Games 12/20/06: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Luxor: The Wrath of Set, Platypus

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen

Point: “Castlevania’s” long-awaited return to two-dimensional greatness in 2001 was so well-received that it has made four more returns to greatness in the five years since. With a new 2D “Castlevania” game now appearing nearly as often as EA Sports’ annual “Madden” game, it’s become rather easy to take for granted what once was a wonderfully pleasant suprise.

Counterpoint: Who cares? The games are completely awesome, and “Portrait of Ruin” is no exception.

Anyone who has played any Game Boy Advance or Nintendo DS “Castlevania” game will know mostly what to expect of “Ruin” — lots of exploration, lots of monsters and weapons, RPG-lite character-building, one giant level that gradually reveals itself as abilities are mastered and boss fights are won.

But Konami’s latest also harks back to the series’ roots, both in terms of the storyline (which is poorly told but engaging because of its lineage) and the level structure, which intersperses the single-level format of recent games with a handful of self-contained areas that take you outside of the castle.

“Ruin” also trots out the long-shelved ability to play as two different characters, but with remarkably clever results. You can switch characters on the fly, but you also can choose (again, on the fly) to go it alone, let the computer control whomever’s shoes you’re not filling, or simply call on the other character only when necessary. A few trite dual-character puzzles— including one truly aggravating one roughly five hours in — predictably appear, but they’re the only blemish on what otherwise an effective system that’s surprisingly devoid of bad A.I.

Beyond that, this is classic “Castlevania” with new levels, weapons and monsters. Calling it familiar doesn’t begin to tell the story, and the moment this series begins to slip, faulting it for being derivative will practically amount to a cheap shot. But that day has not yet arrived, and if Konami wants to release annual examples of 2D action gaming at its absolute finest, it’s awful hard to complain.

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Luxor: The Wrath of Set
For: PSP
From: MumboJumbo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Platypus
For: PSP
From: Idigicon/MumboJumbo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The so-so sales of the PSP has taught Sony a valuable lesson: If you want to sell a portable gaming system to the general public — even one as technologically impressive as this one — you need a steady supply of pick-up-and-play games to help make your pitch.

Few publishers are better equipped to reeducate Sony than MumboJumbo, which along with PopCap has become a household name in the realm of high-quality casual PC/Mac/Web games. First in the ring: the space shooter “Platypus” and the latest edition of the popular action puzzler “Luxor.”

If you’ve played “Zuma,” “Puzz Loop,” “Ballistic” or “Magnetica,” you’re already familiar with “Luxor: The Wrath of Set,” which apes what has proved to be one of the most enduring puzzle game concepts to come along since “Tetris” made the genre fashionable. In a nutshell: A chain of colored spheres moves toward an exit, and you need to stop it by shooting spheres at it, matching similar-colored spheres and making them disappear. “Luxor” twists the formula a bit by placing the sphere shooter at the bottom of the playing field instead of the center, which doesn’t improve anything but makes for a nice change of pace.

“Platypus,” on the other hand, is a “Gradius”-style shooter with one heck of a cool gimmick: All of the graphics were created using modeling clay. The game has an insanely cool look, and the animation is equally amusing (ships splat rather than explode, and the larger splats are surprisingly impressive). Novelty aside, the game holds its own, offering multiple difficulty levels and wireless co-op, as well as a survival mode to complement the standard arcade mode. But unless you never tire of these sort of games, you’ll blow through all “Platypus” has to offer in relatively short order.

As ports go, both games make a solid transition: Load times are short, glitches are non-existent, and the games look surprisingly good on the PSP screen. The $30 price tag seems a bit high for “Platypus” — your mileage may vary depending on your tastes — but it’s a great value for “Luxor,” if only because it successfully delivers a beloved puzzle concept to a system long in need of it. A few extra modes and some kind of multiplayer would’ve been welcome, but beggars can’t yet be choosers.