We've played it, and we can confirm that the UK's Bright Light Studio developed and EA published DS game Zubo is shaping up to be one of the quirkiest and inventive kids' games the handheld has seen.
It's got rhythm-based combat, loads of cute collectable Zubos and fart-centric special moves – what more could any child ask for in a game?
So we had a chat with Zubo producer Michael Heywood (pictured) about the game and to find out what's next after its release this autumn.
Pocket Gamer: First, can you explain the process behind coming up with the Zubos?
Michael Heywood: Zubo started from the simple brief of designing a set of brilliant characters – even before thinking about what sort of game we might make. There was a lot of iteration involved in creating the Zubo look – there are sketchbooks full of evidence! The whole thing clicked when we pared down the basic shapes for a Zubo head and body to a small set – this makes all the Zubos look like they belong together and still lets them have their individual styles.
We currently have around 140 Zubos designed to final concept and there were many others along the way who didn't quite make it to that stage. Selecting the first 55 to make their debut was really hard for us since everyone on the team has their personal favourites.
The game's been nearly three years in the making. Have you been constantly running ideas past test groups and testing the game as you go in order to get it right?
Once we had the characters and some initial game ideas, we tested the concepts widely in Europe and the US. The incredibly positive feedback we got from that really helped get the game going and no matter what age group or gender, everyone loved the Zubos. While we've been developing we've playtested the software every few months with groups of children and it's always given us really valuable information – just watching kids play to see where they're getting stuck or confused, or how they tell their own stories within the game.
It's definitely a bit scary letting the Zubos out into the world. The day we did the first press release it was surreal to suddenly see Zubos on the internet and have people talking about them. But it's also really exciting; we actually feel sorry for some of the journalists who've been in to see us – after so long working on the project in secret, the team can't talk about the Zubos enough.
Was it tough designing a game for quite a young age group? And do you think they game could appeal to slightly older gamers than the targeted seven- to 11-year-olds too?
There's some great experience on the team – some of the team have worked on Harry Potter, but also games that range from the Burnout series to Black and White. We've also got experience of outside of the gaming industry with Will Byles our art director has worked for Aardman Animation and Jacques Gauthier our concept artist has worked on a number of kids' titles such as Charlie and Lola, Angelina Ballerina and Beatrix Potter.
Probably the hardest part of developing for kids is making sure that they get the game, remembering that they don't necessarily have years of gaming experience so we need to teach them the basics, but they also just want to get stuck in and play. But kids bring so much enthusiasm and imagination to whatever they're playing that they're also easy to develop for in many ways.
Without a doubt this is going to appeal to older gamers and that is evident by the way team are enjoying working and playing on the game. The characters have such a broad appeal, with cool animations and the way the team are pushing the DS to its limits means I'm sure the Nintendo fans are going to really enjoy playing the game.
Did you take any ideas from games such as The Sims or Patapon for Zubo or were you trying to create a new type of experience from the start?
MH: We're certainly used some standard game design elements like a class based battling system, but we've mixed it up and made it uniquely 'Zubo' in style and our battle mechanic is definitely original. It felt more like things fell into place quite naturally (or they didn't and we changed them until they did!). The characters demanded a certain style of animation which influenced our core battle gameplay and then they also needed a world to live in, the game sort of just grew out of the characters.
When you are creating an original IP you have to find your identity that comes by making sure that the core of the experience feels unique and fun. Once you have that, just stick to that belief throughout the development of the game and don't worry about other games out there.
What do you think Zubo has that will make it appeal to its target audience?
The one thing that everyone – kids and adults alike – loves most about Zubo is the slapstick comedy of battle. There are over 100 unique animated moves that Zubos can do and most of them are hilarious. Kids will just play them over and over again, and it's a great thing in playtests when they're laughing out loud and grabbing their friends to show off a move. Strangely, the fart moves are really popular!
Having said that, the idea of making friends with all 55 Zubos is really appealing. When a player makes friends with a new Zubo they get really excited (especially since it also means unlocking new moves).
Do you think the game will appeal to boys and girls equally?
We really want the game to appeal to both boys and girls. More generally we want it to appeal to different players for different reasons – the comedy fighting, exploring the different themed areas of the world, making friends with the Zubos and unlocking the music. Interestingly, in our playtests, the girls have really gotten into the combat – they've enjoyed the music and the comedy.
As well as collecting all the Zubos, what other gameplay incentives do you have for players?
Filling out your Friend's List is definitely one of our biggest incentives, but there are other elements as well such as rare costumes to unlock and a separate player rank you earn as you compete in multiplayer matches.
You can also unlock music and battle arenas from the single-player game for use in multiplayer or practice mode. There are secret areas and hidden rewards dotted around the landscape. There's lots for you to do, and pretty much everything in the world gives you some kind of reward. When you've saved up enough you can go to the shops and buy stuff for your Zubos.
We saw a few of the Zubos' different attacks when we played the game. Can you tell us about a few of your favourite ones?
Without giving too much away, I really like Red's (from Team Fairytale) unique move where she pretends to be asleep to lure the wolf to her and then 'surprises' him. Thor from Team Legend's lightning bolt attack is awesome and I still smile every time I see the move where a Zubo gives a Zombo (the bad guys) a present that has the old 'jack in a boxing glove' trick inside.
The really cool thing is the training mode which lets you train moves across to different Zubos so that you can customise your character – and swapping moves sometimes makes things funny in a whole different way.
Can you explain how multiplayer will work? Will it be similar to the rhythm-based combat seen in the single-player game?
Yes, multiplayer is based on battles between a squad of up to three Zubos picked from whichever Zubos are in your Friend's List (i.e. unlocked in single-player). The battle does use the same rhythm-based combat mechanic as the single-player game, but multiplayer is where the strategy element comes out even more strongly – you need to choose the right Zubos with the right moves.
Multiplayer has its own ranking structure, too. The more battles you win, the higher your Multiplayer Rank. At each Rank there is a reward, from a new environment to play in, or a gift for your Zubos. Best of all, there is a whole secret team of Zubos that you can unlock! If you unlock them in multiplayer then they can join you in the single-player adventure.
Do you think you'll be supporting Zubo after release in any way? Could we see new downloadable Zubos, for instance?
We're limited with what we can do with the DS and online support, but I somehow doubt that this will be the last you see of them.
Zubo was obviously designed with the DS in mind, but do you see it coming out on other formats at this stage? Perhaps it could work as a touch controlled phone game?
We made a decision that the DS was the perfect place for the Zubos to make their entrance, but it's easy to see how they could move onto other formats. We'd love to see them everywhere.
Did you design Zubo as a standalone game or was it designed as a potential series?
We started off by just creating some characters, then the world, then we looked at how the gameplay would suit these characters before we finally made a decision on the launch platform.
We have so many more Zubos to choose from as well as the Pets that you only really glimpse in this game; there is real potential to take Zubo into other areas. We tend to think of them as actors who could play lots of parts. Who knows what might happen in the future.
After nearly three years making a game that's very cute and fluffy, are you looking forward to moving onto a project that involves slaughtering zombies or something after Zubo?
Did we mention the Zombos? Actually, when you spend some time with the Zubos you'll see that although they're cute, they pack a punch. We'd love to work with them again – we just hope they'll still return our calls after they make it big.
Want more? Check out our growing collection of Zubo articles!