Games from My Childhood Library: Zoombinis Island Odyssey

Image: Cover of Zoombinis Island Odyssey
Written By: Katelyn Vause

“Games from my Childhood Library” is a series I’ll be doing where I go through the CD-ROM games that I played/owned when I was growing up. Some have been given to the CD-ROM Fossil Library, but some, whether due to a lack of particular value or me being too nostalgic to give them up, are still in a black CD case at home. I’ll talk about both, and I’m going to start with one of my personal favorites: Zoombinis Island Odyssey.

Back in the day, my elementary school had classes called “Specials” and you went to different Specials a couple of times a week. On Fridays in the Computer Special class, you could play games. Of course, they were almost all educational games, but some of them were pretty fun, with Odyssey being one of those fun ones. Zoombinis has many titles, and I played a variety of them between third and fifth grade. I asked my mom to order Zoombinis Island Odyssey from a Scholastic catalog somewhere within those years, and yet another one of my favorites made it into our household. The Zoombinis series is about a race of small blue creatures with big eyes and “interesting” appendages who face various challenges together; in the case of Odyssey, that challenge is restoring the ecosystem of their ravaged island home. This game teaches basic science and math, with some logic mixed in as well; the thing is, it’s done so smartly that it wasn’t until I looked back on the game that I realized what concepts I was learning.

You’re told at the beginning of the game to restore “the chain of life” on the island by bringing back moths that pollinate Snozzleberries (weird looking berry things), who in turn feed Zerbles (equally weird looking turtle-like things), which altogether brings balance to the island. This is a very basic example of how ecology works, and more specifically, it’s the concept of a food chain. Within the levels, biology comes into play many other times, such as the corral and barn levels. At the corral level, you have to figure out which types of Snozzleberries individual Zerbles like, and at the barn level, you have to match Zerbles based on the presented desired traits for their progeny. These games, respectively, relate to the concepts of niches (certain species fulfilling particular roles within an ecosystem) and genetics (specifically, how dominant and recessive genes work on a very basic level).

The game relies more heavily on logic in the earlier levels; one of the first puzzles you encounter involves matching symbols on tiles and placing them on a wall. Match all of the tiles, and the door to the other side opens. Of course, you have to figure out which symbols on the tiles match with the symbols on the walls, and this gets progressively difficult each time you encounter it, as the game will give you fewer clues as to which symbols match. It teaches you that trial and error is sometimes the right way to do things, and it makes you think carefully about decisions.

Odyssey is a delight for a number of reasons; firstly, its soundtrack. Whimsical and yet dark when it needs to be, the Odyssey soundtrack is incredibly distinctive, which each level of the game having its own music that goes perfectly with each theme. For example, at the corral level where you’re attempting to get the Zerbles to reveal their favorite food choice to you, a vaguely country-western song plays on a loop in the background, bringing to mind the idea of ranchers wrangling cattle. My favorite song is the one for the greenhouse. This is the level where the moths must make their way across a maze of plants to get to a pot that they pollinate. The song is light and upbeat, and everything about it screams springtime, which matches with the theme of the level really well. The composers make excellent use of the airy tones of a flute, and while the song would no doubt drive you crazy if it was the only thing you listened to the entire game, it works for the greenhouse.

Odyssey is also quite a colorful game. Primary colors dominate the palate, and as this is a learning game for younger kids, this is a great way to keep them engaged. The Snozzleberries are like confetti scattered on the screen, and the vibrant shades used for various Zoombini features make them stand out even amidst their colorful background. Speaking of the Zoombinis, an interesting thing about them is that they don’t talk. There is a narrator that tells the story in a voiceover as you play the game, and there are non-Zoombini characters who can talk, but Zoombinis communicate with movement and noises. This is cute in its own way, but it also makes players feel like they’ve become a part of a story in a book; you are now a protagonist, the aid making the Zoombinis’ dream possible.

Of course, Odyssey isn’t a literally perfect game. The very first level, one where you use a series of levers and pulleys to launch rocks to get Zoombinis up the cliff, kind of feels like it requires more luck than actual logic or skill. The game as a whole can feel repetitive after a while, even though the levels get progressively difficult with each new batch of Zoombinis you send to the island. Personally, I wish that more customization options had been offered for the Zoombinis. Despite these things, I think this game holds up overall, and my childhood wouldn’t have been the same without this series.

Stay tuned for more articles about games from my childhood! Want to know if I’ve played a particular game? Or what I plan to write about next? Leave a comment below!

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