Feature Article

The Beautiful Tron-Like Worlds and Challenging Co-op of Mekazoo

Mechanical animals make great platforming characters.

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The 2D-platforming genre has become increasingly crowded over the years, making it difficult to stand apart from the dozens of other games in the genre. And yet, Mekazoo, from developer The Good Mood Creators, is trying its best to be unique and present a different platforming formula.

At the core of this effort is its main mechanic: Mekazoo gives you a choice of five different animals with which to complete levels. There's only ever one character on screen at a time, but you can flip on the fly between two of them. As you first go through the game, you'll have to start levels with a pre-selected pair of animals. But once you finish the game, you can return to any previous level and complete it again with a pair of your choice.

During my demo, I was able to play each of the five animals, and I came away fascinated by their individual strengths and weaknesses and the interplay between them. The armadillo, according to Good Mood Creators marketing director Mark Naborczyk, is the strongest of the five, able to roll and smash through obstacles while maintaining the fastest rate of speed of any of them. The frog is slow on the ground, but is able to fling its tongue at enemies and floating platforms to swing around them and launch up high. The wallaby can wall-jump and get up higher with more versatility than any of the other animals, and can also ground-pound through thick obstacles. The slow, lumbering panda can hang from the underside of platforms and punch through certain walls. Finally, the pelican can fly, meaning that it can get through early levels very easily--but later levels still require deft navigation.

In the single-player mode, you can switch between two of the animals whenever you want. But in the game's interesting cooperative mode, each player controls one character in the pair of animals that you enter a level with. There's not actually two animals on screen, though--one person starts off playing, while the other can seize control from their partner--which means that you have to talk with your partner and tactically plan the character swaps. It was surprising in its difficulty, but working with another player to string together a rhythmic flow of actions felt satisfying in a way that I've rarely experienced in cooperative platformers.

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For most of my demo, I played with Naborczyk using the armadillo and frog, and was able to witness first-hand the potential heights of teamwork that Mekazoo can reach. As I got more accustomed to the controls, I was able to roll with the armadillo and launch up high, then Naborczyk would switch on the fly to the frog and use its tongue to swing up even higher, allowing me to then take control back with the armadillo and roll onto a long series of ramps. Of course, these perfectly executed combinations of actions and switches were rare--more often, I would accidentally take control away from Naborczyk before I should have and abruptly halt our momentum.

These failures were all part of the platforming puzzles, though, and I didn't mind. It felt good to get accustomed to the different animals and be able to use them effectively, especially as Naborczyk led me through increasingly difficult and diverse levels. Near the end of my demo, we were using the pelican in an industrial, Tron-like world that was full of enemies and hazards, which required a lot of attention, care, and precise navigation. Although the levels never really hit the same difficulty as, say, a late-game Super Meat Boy level or Ori and the Blind Forest, they had a similar feel. Instantaneous respawns help this, as well, as you never feel punished for trying and failing.

Adding onto this, the game features beautiful art and animation. The 2.5D environments are richly rendered, with constant movement giving Mekazoo's worlds life and character. The backgrounds hide details that hint at some of the game’s few narrative details. Each animal is animated in a way that reflects their mechanistic design--they move in a way that isn't quite natural, but also not completely robotic. And each of the game's five worlds are unique; I saw worlds set in a desert, a jungle, a futuristic cityscape, and a factory, and all had their own structures, designs, and enemies. The industrial, factory world was my favorite, as its neon accents set against dark construction evoked dystopian, Tron-like futurism, but with a touch of lightheartedness from its cartoonish enemies.

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The only parts of Mekazoo that felt off--or at least not in keeping with the feel of the rest of the game-were the sequences that tasked Naborczyk and I with controlling two of the slower characters. So much of the rest of the game emphasizes speed and flow, utilizing the armadillo or pelican to quickly race through levels and then using the frog or panda to complement that speed with greater reach or power. But when we had to use the frog and the panda at the same time, things slowed way down. The game became much more about brute force and not as much about rhythmic motion; the plodding panda broke through obstacles while the frog sprung up to higher platforms. When we worked together well, I still felt satisfied as we made our way through the levels. But I never got the same exhilarating sense of speed that made the rest of my demo so fun, and I longed to regain control of the armadillo.

For the most part, however, Mekazoo seemed like a delightful game full of gorgeous art and spirited gameplay. I found myself loving the challenge of a cooperative mode that requires planning and communication, as each player has the power to seize control of the character whenever they wish. I also greatly enjoyed exploring the densely detailed worlds, gazing at the ever-moving backgrounds and colorfully rendered characters and enemies. I came away from the demo wanting to search for the perfect combination of animals to tackle the hardest that Mekazoo has to offer.

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Alex Newhouse

I'm a news guy, a student of international relations, and I've put way too many hours into Steep.



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