Games 3/30/10: WarioWare D.I.Y., Just Cause 2, Game Room

WarioWare D.I.Y.
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

An important warning for those who like “WarioWare” games but despise the idea of creating their own fun: This one may not be for you — at least, not yet.

Also, a word of warning for anyone who enjoys a creative challenge or has aspirations to enter the world of animation, character and/or game design: If you don’t at least check this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Like every “WarioWare” game before it, “WarioWare D.I.Y.” sports a collection of microgames, which are like minigames but generally toss out one vaguely-worded objective, allow five seconds or fewer for players to figure out and complete the challenge, and then whisk away before another microgame pops up and repeats the cycle until players simply cannot keep up.

But the “D.I.Y.” in the title isn’t kidding. Where previous games came bundled with more than 200 microgames each, “D.I.Y.” has a few north of 90, and not all of them are even new. If you want more than that, guess what? Make them yourself.

Fortunately, that’s not a concession of laziness on Nintendo’s behalf, but instead the real reason “D.I.Y.” even exists at all. And in spite of the obvious limitations on hand with regard to the hardware and the microgame format, Nintendo has put together a game design tool that’s shockingly robust.

The full might of the tool isn’t apparent at first glance, when “D.I.Y.” asks players simply to draw a character that the game inserts into a pre-scripted microgame. Initially, this appears to be all “D.I.Y.” is — players performing fill-in duty while the game does all the creative, complicated stuff.

But a trip through the 65-page manual and absolutely staggering collection of thoroughly thorough in-game tutorials changes the picture completely. “D.I.Y.” obviously doesn’t allow for the creation of the next “Legend of Zelda” game, and the limitations of the microgame format are in place, but the tools do not skimp on control. Players can create objects separately using a pretty capable paint editor and, in similar fashion to basic Adobe Flash design, can script those objects to move and react according to input triggers and other conditions. Ambitious creators can stack win conditions for extra challenge, and there’s even a little music composition tool for soundtrack creation purposes.

Nintendo goes a little crazy with the tutorials — Photoshop pros who don’t need basic paint program instruction will be dismayed to discover they can’t just skip ahead — but the lessons are brisk, effective and, with Wario’s help, pretty funny. The tools’ respective interfaces benefit from similar attention to detail, and “D.I.Y.” toes the line between whimsy and efficiency to resonate equally with designers-to-be and Nintendo fans.

Happily, all your hard work need not be for your eyes only. “D.I.Y.’s” content sharing suite allows players to share microgames with friends (locally or online), including anyone who downloads the $8 microgame player for the Wii. But the centerpiece of the suite is the Design Challenge, which offers up themed contests for anyone to enter and will feature the winners in the in-game Nintendo channel, which also will house a stream of new downloadable games from Nintendo and other well-known game designers.

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Just Cause 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Avalanche Studios/Eidos/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)

The original “Just Cause” was sensationally fun despite having more issues than a panophobia convention, so how much better is “Just Cause 2” by touching the same fun-at-all-costs nerve and doing it without all those aforementioned issues?

No one really knows, because “JC2” brings back several of those issues en route to a sloppy opening hour that, thankfully, isn’t a complete indication of things to come.

Most glaringly, “JC2” shoots like a third-person shooter from 2003. Auto-aim runs rampant, manual targeting is unwieldy, and players looking for a way to seek cover will be dismayed to discover even the basic crouch mechanic is completely useless.

The old shooting controls work in tandem with a scripted opening suite of missions that mostly penalizes players for using the barrelful of cool action-movie stunts — jumping between vehicle rooftops, shooting while hanging from a bumper, zip-lining between any two objects bolted to the ground — it taught them only moments earlier. “JC2” embraces playground physics and open-world cause-and-effect like no game before it, but that embrace backfires until players are past the toe-dipping stage and left to their own devices.

The good news is that once that happens, “JC2” does things its predecessor couldn’t even fathom doing four years ago.

Rico’s semi-magical grappling hook returns, but as alluded to earlier, it’s significantly more versatile this time, and that alone is a game-changer. Anything bolted down and within range can be zipped to instantly, and anything (or anyone) not bolted down can be launched into the air, fished out of the air or tethered to anything else using the absurd but wonderful dual-hook capability. The exaggerated physics that initially betray players become their best friend when it becomes clear how much havoc one can cause using just the hook.

There’s no shortage of mischief-making opportunities, either. “JC2’s” controls may be from another era, but the game’s scope is from another galaxy: The fictional Panau Island encompasses some 400 sq. miles, and it’s wide open for perusal once those opening missions conclude. Rico can scale enormous mountains using the hook, and per genre custom, all vehicles are operable.

But “JC2” truly amazes when viewed from an airplane or helicopter. Panau’s scope is as vertical as it is horizontal, and watching the island’s scale change while ascending and descending is a magnificent sight. That it happens almost completely free of load times is a feat of programming.

“JC2’s” story isn’t quite as ambitious, though the voice cast’s use of deliriously bad accents at least makes it fun to experience.

Regardless, it provides occasion for Rico to unleash untold dollars’ worth of damage over anywhere from 20 to 80 hours’ worth of mainline and optional missions. Some missions are more fun than others, some have the capability to aggravate the same way those early missions do, and it’s a bummer there’s no way to share the fun via co-op play. But when it becomes clear just how big “JC2” is and how well it understands the value of creative, explosive, dumb fun, those dud missions and other deficiencies become surprisingly easy to accept.

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Game Room
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Windows PC via Games for Windows Live
From: Microsoft/various publishers
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: Free for client, $3 per game (360 or PC only), $5 per game (both platforms)

Superficially, “Game Room” is enticing. Eventually, it could be pretty special. Out of the gate, though, Microsoft’s new retro games client, —which refashions a menu of downloadable arcade classics as a virtual arcade for players’ Xbox and/or Windows Live avatars — is too compromised to be either. For starters, the virtual arcade is little more than an additional menu laye
r: Players can decorate their arcades and customize the arrangement of purchased virtual cabinets, but because there’s no way to roam the arcade in avatar form and interact with friends controlling their avatars, the interface is little more than busywork with limited novelty. More problematic is the excessive pricing for a selection of games that, so far, aren’t very good. “Room’s” initial library of 30 games hails from the Intellivison and early Atari era, and while the addition of client-wide achievements and online leaderboards is excellent, the $3-$5 price to own each game (and 50 cents to demo a game beyond the single free demo play) is too high when newer, better games are available everywhere for similar prices. Should “Room’s” selection exponentially improve, and should Microsoft introduce a sensible subscription pricing model that affords players access to the whole library, “Room” could be pretty awesome. Right now, though, it’s just a prettied-up menu of downloadable games that aren’t nearly worth what they cost.