remember. Once you unlock access to several different areas and have to hold the patterns for a whole host of different animals in your head, it could have become quite challenging and enjoyable.
Note: "could have" -- because naturally, this being a free-to-play game, the option is there to break it completely, ruining any sense of achievement in the process. Not only can you pay $2.99 for a "Zoopedia" to remember all the patterns for you, you can use the game's premium currency to purchase extra attempts in the rescue minigame. Or -- and here's the real kicker that totally ruins the balance -- you can watch a video ad in exchange for five extra attempts. And you can do this more than once -- right up until you either discover all the animals in a single grid or uncover all the squares. In other words, the gameplay eventually takes a back-seat to what I suspect was its real intention all along: to become an efficient ad-delivery platform.
There's very little game here. Like Tiny Tower, you open the app, tap on everything with an icon on it, then spend your earned money on jetting off to rescue more animals -- a process that becomes more and more expensive the more you do it. Then you fail to rescue all the animals, watch a few ads, and repeat until you can't take any more. There's no end goal, no meaningful progression -- nothing more than mindless, pointless tapping ad nauseam, and all the beautiful pixel art and quirky humor in the world can't save Disco Zoo from that unfortunate truth.
Disco Zoo is so disappointing to me because, as previously mentioned, Nimble Quest proved that Nimblebit was more than capable of creating a fair, balanced, enjoyable and skill-based game with a sensible use of free-to-play mechanics. I can only assume, however, that it didn't make enough money when compared to Tiny Tower and its ilk, and as such we remain doomed to this seemingly endless cycle of disposable mobile games that you'll forget about within the space of a week. It's a real shame; I expect a whole lot better out of mobile gaming by now -- it's a shame the market seems to disagree with me.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Some attractive pixel art, though the heavily zoomed-out perspective means that the tiny characters are now only about three or four pixels big and as such don't have anywhere near the charm of titles like Tiny Tower.
- Music and Sound: The background music is unobtrusive, even catchy; the sound effects complement the action -- competent, but nothing you'd want to sit and listen to.
- Interface: Tap, tap, tap.
- Lasting Appeal: Once you realize there's no meat to Disco Zoo, you'll discard it quickly. Until then, it can be an enjoyable diversion, but nothing more.
A polished title with a couple of nice ideas completely undermined by boring mechanics and obtrusive, game-breaking monetization.