Games 3/24/09: Zubo, Boing! Docomodake DS, Hasbro Family Game Night

Zubo
For: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence)

The first thing we really learn about “Zubo” is that it stars you as a pretty generic human character. The second thing we learn is that, as this human, you can collect and befriend different creatures, called Zubos, whom you then employ in battle against their evil Zombo counterparts.

Sounds a lot like “Pokémon” — which, with “Pokémon Platinum” arriving at almost the exact same time, also sounds like some seriously terrible timing on “Zubo’s” part.

Once you see how “Zubo’s” fight system works, though, all perceptions fly out the window. Turns out, timing isn’t the game’s biggest problem so much as its greatest asset.

Superficially, “Zubo’s” battle system should ring familiar to anyone who has played a role-playing game. You pick one of (eventually) three available Zubos in your party, tell him or her which attack to use, and a system built around both adversaries’ stats helps determine the effect of those decisions.

But instead of simply watch the action play out, you determine the outcome by playing what essentially amounts to an on-the-fly rhythmic music game. Tapping the screen in time with the visual and musical clues maximizes the effectiveness of your attacks, while completely missing the cues causes your Zubo to do the same to the Zombo. If you’ve played any of the “Paper Mario” games, you have something of an idea how this works: The more effective the attack, the more involved the sequence is that you have to follow.

Happily, pulling off the game’s crazier maneuvers is an absolute riot. The rhythmic music sequences are fun to execute in their own right. If you play “Zubo” with headphones, the wonderfully infectious soundtrack only helps matters.

But the cherry on the Sundae is the nature of all that combat. Far more than your typical punches, kicks or slashes, “Zubo’s” attacks are pantomimic masterpieces, calling on everything from goofy dance steps to slapstick gags that enable Zubos and Zombos to pile oodles of insult atop injury. “Zubo’s” mastery of comical body language comes rivaled only by Telltale’s acclaimed Lego games, and when the game shoots for the moon, it raises the bar to new heights.

The whole shebang is such an explosion of feel-good joy that it’s almost easy to forget there’s an actual adventure tying it all together. Fortunately, while it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, “Zubo’s” story suffices, and it provides excuse plenty to round up a diverse collection of Zubos inspired by robots, monsters, martial artists and pretty much every other fictional archetype. Seeing the tricks hidden up each character’s sleeve provides all the motivation one needs to keep playing, but a little storytelling never hurts.

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Boing! Docomodake DS
For: Nintendo DS
From: AQ Interactive/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You may not know it just to look at it, and you may never have known if nobody told you, but “Boing! Docomodake DS” is a commercial mascot tie-in game — the latest in a sometimes-brutal genre that includes the wretched likes of “Yaris” and “Izzy’s Quest for the Olympic Rings.”

In this case, the star of the show is Docomodake, who is to Japan’s dominant mobile phone provider what the Kool-Aid man is to Kool-Aid.

Fortunately, all that amounts to nothing more than trivia. Docomodake is a delightful character, regardless of affiliation. More importantly, “Boing” is a genuinely great game — an inspired platformer/puzzler hybrid that uses the full might of the Nintendo DS’ capabilities in completely new ways.

At first glance, Papa Docomodake is a your typical mushroom with a face, able to walk, dash and jump. But the levels in “Boing” pose challenges beyond his base capabilities, and as such, Papa has to split off into multiple miniature Docomodakes who can, among other things, squeeze into tighter spaces and stand atop one another to form a ladder.

“Boing” keeps the controls practical: The buttons handle Papa Docomodake, while the stylus is used to drag the miniatures, which also can be rolled into balls and used to knock enemies out of the sky or clear other obstacles. You can rebuild and split Papa Docomodake at will, which comes in handy when activating certain platforms that require a specific amount of weight to operate properly.

This, pretty much, is how “Boing’s” levels work, and like a good platformer, the game keeps the controls at this level while introducing new obstacles and doohickeys to overcome and understand as you progress. The primary goal is to reach the end of each level, but ambitious players also can tackle the scoring system, which grades you on your ability to collect treasure, keep all mini Docomodakes healthy and reach the goal as quickly as possible. The game’s primary challenge isn’t terribly taxing, but acing the latter test definitely is.

An interest in replaying levels to perfection is pretty crucial to the long-term value of “Boing,” which proves to be a pretty brisk experience if you simply burn through every level once and never look back.

Then again, the game checks in at a very impulse purchase-friendly $20, and you easily could recoup that investment after only a few hours in Docomodake’s world. “Boing” is a visual charmer, and its devotion to doing things only a DS platformer can do produces one of the most endearing efforts since “Kirby Canvas Curse” blew everybody away four years ago.

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Hasbro Family Game Night
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: EA Hasbro
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: Free for host client, $10 for each game

Wii and PS2 owners were introduced to “Hasbro Family Game Night” last fall, but not like this. On Xbox Live, “Night” comes a la carte, and you can purchase as many or as few of the games (Battleship, Connect Four, Scrabble and Yahtzee available now; Boggle, Sorry! and Sorry! Sliders coming later) for $10 each. The downside is obvious: Purchase all seven, and you’re paying $70, which is $30 more than the Wii version currently fetches. More likely, though, you don’t have any use for all seven, and being able to purchase a couple favorites on the cheap and enjoy them in their best virtual incarnation yet (surprisingly pretty graphics and interface, solo/local/online play, Xbox Live avatar support) is a nice option to have. Your favorites naturally will vary, but if the four available games are any indication, EA has done each selection serious justice. All play as you expect them to in their basic incarnations, and each comes with special alternate modes that aren’t possible in their real-life form. Having live opponents ready and waiting at all hours of the day certainly doesn’t hurt, either.