Published Under: Lame Game
Released: March 03, 2000
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Our poll winner for May was Gerbil's Scooter, one of a few games released for ZZT that are a spin-off of the Lemmings titles. Prior to Scooter you'll find Newt's Zem series, and released the very same month was Koopo's Koopo The Lemming. The chance of two games of this type being released so closely together like this is just a coincidence. However, Scooter happened to pick up a Game of the Month award after its release. I was curious about what gave this game the edge over Koopo, and it's actually pretty boring. Hercules, gets right to the point with his review for the game:
"I decided not to make Koopo the Lemming Game of the Month, because it was released by Hydra (Koopo never released it for some reason). I didn't know what Koopo would think of that, so I decided to make the other great sidescroller of this month GotM: Scooter!"
I suppose he feared Koopo might be mad his game was published by somebody else? Still, it turned what could be an interesting competition between the two games into an immediately apparent decision for the award.
Scooter, is Gerbil's second released ZZT game, with their third not coming until a 2007 collaboration with Viovis for The Disgruntled Elf. It's as stated, a Lemmings derivative, and well worth comparing to Newt's Zem 1 and 2 games which were covered some time ago.
Scooter adds a bit more charm, a few more mechanics, and some more thoughtful puzzles, but it brings more than its share of difficulties as well. As adorable as it may seem, Scooter is one of the more frustrating games I've played for this series so far!
The title screen, is very cute, and this will be a recurring theme throughout the game. Scooter herself is a guinea pig, programmed by Gerbil, and internally named "Hamster". Try not to get confused.
The game somewhat overwhelms the player initially. There's no menu or manual or anything to help the player get acquainted with the engine used to manipulate Scooter on her quest to reach the exit. It begins the moment you press "P". This being a Lemmings style game means that Scooter begins by walking immediately off a cliff and falling to the ground, though thankfully unscathed. She'll climb over a question mark and then the game will offer these needed explanations as to what's going on, but it's a very frantic start.
The object helps get the player started, letting them know the story, the fragility of a guinea pig (falls are fine), and the controls.
Scooter automatically marches forward until she hits a wall. She'll then attempt to scale it, but if it's more than one tile high she'll fall back to the ground and turn around. On her own, that's all she can do, but the player has a slew of commands they can issue to her to help her reach the goal.
Starting lower left and moving clockwise, we have:
- Dig - Scooter will dig downward until there's no more dirt to dig through, or she hits an undiggable yellow wall
- Tunnel - Scooter will tunnel horizontally in the same manner
- Jump - Breaking from the other ZZT Lemmings games, Scooter can jump in the direction she's currently traveling
- Reverse - Turns Scooter around without bumping into an obstacle
- Dirt - Builds a single wall out of dirt, this can be used to create stairs upward
- Explode - It wouldn't be a Lemmings game without a self-destruct sequence
It's the usual sort of controls you'd expect, aside from jumping which definitely adds to the challenge since Scooter will never stand still. Any jumps must be timed well!
Gerbil explains the simple climbing mechanics and yellow walls. Scooter's ability to fall from great heights is explained by her general squishiness! I love Scooter.
Here is the very essential squish animation that plays whenever Scooter hits the ground.
An additional element are bonus items to collect. These give nothing more than points, but I found myself compelled to try and get them all. Unfortunately, they only appear in a small handful of levels.
Well, except for this first once since I was still fumbling around trying to remember what buttons did what. Zem 2 listed all its actions by name via text. The random assortment and of arrows and lines and circles here takes awhile to get used to, especially since you need to move up and down to access some of them.
Each level ends with a congratulations and sometimes a bit about where Scooter is heading next. There's a little tune and flashy animation of the guinea pig being transported through the portal as well.
Gerbil was wise enough to start Scooter in the air, letting the player get a moment to take in the board layout before she starts walking and the level really begins. These early levels are basically just making sure you know what commands you have to give Scooter.
Scooter's jump is pretty large, but even in this basic level the game already demands a perfectly timed jump in order to be able to clear the gap. In a lot of cases, I found myself feeling safer using the dirt clod option to build stairs instead.
The third level requires tunneling through the dirt to proceed. Scooter usually moves at cycle 2, but certain actions like jumping will set her speed to the faster cycle 1, resetting back to 2 when she lands. However, you can interrupt jumps with other commands so it's very much possible, and a lot of fun to watch Scooter jump up and smash horizontally through the dirt. Her tunneling doesn't handle gravity either so even if the ground below her is gone, as long as there's more dirt to bust through she'll keep going perfectly horizontal. It's a very good mental image of this guinea pig just flying through solid dirt like it's not even there.
Aside from that, it's just another tunnel to make and then jumping up onto the top half of the hill to walk over to the exit.
The fourth level is where things get a bit tricky. Scooter's wall climbing mechanics temporarily lock the player out of any commands, and there's an adorable little squishing animation that plays when she falls and hits the ground. Unfortunately, this can't be interrupted and makes the timing involved for issuing her commands to be extremely picky. You'll frequently find yourself issuing commands after she lands but before she turns around, and it feels like whether or not you can do so before she takes another step is based on whether the cycle is an even or odd one.
The wall climbing mechanics also make it so if you misplace dirt, it's very easy to find Scooter getting hung up on it. Just climbing out of this pit was a nightmare of tunneling, digging, placing dirt, and jumping to try and scramble out of it. You kind of just hope Scooter will happen to escape the pit herself once you've got enough dirt placed in there.
And when I did finally make it out, I did so on the wrong side. The pit is too large to jump so I wound up having to make this massive staircase to get across. At the time it didn't feel too bad, since mistakes might complicate the pit, but didn't make things unwinnable (at least not for awhile), but as the game progresses, the precision it requires can make it simply frustrating, and demand that the player make saves in the middle of the levels.
Guinea pig facts!!!!!!
Other levels are so simple that you'll forget to take any more screenshots during them. I think you can figure out how this one went.
Despite past frustrations, the Gopher Village is a great level that really moves beyond the basic "build over pit" you see a lot in these kind of games. This level makes good use of the different actions Scooter can perform and manages to feel fair.
Well, I do want to complain a little bit about how the rooms with buttons in them are surrounded by undiggable dirt that isn't indicated until Scooter tries digging through it.
Each button opens up one of the chambers with the next button. There's a lot of carefully working your way through the tunnels and adding your own in order to get where you need to go next. Scooter's wall climbing also really pays off here, as those zig-zagging tunnels the level begins with are designed so that Scooter will slowly but surely climb from bottom to top.
The level looks like a big mess when all's said and done, but it was a lot of fun to get through! I think this level exemplifies what Scooter does at its best.
Then you get to the next level and it becomes punishing again. Here, climbing upward can easily become impossible and not following the correct path forces you to self-destruct.
Once you pay closer attention to the layout it's not all that difficult, but there's a lot less choice in how the level can be completed than appears, while the previous level felt very open to how the player wanted to get through it.
Here's where things really got bad. It doesn't look too tough, just a few jumps and building some stairs to the exit in the top right corner, but the lack of responsiveness from Scooter really makes the required timing for all of this far too demanding.
The fake floors that cause Scooter to fall onto spikes don't help either.
Another major issue is that it is very difficult to accurately gauge where the player needs to build to actually reach the exit. It is difficult to figure out your angles when dealing with non-square tiles.
Eventually with a lot of scary jumps and dirt stairs I hit that one tile sweet spot and get through.
And for it, I am rewarded with more guinea pig facts! Do not eat Scooter!!!!