Games 2/10/09: Retro Game Challenge, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, Flower

Retro Game Challenge
For: Nintendo DS
From: Namco Bandai/XSEED Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference, mild fantasy violence, mild language)

The Nintendo DS has its share of real classic game compilations, and now it can lay claim to hosting perhaps the best fake classic game compilation as well.

“Retro Game Challenge’s” premise is ingenious: A grown man, frustrated by the complexity of today’s games, has sent your more skilled self back in time to complete a series of challenges from his favorite childhood games.

The execution is similarly clever. The DS’ bottom screen is devoted to a game room, where your childhood self sits next to your challenger’s childhood self, who cheers you on and offers tips and gossip via some very funny dialogue exchanges. He also owns an ever-growing library of gaming magazines, which you can peruse freely for tips, cheat codes and previews of games you haven’t yet unlocked. Between this brilliant wrinkle and the infusion of in-jokes that only a child of the Nintendo Entertainment System era will truly get, “Challenge” absolutely nails the innocent allure that came with playing video games in the 1980s.

Most importantly, though, the games themselves get it right.

“Challenge” features six original games (and two mostly identical “sequels”), including “Galaga” and “Space Megaforce”-style shooters, a trio of side-scrolling action games, two overhead racers and a shockingly fleshed-out (albeit much shorter than normal) role-playing game.

While some work better than others — and your mileage inevitably will vary based on your personal tastes — there isn’t a dud in the bunch. “Challenge,” for better or worse, completely understands the magic and warts that defined the 8-bit era, and that understanding translates into some surprisingly fun tributes that stand completely on their own, overlying gimmick or not.

That’s particularly apparent when you play the games in free play mode, which is your reward for beating your adversary’s individual challenges. It isn’t always apparent during those challenges, but Namco Bandai went the extra mile and made eight complete games — high scores, multiple paths, hidden secrets and all. And because the games are brand-new experiences in spite of their nods to the past, they’re good for more than just a nostalgia trip, which too often is the only thing real compilations have going for them.

“Challenge’s” only major stumble: No multiplayer. Not every game would be equipped to support it, of course, but there exist some pretty obvious applications that Namco Bandai could have but did not utilize. If you want to compare high scores with friends, you’ll have to take one more page from the 1980s and utilize the honor system.

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Tenchu: Shadow Assassins
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Acquire/From/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

It’s reset button time again for Tenchu, the stealthy ninja whose recent adventures have been something of a technical mess.

With “Tenchu: Shadow Assassins,” the series returns to the arms of the developers who originally created it. That’s the good news. The slightly baffling, not-so-good news? It appears exclusively on the console least capable of handling its fickle approach to stealth gameplay.

For those unfamiliar, “Tenchu” takes the complete opposite tack of most ninja games. Rather than carve your way through whole armies, you’re lurking in the dark, traipsing from point to point and avoiding enemy contact whenever possible. You’re capable of performing kills on unsuspecting enemies whose backs are turned, but if one of them sneaks a conscious glance at you and you aren’t equipped with the right weaponry, you’re dead to rights.

“Assassins” isn’t quite as punishing as other “Tenchu” games, which simply marked you for death and sent you back to the start of the mission. This time around, getting caught unarmed sends you back (you automatically “escape”), but lets you keep whatever progress you’ve made in terms of stealth kills and environmental manipulations. Getting spotted with the right weaponry sends you into a so-so first-person swordplay mode, which either ends in their death or your escape.

That’s generous, but it may not be enough to compensate for some annoying issues that the game’s fickle nature merely exacerbates.

“Assassins'” control scheme includes a “Mind’s Eye” view that lets you rotate the camera freely, but adjusting your viewpoint while in motion is impossible thanks to the Wii’s controller setup, which also is responsible for some muddy mechanics with regards to sidling along walls and conducting business with a sword. Unfortunately, leaving the camera to its own devices only leads to different kinds of trouble — and occasionally, straight into the arms of an enemy you never even saw.

Camera issues are devastating to any game that has you sneaking around out of enemy sight, but they’re especially problematic when those enemies’ A.I. patterns are so unpredictable. The things that trigger a response versus those that don’t are sometimes comically random, turning stretches of some missions into a laborious trial-and-error exercise that’s anything but amusing.

But this isn’t news for “Tenchu” fans, who have and will continue to endure technical inconsistencies en route to mastering a game that takes its philosophy about stealth gameplay — if not always the execution on that philosophy — as seriously as any game out there. If that doesn’t sound like you, heed this warning: “Assassins” won’t change that one bit. Softies need not apply.

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Flower
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: thatgamecompany/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

In “Flower,” you star as a single flower petal. As you drift past other flowers, they bloom and donate petals to what eventually becomes a rainbow parade of petals that gradually transform their drab, dead surroundings into fully living dreamscapes. No, really. Making sense of “Flower” without actually seeing how obscenely beautiful it is amounts to one fruitless endeavor, which could explain why the game itself only feeds you scant pieces of instruction before letting you see for yourself what they do and where it all leads. Discovering all that lies inside the six primary levels (to say nothing of some secret areas) is a treat for the eyes and ears, and while the lack of a failure mechanic makes completing each level’s primary objective an inevitability, doing what needs to be done to unlock the game’s best secret will indeed take some skill. Happily, the game plays as competently as it looks and sounds. “Flower” fully vindicates Sony’s seemingly improvisational decision to cram motion sensing into the PS3’s controller, employing motion controls that both work intuitively and capture the breezy physics of the objects in motion. If the game’s aesthetics didn’t already make it the ultimate go-to relaxation game, the controls certainly put it over the top.