Zoombinis: Welcome Back

A wave of childhood memories washed over me today when I looked up one of the first video games my parents bought for my sister and me: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis ©1996, a puzzle/adventure computer game. Over recent years, I have periodically searched for this game, because my sister and I unfortunately lost our copy.  But the game is extinct; you can’t buy the original game to play on today’s technology. The closest I could get to the original game was watching a “Let’s Play” on Youtube from somebody who kept their copy from years ago — or so I thought. Today I realized there has been a campaign on kickstarter for a reboot of The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis to match the original game.

TERC, the game creators, have already released the iPad/tablet version of the game; the desktop version for Mac and Windows will not be released till later this year. As you can see from the kickstarter video, the reboot contains updated designs for the landscapes and characters, but everything else from the music to the voices is on point with the original game. I will admit that I am going to miss the original designs. Still, I can understand why the old designs cannot be used. As stated on the Zoombini kickstarter page:

“…we are updating the graphics for modern devices. The original art was just not scalable. All our characters were pixel-based sprites, and the background art was a fixed resolution….[Now] The game will…work with tons of different devices and screen resolutions.”

As an older generation Zoombini gamer, I will have to get used to the new look. I am happy to know that the new designs will still hark back to the old ones as stated and seen on the kickstarter page. I will probably always like the original Zoombini character look better, but the new landscapes add some beautiful lighting and color that I think I could get used to. Above all things, the fact that these new designs have the flexibility to display on multiple devices is a great achievement. This allows a greater chance for more people to play the game – which is the the most important thing.

Why is it important to play this game? 

To answer this question, let’s back track (as well as look forward) to the game’s original designer, Scot Osterweil. In a podcast quote from Osterweil snagged from the blog of Henry Jenkins, media scholar and professor, Osterweil stated regarding the creation of the game Zoombinis “instead of putting math in the game, we tried to find the game in the math.” There seems to be a fine line in edu-tainment games between fun and learning. You either have one or the other, but you can’t have both; it’s either a bunch of fun with some math tacked on, or it’s the equivalent to lifeless math worksheets from school. With Zoombinis, you can have both. When you play The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, you learn sorting, probability, and most importantly how to use logic and critically think – the key to all learning.

Almost more important than how you learn in the game, ironically, is how fun it is. Adults may get jaded and think that hard work can’t be fun, but it can. Also, because the game is fun even if it is hard work, the player keeps coming back for more. I’m 22 and I want to play this game as much as I did when I was a kid; I love it! I also know, that if I played it today, the game would still be challenging. Their harder difficulty levels are just that – hard to play. Moreover, each time you play, it is a new experience; the solutions to problems will always be randomized.

Scot Osterweil currently works at MIT and he is also the Creative Director of the Education Arcade. He believes that play and playing games can make a true impact on people. You can watch the video below to see what he means by “play” and how playing games can contribute to learning, exploration, and school curriculum.

“what games do that’s different from freeplay is give us a structure and give us a set of proximal goals…we have a sense that maybe we will get a little better…and we tend to rise to the challenge…” (Osterweil)

In summation of his video, people enjoy interesting, authentic challenges and setting goals with the hope of achieving those goals. This idea is supported on a scientific level as well. Psychologist Edwin A. Locke outlines the importance of goals in his goal-setting theory. His theory reveals that goals motivate people in daily life and in the workplace. Think of it this way: when you were playing those Bowser levels on Mario 64 (or whatever your favorite video game is) or you were in the middle of that basketball game (or whatever your favorite sport is), why did you keep going? It seems obvious; you wanted to win, of course! Even more so, you enjoyed the anticipation of winning, or else why would you go through all the trouble? Now what if we applied that mentality to school? What if students tackled math problems not as a chore, but as a puzzle where at the end you could receive the winning solution? Looking at how seemingly difficult subjects like math and reading can be played rather than just regurgitated is looking at ways we can really learn and have fun doing it.

And with that, you can watch the demo for the original game here if you want. At the beginning of the demo, the narrator talks about the educational value of the game; once you get ~4:00 the video shows the gameplay by itself.

What about the story?

Okay, so maybe you don’t give two ding-dongs about the educational value of this or any other video game. Let me give you another reason to play this game and convince you of its awesomeness. The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis has a good story.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is the story of blue creatures who are similar, but have differences in appearance. They had a thriving mercantile society until the Bloats invade and take over their land. The Bloats promised the Zoombinis prosperity in life and business if the Zoombinis joined forces with the Bloats, so the Zoombinis allow the Bloats to help. Unfortunately, the Bloats end up taking over and essentially enslaving the Zoombinis. Therefore, the Zoombinis escape on a quest for a new home, one they will call Zoombiniville. Before they get there, the Zoombinis must go through various destinations (i.e. Allergic Cliffs, Stone Cold Caves, Pizza Pass, Captain Cajun’s Ferryboat, Titanic Tattooed Toads, Stone Rise, Fleens, Hotel Dimensia, Mudball Wall, The Lion’s Lair, Mirror Machine, and Bubblewonder Abyss), each with a complex logic puzzle to solve in order to get each Zoombini safely across.

None of that description is what got me personally attached to the game, however. What did get me emotionally attached was the fact that I could lose Zoombinis along the way. The player didn’t just loose a life, and see their avatar reappear. The player lost the physical presence of an avatar in the game; the avatar goes somewhere else and doesn’t come back. As a kid (and even now thinking about it as an adult) that is emotionally stirring. When I first experienced the loss of Zoombinis, I literally I thought I was killing Zoombinis, and it was my ethical responsibility to get them to their new home in Zoombiniville safely.* Moreover, after each Campsite checkpoint for the Zoombinis, if I didn’t have 16 Zoombinis with me, I couldn’t continue the game. I would have to go back to a previous checkpoint. If there were no previous checkpoints with Zoombinis, I would have to get more Zoombinis at Shelter Rock (i.e.Start) and get them through each destination again.

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Perhaps it seems absurd to care about blue dots with faces and no post-cranial anatomy besides legs and feet – or bike wheels or a spring or a fan. These creatures may not look like people, but we can still relate to their story and their struggle to find a new home. Trust me when I say, after all the work you put into this game you will be proud of your own logical reasoning skills, and even prouder if you can say you got your original 16 Zoombinis across the map without a scratch.


**Just to be clear, there are no  Zoombini killers. If the player looses a Zoombini, it either goes to a checkpoint or Shelter Rock. This is after all a kid-friendly game.

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One thought on “Zoombinis: Welcome Back

  1. First off your writing is superb and I love how you take the reader through the journey of zoombinis.
    I’m so glad to hear other people felt the same satisfaction from the game as we did and I hope the Kickstarter is successful.
    If the game does make its way back into the gaming world. You know we will be dedicating a Saturday to playing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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