This week, we're tackling Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo, published in 1995 as the third entry in the popular Humongous Entertainment series of children's point-and-click adventure games designed by Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion), starring a cute little car named Putt-Putt.
The series was seeing some success and bigger budgets as a result, it seems -- this time around, graphic resolution is higher with more colors onscreen (I think) and the voice acting and music sound a lot more polished. The mouse cursor now goes white when hovering over interactive hotspots, appearing as an outline otherwise, and some of the dialogue is actually lip-synched in this game -- mostly for short exclamations like "Heyyy!", where the usual cycle of mouth shapes seen in the earlier titles is obviously not a good fit. And there's little apparent reuse of animation sprites -- a lot of sequences are scene-specific, with an appealing looseness to the cartoon movement.
As always, interested readers are encouraged to help ensure that Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo independently before proceeding into my detailed playthrough notes; the game runs on almost any platform using the modern ScummVM interpreter, and it's not too hard to find at thrift stores these days, although a recent iOS port has been taken out of circulation for reasons beyond my ken. The game isn't anything like difficult, but it's a decent bit of light adventuring entertainment thanks to its cheerful personality and sense of humor. Without further ado, be warned that there will most certainly be...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
The story opens in typical children's story fashion -- a new zoo is opening in Cartown, and Mr. Baldini the grocer asks Putt-Putt (and his faithful dog, Pep, who plays almost no role in the action) to deliver some Zoo Chow animal food to the new zookeeper, Outback Al. As in the earlier Putt-Putt games, a lot of the stuff onscreen can be clicked on just for fun -- ears of corn pop, bubble gum machines turn into fish bowls, ants pop out of fuzzy dice and have animated, unintelligible conversations, and that's just a quick sampling. A lot of production value goes into these fun, non-essential clickables, reportedly based on Ron Gilbert's observations that pre-readers enjoyed just clicking on things in the Monkey Island games, regardless of story comprehension or progress.
To the "east" (our right, though the compass directions hold fairly true) there's a billboard promoting the Cartown Zoo's Grand Opening. Clicking on the billboard after this initial observation by Putt-Putt cycles through quite a few comical billboards -- a diet soda endorsed by "Skinny Bear" (formerly Humongous' Fatty Bear?) and a clue as to the game's renowned composer with this billboard:
We pass through a generic road/trees scene with some fun but optional clickable gags, arriving next at the entrance to the Zoo. The puzzles in these games are never very complex -- all we have to do is click on the intercom, and Outback Al raises the gate for entry after Putt-Putt explains his delivery mission.
We might be tempted to think that the Cartown Zoo isn't going to last very long if it's buying its Zoo Chow retail, but that's not the half of its management crisis. Outback Al is talking about how he has to get to work "fixing up the place," even though it's having its Grand Opening, and six of the baby animals have gone missing. As usual, Putt-Putt is surrounded by incapable adults and will have to save the day more or less on his own.
There are six animals to track down -- a lion cub, a giraffe, a seal, an elephant, a hippopotamus and a snake. As we rescue each animal, their outlines will get colored in on the handy and highly scientific reference document Outback Al provides:
The Zoo Food Cart is operated by -- actually, is -- one Chuck Wagon, a big red truck with a brightly-colored display of snacks on offer. He charges nothing for his cotton candy, cheese squigglies, and hot cocoa -- Putt-Putt just eats the cotton candy, but we can file the other items in inventory. Playing as an adult, it's a bit disconcerting when Chuck picks up a cup and expels hot cocoa into it from a spigot mounted on his side.
The way to Jungle Land is blocked by a bridge outage -- again, one can't help thinking that Jurassic Park was a paragon of consumer-friendly planning compared to this place -- but we can visit the Grassland, where a log blocks the road; fortunately, Putt-Putt can just pick it up to clear the way. An observation point overlooks the huge Grassland area, a simulated slice of the Serengheti right here in Cartown. Masai the baby giraffe isn't with her mother, and Kenya the lion cub's parents are unhappily missing her also, though they have no clue as to their offspring's whereabouts. We can pick up some genuinely educational information about the animals in the zoo by clicking on the loudspeakers in various locations, a nice touch.
East of the lions' home, we come across Baby Jambo, the missing young elephant and victim of perpetuated stereotypes -- he's frozen in fear, his path home blocked by a mouse. Allowing the mouse to gorge on cheese squigglies sends him into his burrow, and Baby Jambo happily thunders home as Putt-Putt dives out of the way.
We still have five animals left to save, as Putt-Putt informs us, so let's keep exploring. There's a Paint Shack next door, where we can customize Putt-Putt's color scheme if we like, but I prefer his conventional purple. We can also steal a shovel -- actually, "borrow," though while Putt-Putt means well we never seem to return these items after putting them in inventory. Heading back west from this dead end, we can scare away the animals from the local watering hole by clicking on them, and also indulge in a completely optional game of Animal Tag in easy, medium or hard difficulty mode. This diversion is basically whack-a-mole, played with the mouse, with some false targets and other variations, but we don't gain anything for playing as far as the plot goes.
Past Jambo and his happy mother, we find one Sammy the seal stuck behind a closed dam, unable to swim home. Nothing we have on hand seems useful here, though I did discover that we can actually exhaust our hot cocoa supply if we sip it a few times -- fortunately, we can return to Chuck Wagon to get some more. The log is not helpful for crossing the Jungle Land bridge.
So let's visit Arctic Land, where we can find and "borrow" some rope, after which Pep almost sneezes, and Putt-Putt more-than-almost sneezes and causes an avalanche. We can use the shovel to dig through, though, so we're not stuck. Farther in, we find poor cold-blooded young Little Skeeter the boa constrictor, complaining that he's "as stiff as an icicle" -- fortunately, hot cocoa provides prosthetic endothermy, and he can slither home. Two down!
We find Zanzibar the baby hippo stuck on an iceberg in the penguin enclave. He pretends he's not really stuck, but it's clear he needs help. Sammy the seal's parents live nearby, but are of no help even after Putt-Putt tells them where she is. Returning to the park entrance area, we can visit Patty the Gift Shop-mobile and pick up a free camera -- she also has one of my favorite lines in this adventure, telling Putt-Putt that she wanted to sell t-shirts, but "couldn't find any big enough to fit even a sports car." The camera can be used for fun, to capture images from the game, but we can only "photograph" certain things and it's non-essential to finishing the game.
So what next? Aha! I hadn't noticed a hanging vine in Jungle Land that Putt-Putt can use to swing across the gap in the bridge. A band of monkeys camping out in a tree here provides entertainment in the form of rhyming beat poetry. Masai the giraffe is trapped on the other side of a drawbridge blocked by a giant rock, and Putt-Putt can't move it from the side he's on, so we'll have to find another way around. Past Little Skeeter's home, we find a river with a partially constructed raft floating in it -- finishing it off with the log lets Putt-Putt float downstream to where Masai is stuck.
Along the way, we meet Zanzibar the hippo's gruff father -- Putt-Putt fills him in on Zanzibar's plight in Arctic Land, but once again adults are useless. And Kenya the lion cub is stuck on a rock outcropping in the middle of a turbulent waterfall -- she's afraid to jump down into the water.
We can't throw the rope up to her, but Putt-Putt thinks he might be able to lower it from the top of the waterfall. On the way there, we can stop off and help Masai push the boulder over so the drawbridge can be lowered, though we'll have to go back to the other side to lower it. At least we've found all the animals now. We can indeed rescue Kenya from the Scenic View above the waterfall, then free Masai as well by using a crank to lower the drawbridge. Four down! (We can take an optional ride down the rapids in Jungle Land, also, with some really fun animation.)
So we still have Zanzibar stuck on the ice and Sammy stuck behind the dam. Putt-Putt can get the penguins to help him move the icebergs to build a bridge -- it's a shape-fitting puzzle, and now Zanzibar can go home.
How about Sammy? The dam is still closed. I had missed a little mouse-driven hockey contest available in Arctic Land, where Putt-Putt must try to block shots and score goals against an opposing polar bear. It's actually quite a bit of fun, playing like a Pong variant with decent AI on the opposing team. We can win by scoring five goals before the bear does, but we don't gain anything for winning beyond satisfaction.
Right, back to Sammy and the dam... darn... dam, that's right. There seems to be a drive wheel connected to the dam at the side of the road, but how can we engage Putt-Putt's wheels? Ah, there's a toolbox hidden in a tree near the monkeys in Jungle Land. It contains a set of keyed cogs -- we have to pick the one whose shape matches the cross-shaped dam gear, and then Putt-Putt can ratchet the gates open.
With Sammy free to swim home, the rest of the game is on auto-pilot -- Putt-Putt reports in to Outback Al, who awards him a special Junior Zoo Keeper medal, and the zoo is open for business!
The end credits confirm that the uniformly catchy tunes are by none other than George Alistair "The Fat Man" Sanger, whose Team Fat plays and sings to bring a great fun flair to the closing number, "Topiary Creatures." I always loved the Fat Man's score for The 7th Guest, and it's nice to hear his work in this unexpected venue.
I enjoyed Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo quite a bit, for what it is -- it takes a big leap forward in production values compared to the early Putt-Putt games, and the puzzles are simple but varied, with enough hidden detail to require a little more looking around than I expected. I'll continue to work my way through this series -- animated adventure games are usually slower-paced than a good text adventure that travels at the speed of typing, but these Junior Adventures are brief enough that they work well on my usual weekly deadline.