"Pokemon" video games have been hugely popular with kids because they get to collect the little monster characters and then use them to battle bad guys. "Zubo," a new Nintendo DS game from Electronic Arts, offers that same kind of collection of cute little creatures and battling, but it does it with more humor and less violence.
What makes "Zubo" so good is that is combines traditional turn-based battling mechanics with a good role-playing storyline, and then seamlessly adds music rhythm games into the mix. The result is a highly entertaining adventure that both kids and adults will enjoy.
You enter the 3-D world of Zubalon as either a hero or heroine. Your avatar will follow the DS stylus wherever you move it. As you explore the 10 different lands that make up Zubalon, you will encounter more 50 Zubos, rounded Lego-like inhabitants with expressive faces. The Zubos need your help in ridding their world of the evil Big Head and his army of mischief-causing Zombos. Each Zubo that you befriend wants to help you scare away the Zombos, which sets up the game's battle system.
To rid the world of Zombos, you must defeat them in a comedic battle. This is the heart of the game and where it shines for originality. Battling in this game does not mean using traditional guns and swords to inflict wounds, rather, Zubos use funny gags to knock out their opponents or send them running. That is why you will see a Zubo place a bouquet of flowers under the nose of its opponent to make him sneeze his way out of the battle field, or play the guitar so loud that the sound deafens the opponent. Each Zubo has four battle gags, and the game showcases these funny battle moves in more than 100 short animations.
Also unique to this combat system is the introduction of rhythm games while battling. As your Zubo goes through his funny animated battle moves, a red outline appears around its body. At frequent intervals, a larger orange glowing outline will appear around the body and decrease until it meets the red outline. Your goal is to tap the screen when the two lines intersect to increase your battle score.
You take three Zubos into a battle. Sometimes they will face one Zombo, but there may be as many as three. The battle is turn-based -- you choose which of your three Zubos you are going to use and then select from its available moves. Different moves inflict different amounts of damage, depending on how well you do in the rhythm aspect of the battle.
Also relevant to the outcome of the battle is the class and level of Zubos you choose to use. Both Zubos and Zombos come in levels of strength from one to 20, and both come in one of three classes: Fighters, Defenders and Performers. The battle mechanic has a Rock, Paper, Scissors aspect to it in that Fighters are stronger than Performers, Performers are stronger against Defenders, and Defenders are stronger against Fighters.
Winning a battle gains your Zubo experience so that it can increase its level. So, to win a battle you must use logic to choose which Zubo to pit against which Zombo, quick reflexes to time your musical taps, and do all of this while laughing at the over-the-top antics of the characters while battling. It's fun.
In addition to this innovative battle system, the game has an engaging storyline that is broken into quests and tasks. There are also several mini-games placed throughout the lands.
Part of this game's charm is that each Zubo has a different personality. In the Horror Land, you will find Hunchy, a Zubo based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame; and in Pop Land you will find Pinky, a pop star. You need to take care of your Zubos by finding or earning musical notes, the currency of this land, so that you can buy food to restore a Zubo's health after a battle. You can swap out Zubo friends as you go, but only three can travel with you at a time.
If two friends each own this game, they can battle against one another with their Zubos using the Nintendo DS wireless connection. But unlike the "Pokemon" games, there is no trading of Zubos.
"Zubo" is rated "E+10" because some of the battle gags have crude humor, such as using farts, and the animations show mild cartoonlike violence.
It is refreshing to see a children's video game that has a deep combat system that uses gags instead of gore, and humor instead of danger.
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5) Best for ages 8 and up From Electronic Arts, www.zubo.ea.com, $29.99, Nintendo DS.
Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for USA Today.com and Gannett News Service, and is also the editor of Computing With Kids (www.ComputingWithKids.com ).