Z-Ball is one of those classic arcade games that I always look back on fondly, with that same special regard people have for games like Tetris. It looks like the fusion between Pong and Arkanoid, sounds as awesome as 3D Pinball: Space Cadet, and has some of the coolest game features I’ve seen. From my understanding, it was developed and published in 2003 by Retro64 Games, and after playing it again just recently, I can see why Z-Ball held so much appeal for me when I was a kid.
Described as a brick busting game, Z-Ball is a 3D breakout game where players use a paddle or metallic bar to deflect the ball and break all the bricks on screen in order to advance to the next level. The levels have a simple appearance which consists of a black background and a chunk of coloured bricks scattered around the screen. When the ball makes contact with a brick, it knocks it out and makes it disappear. However, hiding behind some bricks are special powerups that make gameplay a whole lot more interesting.
The aim of Z-Ball is to knock out every single brick on the screen without dying. To accomplish that, you need to be able to aim accurately with the bar whenever you hit the ball, and you must also have good reflexes to make sure the ball doesn’t sweep right past you. This can become quite hard, especially considering how some levels are infested with arrows that put pressurize the ball into moving back toward you at ridiculous speeds, and successfully knocking out each and every brick can take a lot of time depending on your skill and luck. Other times, it will just flat out require you to be patient.
The ball’s movement in general is something that impressed me quite a bit. Depending on which part of the bar hits it, its trajectory changes, allowing you to create a whole range of angles to send the ball moving with. You can also give it some form of ‘top spin’, where if you hit the ball with a bit of a curve, you slightly increase its speed of movement and give it a boost of firepower that will make it break through a few more bricks than usual. This is only temporary, however, and if you put too much spin on the ball, it may spin around and exit the screen.
Since this review is based on the free to download version of Z-Ball Gold, there aren’t quite 150 levels to play through, but each level is still definitely full of magic. There are two shareware packs, each with a total of 10 levels. You can play them in one of three modes: Easy, Normal, or Hard, which basically slows down or speeds up the movement of the ball. One of my favourite powerups is the ‘warp’, which if hit, simultaneously knocks out all the bricks in one with an epic sound effect-and bang, you’ve reached the next level. It’s rare to get, precisely what makes it special.
The levels in Z-Ball are different enough from one another that they consistently managed to pique my curiosity. It’s a huge success when a game has you anticipating the next level, and thanks to its smooth, shiny and well-crafted art style, it definitely did that for me. As you might have guessed, the name given to each level is somewhat representative of its theme.
There are a total of 18 (temporary) powerups which you can unlock by making the ball hit them. They affect things like the speed of ball movement, the size of the bar, and can even double your points. I have compiled a full list of these features with their appropriate descriptions below.
In addition to all these unlockable powerups, some levels have ‘bouncy’ arrows on the screen which can force the ball to move in a certain direction, bricks that are virtually unbreakable, and sharpshooter bonus opportunities where accurate aiming becomes crucial. The soundtrack ticking away in the background also creates a very nice mood for the game, a pumping retro style collection that is never too overpowering or annoying to listen to.
On a scale of one to terrifyingly hard, Z-Ball does a good job of fitting somewhere in the middle. It gives you fun like a pure arcade game would, and the feeling of triumph you have after completing a challenging level is supreme. In the menu section of the game, you can alter the difficulty to cater to your tastes by pressing F3, although I highly recommend the ‘normal’ setting because it has just the right amount of challenge. Having said that, some levels are just so evil that they deserve to be given an award. Or rather, the level designers should be given an award, because these are the levels that challenged me the most, and kept me coming back for more.
Amongst my most hated levels (and I’m allowed to say that even though I love this game) are level 06 (Heart Attack), and level 08 (Plug it in).Those two levels have arrows that push the ball back towards you so rapidly that you may find yourself suffering from sudden onset anxiety. This is especially true if you manage to unlock any of the following powerups: contract, repel, speed up, small ball, and triple ball. If that happens, you will suffer, my fellow gamers. I warn you in advance.
Overall, Z-Ball works really well as a casual arcade game, and after conquering both the freely available shareware packs, the temptation to buy the full version with a whopping 150 levels of pure fun is very high. If you want to download the free version or purchase the full version of Z-Ball Gold, you can do that from ArcadeTown. The version free trial version gives you ninety minutes of gameplay (more than enough to clock the game in) in each session, and will reset when you open the exe file again. For a quick taste of the gameplay you can check out the video footage below (uploaded by eran krief in 2011):
Why you should play it:
- You like arcade games
- You like testing your reflexes
- You like games with a good challenge
- You appreciate strong level design
- Extremely fun
- Great power-up design
- Each level presents new challenge
- Soundtrack is chilled out and suits game style
- Artwork looks sleek and robotic
- Fantastic replayability
- Some levels become unforgiving