Zorro (Apple II) review
"Thinking of Zorro for the Apple II tends to make me think of The Goonies for the Apple II. Then my third thought in the chain is usually, 'I'd rather be playing Bruce Lee.' Rick Mirsky programmed all three of these platformers in a similar style, and where Bruce Lee is tight, timeless and fun - a classic - The Goonies and Zorro are more similar to each other, sharing weird floaty game physics, episodes of unnecessary cruelty and high annoyance factors. Zorro looks and feels ..."
Thinking of Zorro for the Apple II tends to make me think of The Goonies for the Apple II. Then my third thought in the chain is usually, 'I'd rather be playing Bruce Lee.' Rick Mirsky programmed all three of these platformers in a similar style, and where Bruce Lee is tight, timeless and fun - a classic - The Goonies and Zorro are more similar to each other, sharing weird floaty game physics, episodes of unnecessary cruelty and high annoyance factors. Zorro looks and feels quite elegant, mostly thanks to the full-screen colour backdrops of neatly depicted Spanish architecture (most Apple games used black as the background). But it's a game perhaps better watched or remembered for a prosaic moment of stillness than played at length.
Zorro's cause is to rescue a fluttery señora from the evil General Garcia. We never see the general, just his hatted cannon fodder minions who potter about the Spanish villas and countryside, oblivious to the screaming hot sword death that awaits them.
'La la la... OH MI DIOS, ES ZORRO! AIEEEEEEEEE!..'
The guards are barely a distraction and the fighting is entirely random, which is the first major blow against this game. Zorro is arguably the most famous fictional swordsman of all time - excepting some musketeers and in these modern times, Jedi Knights - but in a fight, all you can do with him is mash button zero on the joystick. This causes Zorro and his guard foe to slip back and forth en garde, wiggling their blades up and down through a few frames of animation until in ninety percent of cases, the guard is vaporised. In the other ten percent of cases, Zorro is vaporised, which is annoying but hardly a major style-cramper. You will die far more often by fatal plummet than at the hand of any sword-waving fool, so losing lives to guards is not a major concern. In fact, guards can be avoided just by waiting for them to pass by in ninety-five percent of cases. That makes the sword-fighting both random and redundant!
Any Zorro fan knows that Zorro's trademark is the little 'Z' he cuts into the forehead of his victims. Obviously, when a guard's forehead in this game is probably only two pixels wide at most, this feat is physically impossible, so I am pleased that Rick Mirsky came up with an alternate effect in the spirit of the tradition. Slain guards are vaporised and replaced with a big 'Z' graphic which rapidly shrinks out of existence, in the style of a Batman POW! or BIFF! The tinkle of swords and the death sting make up fifty percent of the thin-on-the-ground sound effects in Zorro. You'll also hear a bugle call at one point, and more tinkling when you trampoline on objects, but the fact is that this is one of the very quietest Apple II games around. There's a Spanish-style 'rousing' ditty played over the title screen, but I'm just really grateful that, unlike in the Commodore 64 version of this game, this tune does not play throughout the whole game, and is in fact never heard again.
Everything but the swordfighting feels reasonably ambitious. There is an interesting arrangement of scenes in Spanish villages, weird plush houses and underground mazes to explore, with each screen appearing in turn until you walk off its edge to induce the next one. The core of the game is actually about dispensing with a series of objects by solving puzzles with them. Find the use for one object and a new one appears in what I call 'the plush locked room' to replace it. Get that next object, work out what to do with it, repeat, etc. This also means that the puzzles are as arbitrary as they come: Find a use for a bugle - find a use for a bell - find a use for a poker - find a use for a flowerpot... but that's what games were like in the eighties. Zorro just keeps you trying to work out what to do with each object until you have cleared its inventory, so to speak, removed a bunch of environmental blockages in the process (including stubborn bulls and fat Mexicans) and then it will cough up the objects needed to enter the final maze and make a run on saving the kidnapped señora.
You could allow yourself to be distracted from the main quest by the prospect of nabbing bonus treasures to increase your score, but you shouldn't. Flashing goodies such as goblets are tucked away in various difficult-to-reach locations, and picking them up gives whatever bonus is left on the game's timer. This timer starts at 9900 and races back towards 1000, resetting each time you collect a new treasure or solve a major puzzle. The time taken to achieve anything in Zorro is so enormous that the most typical situation is that the timer has already reached 1000 points and has in fact been sitting there for five minutes by the time you next do something remarkable enough to earn you the bonus. This element was plainly not well-considered.
Zorro's cruelty further rocks up in the form of inflicted tediousness and the need for endless pixel-perfect jumps. The big Zee's monochrome black sprite cuts a dashing figure, but still reminds me of a shadow puppet, and weighs about as much. His animation is nervous. He floats in the air after an initial bound before sinking at a steady rate, more as if he was being delivered hellwards by conveyer belt than as if he was being subjected to gravity. Miss a jump by a pixel and you might have to trot slowly through multiple snaking screens to get back to the take-off point. The game is very nastily arranged like this, and very tiresome.
Nearly all the puzzle items appear in turn in that one plush locked room, and you have to keep unlocking that room with the same black key, which inconveniently reappears near the sofa (don't ask) each time it is used. So there's a high level of painful repetition involved in recollecting the key and making the dozens of strenuous jumps needed to scale the villa architecture and reach the special room again. Other weirder puzzles occur underground, assuming you survive the preceding gauntlet of jumps across floating boulders which inexplicably act like trampolines. Roll boulders from platform to platform and solve weight problems until you've opened the blocked chamber. The jumping here is bizarre, with Zorro scraping onto platforms by one pixel then suddenly being yanked the rest of the way teleport-style.
Probably the most interesting piece of programming in Zorro is all the bouncing that goes on. Hold the joystick up and you can trampoline with inertia on boulders, sofas, springy platforms or even the fat Mexican. What's even cooler is that you can make other stuff bounce on the sofa. It doesn't help anyone, but it's especially funny and juvenile to be jumping up and down on a sofa with a bouncing flowerpot.
The final stretches of the game in an underground maze with disappearing platforms are kind of tense, and as time-consuming as ever to repeat if you miss a jump. Thankfully they're also a whole lot less fatal than the similarly programmed scenes in The Goonies, which took place over lakes of acid. (Remember, those were bright-eyed American teens being subjected to acid baths in that game, not master swordsmen. That game defines cruelty.)
In the final analysis, Zorro is most memorable for its visuals. It makes me think of a big bright smeary Spanish oil painting, which predictably is not something I'd say about any other Apple II game. But obviously the lame swordfighting is a turn-off, as is the stupidity of the bonus counter, the horrible jumps you have to make all the time, and the horrible penalty of repetition for failing those horrible jumps. Far too often you swear at the game and feel that what it's making you do is a nuisance. And frankly, Zorro himself should be a whole lot more dashing and athletic, and a whole lot less fallible. And he should walk faster. I thought my memories of this game were fonder, but it is largely frustrating and turgid, in spite of some passages of good atmosphere.
-- Zorro -- 5/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 05, 2004)
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