After finishing the last level in Zuma, I’ve tried playing a few similar games – Tumblebugs, Luxor, and Bubblefish Bob (which I have already finished). Doing so has given me a new appreciation for Zuma, and how its design affects strategy. Here are some observations on the alternatives, followed by a few more about strategy.

Tumblebugs
Two words: ugly ripoff. The graphics are chunky, with very few colors, and almost put me off the game right away, but it’s the play that matters, right? TB is more similar to Zuma than the other two are. The bonuses and level completion work the same way, and the powerups are mostly the same. You can rotate between three “ready” balls instead of just two as in Zuma, which seemed more of a pain than anything else. There’s an additional “penetrating” ball that can go through multiple segments of a convoluted track triggering multiple kills. There’s a “wild card” ball that matches any other color; I never quite got used to anticipating what would happen when I shot it between two different-colored balls, but I’m sure I would with time. The most interesting extra powerup is the “ballistic ball” which you can fire over one segment of the track to reach another. While it might seem handy to reach something that’s shielded from your firing position, it also means you must aim by range as well as direction. Since choosing a direction and firing quickly is the key play element in all of these games most of the time, having to deal with range was actually quite a pain – especially since the cursor tracking in the game is also sloppy. The one thing I did think was kind of cool in TB was the way that some levels had multiple firing positions that you could switch between. With better level design that could be cool, forcing the player to switch to deal with odd angles etc. As it is, though, “let’s do Zuma with some extra stuff” seems to have been the TB design. Without more attention to how people actually play and what actually makes Zuma so addictive, the result is just a shoddy-feeling rework.
Luxor
Much more polished than TB, maybe even a little better than Zuma, but fundamentally different in some ways. For one thing the motion is linear (move left/right, shoot up) instead of circular, which feels very different. Powerups do not take effect immediately but fall after being shot and must be caught. Gaps close almost instantaneously, eliminating one of the best strategic aspects of Zuma, and they fall fast. Between the fact that it was hard to tell which balls represented powerups and the fact that they fell so fast, they effectively seemed to occur at random. There’s nothing in Luxor similar to the level midpoint (when the colored bar fills up and new balls stop appearing) in Zuma, which removes another strategic element. There also seemed to be a serious lack of creativity in the level design relying too much on simple zig-zags. If I hadn’t already played Zuma I might find Luxor more appealing, but I have so it just seemed kind of ho-hum.
Bubblefish Bob
By far the most visually appealing; it’s worth checking out just to see the transparent bubbles jiggle across the screen. Play is very similar to Luxor in that motion is linear and you have to catch powerups. Like Luxor the powerups seem to appear a bit randomly, but they fall quite slowly so you can see what they are and prepare accordingly. This is especially important because there are also “powerdowns” that cause bad things to happen – balls speed up, you lose a life, or (most creatively of all) the colors get scrambled into the worst possible order. The level design is quite good, though the linear rather than circular format seems limiting; the closest equivalent to some of the convoluted Zuma levels is levels with up to four parallel streams so you have to cut back the lower ones to get to the higher ones. It’s challenging, but not as interesting. There’s no level midpoint, and overall the game just seems too easy. Yes, I know, I have a lot of practice from playing Zuma, but I completed BB – a whole different game – in my second try after only a few hours of play. I’d probably require many more tries and much more time to complete Zuma again even though it’s more familiar.

Obviously I liked BB the best, even though TB was more similar. Nothing more to say there; read on for the strategy portion.

Strategy for Zuma is intimately tied to some subtle aspects of game mechanics and scoring, and there are many tradeoffs. In fact, one of the most important things to know about Zuma is that the tradeoffs change. On some levels speed rules. On others accuracy matters more. On some you really have to be aggressive about creating/exploiting combos and gaps, but that’s risky and can slow you down; try the same approach on another level and it won’t work. At first I thought this variability was a bad thing because it means you have to play a level several times before you know how to play it, but at this point I think the resulting variety outweighs that. Here are some of the elements you’ll need to mix together (in different proportions) to get through.

Zuma
This is the “level midpoint” I mentioned above – the point where the colored bar fills up, the balls move in reverse for a moment, and new balls stop coming in. It’s based on points scored in that level, with each level having its own threshold. On some levels you have to concentrate on getting to Zuma as quickly as possible with coins, gap and chain bonuses, and so on. On some levels that’s not strictly necessary but doesn’t hurt either. However, there are exceptions. What can happen in a few cases is that if you concentrate too much on making early kills to rack up scores and get to Zuma quickly you can end up with a bunch of mismatched balls beyond where you can shoot at them and you’ll have almost no chance to unscramble them between the time they reappear and the time they go into “the mouth” (at which point you die). The “Sun Stone” layout used for 9-6 and 12-6 is particularly nasty this way.
Coins
Shoot them. Open gaps to shoot them. Learn where they appear on each level so you can be ready. ‘Nuff said.
Powerups
Reverse powerups are almost always worth going for, even if you have to throw away a few balls or sacrifice a bit in other strategic areas. Exploding powerups can be very useful, especially on some of the convoluted or two-track levels or those with tunnels; they’re good on Shrine of Quetzalcoatl (12-4) and great on Mirror Serpent (12-5).
Sucking Back
If both ends of a gap are the same color after a kill, the gap closes…from front to back. Therefore, shooting a ball at the back end of the gap to match the color of the front end is often an essential technique to bring balls back from the brink or back into your shooting range. However, as we’ll see in a moment, in other cases you’ll want to avoid the suckback and leave the gap open.
Combos
I never got into combos that much. A big four- or five-stage combo can be fun to watch, and they do increase your score, but it’s almost never worth setting one up. If you just learn to avoid shooting the ends off a potential combo (especially if you have the middle color in your reserve slot so you can shoot it first) you’ll be OK. Occasionally it’s worth taking the risk of shooting into the middle of a long single-color chain to make a combo out of it, but don’t sweat it too much.
Gaps
Unlike combos, gaps are critical. I think they’re also the most brilliant thing about Zuma. There are many levels you simply won’t get through unless you at least learn to exploit gaps to get to Zuma more quickly. At the most basic level you have to look behind any kill to see if you can follow up with an immediate gap shot before the gap closes. Next, you need to get used to remembering what’s on each end of a gap and make sure you don’t close it prematurely by making a kill at one end so it sucks the gap closed (see above). Occasionally you might even try to create a gap, especially to get at a reverse powerup. Effective gappage is the most important aspect of Zuma play.

Chain Bonus
This is the last thing I figured out about the game. Sometimes it would seem like I’d get to Zuma really fast and I wouldn’t know why; sometimes it would seem to take forever, likewise. The chain bonus was the reason. You get an increasing bonus for each successive ball you shoot that scores points, including coins, and those really add up. The way to exploit the chain bonus is to alternate between setting up by creating as many pairs as you can without actually making any kills and then killing everything in sight as long as you can. This is a good way to get combos without having to think to hard as well. If you’re at the end of a long chain bonus and you can’t make a kill with your primary ball, see if you can with your alternate ball; at least you’ll get one more bonus, and sometimes you’ll clear a path for that primary ball so you can keep going. Keep in mind, though, that over-aggressively making kills can leave you with a scramble at the end as described above.

Obviously you won’t be able to keep all of these in mind for every shot. In general speed rules, and trying to get too fancy slows you down. If you could think infinitely long about each shot you could create more combos and exploit gaps even more, but in the real world (?) if you try too hard your level will be over before your carefully laid plans come to fruition. That’s why I recommend simple heuristics like looking for an immediate gap shot or creating pairs, which don’t require enough thought (or eye/hand motion) to slow you down very much. Yes, looking and changing aim take time. Maybe it’s worse for me because I use a trackball, but you can get a little bit of a speed boost by concentrating on one area for a few seconds and minimizing motion. You still have to keep a global view, though, or else you’ll get past the point of diminishing returns in that one area and fail to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere.