Ellen’s Choice: Meet the Zoombinis!

I had a burst of math-fueled nostalgia earlier this week when I found out that one of my favorite ‘edu-tainment’ games from my childhood has just been re-released for modern systems, and I’d like to take this week’s Ellen’s Choice to tell you about it.

Allow me to introduce the Zoombinis.

“The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis” was a PC game back in the 1990’s that combined surprisingly challenging problem solving with adorable animations and catchy music to create an incredibly memorable experience. In the game you serve as a guide for the Zoombinis, a peaceful, fun-loving race of little blue creatures who need to escape persecution by traveling to a faraway utopia called ‘Zoombiniville.’ You guide the little guys in groups of 16, leading them through four different legs of the journey, each of which contains obstacles in the form of three different logic puzzles you must solve to get them past. As you get better at the puzzles the difficulty gets harder, so that it continues to be a challenge all the way through to the end (not that there really is much of an end; it can keep going until you’re out of Zoombinis in the starting area, and even then you can just make a new game or switch to ‘practice’ mode and keep puzzling!)

The Zoombinis have 5 options each of four different facial features (hair, eyes, noses, and feet), allowing for a multitude of different possible appearances (625 possibilities, to be exact!). Identical twins are allowed, but only two Zoombinis across any given play-through can share the same exact makeup, so you have to get creative. Roughly half of the problem-solving puzzles make use of this fact by involving various kinds of sorting and common-element algorithms, and part of what keeps the puzzles fresh is that each new group of 16 has very different characteristics in its makeup – you have to keep adapting your strategies to fit your current group. The puzzles are themed around comically-engaging premises, like stone guardians that only let certain kinds of Zoombinis through, an innkeeper who’s very picky about where everyone sleeps in her inn, or (one of my favorites) the Pizza Party, with three discerning tree trolls demanding very specific pizzas.

I loved Zoombinis as a kid and still had vivid memories of it, so when I heard it was re-released, I immediately plunked down my money and downloaded a copy. (It can be found on the App Store and Google Play, and their website says that desktop and Kindle Fire versions are coming a little later in the year.) And let me tell you – it’s gorgeous. They took the exact same designs from the 90’s version and painstakingly updated the graphics to use modern vector technologies (a la flash animation) without changing the designs at all. They re-used all the original music, voiceovers and sound effects – starting it up I had a sudden rush of emotion as the dialogue all came back to me, exactly as it was when I was little.

And you know what impresses me the most? It’s still an awesome game – even as an adult. I was concerned that since it was a game designed for kids, it might be too easy for me as an adult, but never fear – I spend just as much time yelping in frustration now as I did then! I love puzzle games, and I truly believe that getting kids interested in problem-solving is really important – a lot of my math tutoring turns out to be more about basic logic and problem-solving skills than actually doing math itself.

As an adult, I can see the places where Zoombinis mimics certain types of logic puzzles, cleverly camouflaged to fit in with the story. Remember I mentioned earlier that some of the puzzles make use of the range of possible combinations on the Zoombinis themselves? As an example, in the middle of the game there’s a puzzle where the Zoombinis need to hire a raftsman to pole them across a river. The raftsman is very picky about how they sit on his raft – each Zoombini must share at least one common feature with everyone he sits next to. It’s basically a sorting algorithm, and as the difficulty increases, the orientation of the seats on the raft shifts to give each Zoombini more and more neighbors to match with. As a kid, I remember solving this one by hacking the system – you can personalize your group of 16 Zoombinis exactly how you want it, so I used to make sure everyone in my group had one thing in common (they all had sunglasses, for example). If everyone shares one feature, they don’t have to worry about where they sit! I tried that after downloading the new version, and it still works, but now it feels a bit like cheating. So I’ve been having the game make random sets of 16 for me, and practicing my sorting skills by dealing with whatever distribution of features I get.

I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of this game, whether you enjoy puzzles or cute animations or even just cheesy dialogue spoken by a way-too-excited narrator. It’s a shining example of how learning can be fun, and how infusing learning into a game can get kids (and grown-ups too!) excited about the concepts involved.

Oh, and if you do get it, stick your tongue out at the Fleens for me!