ARIC: Oh, I'm sorry, that's not enough
GEM HUNTER: This plant place, eh? Heh heh.
He's gonna get his ass kicked from here to
KIM: Hey! Are you going after Aric?
GEM HUNTER: Yeah. Meet me outside town. I
don't think you want to see what I'm gonna
do to Aric.
KIM: I don't doubt it. I've had enough
excitement for one day.
• • • • • • • • •
thanks for playing. even though you prolly
didn't enjoy this game, or anything. if
you haven't done so, try to find all 42
gems. or i'll break your legs... and you
might get a good ending. yay.
• • • • • • • • •
Close but no cigar. I went into this with two expectations: Firstly, that since this game was probably the title that really solidified Tseng's status as a respected ZZTer that it would be a solid experience. Secondly, that there would be demonstrable improvement from Gem Hunter: Special Edition both by virtue of not being tied to the format of an earlier title but also by just being made when Tseng had more experience under his belt. Gem Hunter 2 starts a little slow while the player has to scrounge around for ammo, but once you have the ability to fight things do improve. Exploring Austin Powers can be a bit slow but the layout of the city with McQueen Heights as a central hub generally works. It takes quite some time before you run out of new places to navigate your way to and the city itself is fun to explore.
I'm so used to the enjoyment curve of ZZT games usually starting strong and either slowly or rapidly deteriorating. Gem Hunter 2 breaks the mold in having a weak start and end but a pretty solid middle. I have a lot of respect for the boss fights in this game and am willing to forgive the weaker ones just for the overall uniqueness. (The fight with Kamakazie being a notable exception.) The fight against Espionage is undoubtedly one of the best fights I've seen in a ZZT game and proves to me that the oversized boss battle can work. Espionage makes a similar appearance in the original Gem Hunter and is oddly missing in the remake, though the fight is definitely more refined here. Espionage alone makes this one worth at least checking out for a little bit.
The bosses towards the end of the game definitely don't hold as much weight. I'm unsure why Tseng pivoted back to the more traditional boss design seen in ZZT games which isn't particularly exciting. Showdown, Warlord, and Aric aren't bad fights by any means, but Tseng has shown us by this point that he can do better. They're much more forgettable obstacles that are just kind of there to be boss fights which is a disappointing change from Espionage, Stealth, and even Cubed Ice and Dr. Erd.
Things get a bit dicier though once the city of Austin Powers has been explored. Like its predecessor you're going to find yourself hitting a wall of missing several gems that are neither fun nor fair to hunt down. Most gems don't strike a balance between giveaways and nigh-impossible to discover naturally. Glittering silver gems that litter the city are fun at making sure the player hits every board in a more open world than the original, but they come off as just busywork while searching out the meat of the game in its various boss fights. Secret walls and invisible parking lot gems do nobody any favors, and I can't think of a better way to prove it than to have Aric's second fight not working be missed by a team of eight ZZTers of the era. In my playthrough of GH1SE I had the idea for some kind of item to indicate if there are any gems on a board still and I think that would still work out here.
Really though this one needs to tone down the requirements period. The previous game has a nice split where you can collect all the gems and proceed to an extra area or continue onward to the standard ending. The roadblock in the Evil Weasel building means it's very easy for a player to just be stopped without using a guide or cheating. Tseng actually regressed here. Having the bosses scattered throughout Austin Powers give keys to the building instead of gems to let the player keep going would smooth things over quite a bit.
Lastly, if you are going back to find any missed gems that generally means long walks across boards with nothing to do other than reach the other side. If you're playing with a modern ZZT fork like ClassicZoo, then using cheats to change boards can speed things up quite a bit. This is a frustration that should have been recognized back in 1999 though and I really think a taxi system or something to go quickly from one district to any other would help out quite a bit. (Heck, have it so beating the boss of a district lets you fast travel there if you need to return.) As it is, this problem can be mitigated today but it shouldn't have had to come to such a thing. There is of course a Special Edition of this game as well, but it doesn't look like it addresses anything other than the outright bugs and overhauls the graphics.
So Gem Hunter 2 has its moments to be sure. The idea behind it lends itself well to ZZT and for the most part you'll find yourself enjoying playing the game. Until you don't. If you're playing ZZT games not to finish them but just to check them out as was often the case at the time of the game's release there's certainly reason to give this a try. By making sure to head to Moronix or Stealth first to be able to get ammo early you can head straight to the good stuff offered up by Gem Hunter 2. Like its prequel though, once you hit the point where making progress starts to feel like work, don't be afraid to end it on a high note or at least bend the rules a bit to make the experience not spoil too badly.
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