An educational game that is actually both.
A portrait photograph of Gareth Latty.

A game that defined my childhood has been re-released, with a graphical update. Zoombinis.

Zoombinis (formerly ‘The Logical Journey of The Zoombinis’) is probably the best educational game around, and while that isn’t saying too much, it manages to be an extremely engaging and fun game, while also being very educational. As a child I sunk many, many hours into Zoombinis, and it taught me a lot about logic, problem solving and maths, and sparked lifelong interests in those areas - all while I enjoyed myself massively - it was easily one of my favourite games.

A screenshot of the "Pizza Trolls" level of the game.

The game is a series of 12 puzzles, each having four difficulty levels that range from simple to teach you the basics up to hard enough to make anyone, child or adult, think a bit. These puzzles are interesting, varied and have really engaging theming, with characters that bring the world to life. There is an overarching plot where the player is helping all the Zoombinis travel across the map to a new home, giving a long-term goal.

The puzzles teach a variety of skills, all focusing on logic and problem solving, with a little mathematics thrown in. None of them fall into the usual educational game traps (quizzes, etc…), but rather teach by letting the player experiment, learn and apply their understanding in an iterative way - this is the best way to learn, and it is great fun. I never saw the game as ‘an educational game’ as a child, despite it teaching me a lot.

Most of the puzzles involve sorting the Zoombinis (who are composed from a set of features - hair, eyes, nose, ‘feet’), into groups or applying them to situations. For example, the first puzzle gives the player two bridges, each will reject Zoombinis with certain traits (that the other accepts) - the player must work out which traits are allowed on each bridge in order to get all the Zoombinis across. This is a simple start, but as the game goes on, the puzzles become deeper and more complex, with interesting solutions. The game slowly increases the difficulty, teaching the child how to think to solve the puzzles before hitting them with the hard stuff.

The characters are incredibly entertaining, despite being a puzzle game with little real interaction, the game uses environment, animation and some dialogue to great effect to breathe life into it’s characters - the Pizza Trolls are a favourite, and are timelessly entertaining. I still find myself saying ‘MORE TOPPINGS’ along with Arno.

This is quite possibly the best game you could buy for a child, and the age range it targets is surprisingly large - the difficulties vary enough to allow children of all ages and abilities to enjoy and learn from it. At it’s more difficult settings, this would even make a great alternative to a ‘brain training’ style game for adults - the puzzles get hard and interesting, no matter the age. This is a great game to play with children, (or for siblings to play together), although it is important to let children try, fail and learn from those failures, rather than pointing out the solutions.

If you have played the game before, you may want to know how it compares. The update itself is mostly pretty negligable (which is mostly a good thing) - the most important part being that it runs happily on modern systems.

A few quality of life enhancements have been made - some of the slower animations seem to have been sped up a little to reduce the delay, but unfortunately a few places are still as slow as they were (particularly the mirror machine, which retains it’s annoying need to flip the switch on and back for each Zoombini). A few of the animations also look a little odd (the toads jumping in and out, for example), but these are minor issues, and mostly a problem that won’t affect the average player, only the veteran coming back where the puzzles can be solved quickly enough to make the delay seem longer, or notice the animation difference.

The graphics have been updated, but all remain the same at their core. Some places have been clarified a little (the placement spot for the Fleans has been made more obvious, the images in the mirror machine have been made clearer), but nothing changed in a substantial way. They look great, and retain all of the charm of the originals.

The game retains it’s original sound, with the great music that is upbeat, with a hint of mystery, and the wonderful narrator, who adds humour and a sense of grand importance to what you do in the game. The audio quality is below that of a modern game, but I think TERC were right to leave it as is, the original recordings were spot-on, and a new version would have struggled to live up to the originals.

Just as fun as it used to be, a little prettier, and highly recommended. Easily worth the money.