The smug cartoon character on the box, the title that sounds like it’s trying too hard to be cool, the time period it was released during… at first glance, Zapper: One Wicked Cricket seems like it would be just your typical 3D action platformer trying to make its mark in an oversaturated genre, but unlike games like Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer and Legend of Kay, Zapper sought to carve out its own niche by doing something all its own.
Zapper is a platform game, but it’s not about exploring open 3D environments and fighting groups of enemies. Zapper is viewed from the top-down most of the time as most of the action takes place on an invisible grid. Zapper moves through levels one square at a time, although he has the ability to fly to let him skip ahead a square to avoid obstacles, leap over pits, or catch enemies. Due to this arrangement, a lot of Zapper is about moving to the right positions and waiting on objects that move in real time to line up properly. Enemies are often moving freely as well, with Zapper having a rather short range zap attack that can only kill a few of them, stuns a few more, and ends up pretty worthless in a lot of scenarios without the appropriate upgrade. Very few foes deviate from set patterns or behaviors though, and level hazards move reliably as well, so Zapper is only in as much peril as you could conceivably get him out of if you pay attention and move intelligently.
Despite looking like a cocky cricket in the boxart, Zapper isn’t really pitched as such in game, although he doesn’t seem like the best guy either. Things start off with Zapper and his grub of a little brother Zipper fighting over the television remote, but Zapper gains the upper-hand and eventually uses his brother as an antenna for the T.V. Around this time though, a magpie named Maggie has gone on a crime spree, and she decides to steal Zipper while he’s outside of the home trying to get a better reception. When Zipper is kidnapped, Zapper does, to his credit, go off to save him immediately, although it seems he’s more concerned about having no antenna for his T.V. than anything else. To find Maggie, Zapper hops through a a small selection of levels of fairly good size, collecting and crushing the eggs of the magpie, the stage ending once he’s claimed the sixth one. The eggs aren’t usually hidden at all, just appearing along certain checkpoints in the stage, but they do gradually get a bit more complex as the eggs start hatching, giving them the ability to run away as you approach. Zapper’s small skillset is more than capable of handling the task though since most levels don’t really ask a whole lot from the player.
Levels in Zapper: One Wicked Cricket are competently designed and usually feel pretty diverse in theme and setting, but the gameplay in them never feels quite so varied. You’ll definitely see new enemy types and obstacles, but your approach to them is almost always jumping at the right time or shocking a certain thing. There are optional objectives in levels, such as collecting all 100 fireflies and trying to find the secret areas, but these mostly just make things longer or take the form of unimaginitive diversions from the main path. Collecting the fireflies do unlock things for you if you are willing to engage that tedious aspect of the game, with cheats available to make things easier and the final level of each world actually restricted from you until you’ve got all the fireflies in the available stages. Sadly, while these seem like fine rewards for doing well, they also lock some of the most interesting content behind these long collection quests, as these levels completely shift the gameplay goals and even controls, something you only really see once or twice on the main path. That’s not to say the main path doesn’t have interesting moments, and they certainly do their best to make the game’s basics stay relatively fresh throughout with things like a level in a constantly moving sawmill and the laser puzzles of a high-tech facility. Zapper doesn’t stick in one area type too long, but it is a bit too married to hopping around the grid as its main form of play.
From what I’ve seen around the internet, people seem to like comparing this game to the original Frogger, and while Zapper does move forward at the pace of a single hop per direction press, it’s got a lot more going on then crossing streets and logs, although I do think many of the comparisons are born from the level all about riding logs across a river. Still, the gameplay goals feel quite different thanks to the collectibles and diversions as well as Zapper’s ability to fly and zap objects. I could see it as an evolution of Frogger’s style, and Zapper does embrace those arcade sensibilities a bit with its own arcade mode, although that’s mostly just timed challenges rather than anything truly separate from the story mode. Story mode is surprisingly kind to the player, giving the player 30 lives to start with on Normal mode and giving the player unlimited continues to boot. If you do lose all your lives, you will have to restart whatever level you were on, but the game has plenty of lives and, while Zapper dies in one hit or from a fall, he bounces back quickly thanks to good checkpoints and stage design that never pushes past a potential 30 life requirement. Expert mode pulls things down to a more challenging 10 lives, but if you did decide to become an expert at this game, the stages are pretty navigable once you know them and ignoring the firefly pick-ups will greatly increase both your survivability and greatly reduce the time it takes to complete a level. Of course, a player who doesn’t care about the diversions in the first place could probably finish most levels fairly easy as well, so the main gameplay can feel a bit shallow if you just want to reach the end.
THE VERDICT: While Zapper: One Wicked Cricket trying to do its own style of play is appreciated, it somehow managed to feel like a derivative work in that genre despite having nothing else but Frogger to really compare itself to. Like a derivative work, it has plenty of things on show and a few unique techniques or twists to try and make it stand out, but it sticks too closely to the basics and thus can’t really grow into something exceptional because of it. Right now it stands out a bit for exploring a game style less traveled, but it doesn’t really dig in deep enough to create a memorable experience.
And so, I give Zapper: One Wicked Cricket for the Xbox…
An AVERAGE rating. While doing its own thing ensured it wouldn’t blend in with the crowd, Zapper: One Wicked Cricket’s chosen path set it apart but didn’t really draw any attention to it. The gameplay style has only a few elements that shift around and look different but never really change the challenge the player faces. Time your jumps right, zap a few things, and you’ve seen what you’ll be experiencing for the rest of the game experience save where it introduces the rare puzzle. Putting most of the different formulas for level design near the end or behind drawn out requirements means that when the game does shift things up, it’s already worn out its welcome a bit. There is very little done wrong in the game save the infrequent issues with Zapper’s flight or teaching a level element through death, so it at least isn’t a painful experience despite being unexceptional. It’s an adventure in a different style, and if you are willing to stick it out, it’s a different kind of ride, although not one that could call you back with its oodles of uninspired optional content.
Zapper tried to do something outside the norm to make it stand out, and while it’s a fine enough game, we were ultimately left with one mild cricket.