Games 2/21/07: Sonic and the Secret Rings, Wii Play

Sonic and the Secret Rings
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Cartoon Violence)

Few video game mascots have had a rougher 21st century than Sonic, who has been party to one three-dimensional letdown after another since showing promise seven years ago on the Dreamcast.

With “Sonic and the Secret Rings,” Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog finally gets his intervention. The Wii’s unique controller all but forces Sonic to go back to the gameplay style that made him famous — blazing forward, jumping with precision, grabbing rings and busting some heads in mid-air for good measure. Boring exploration, pointless mech levels, contrived teamwork garbage, a bewildered camera that doesn’t know where to point … all gone, replaced by a fast, single-minded, streamlined adventure that employs the Wiimote’s motion controls with sterling results.

“Rings” plays as much like a racer as an adventure game, and it’s laid out like a cross between the two as well. Each locale features a collection of levels akin to tracks in a race. Some merely ask you to stay alive, while others sport more clever objectives (don’t break any jars in your path, beat x number of enemies before reaching the goal). Levels from different areas often become available out of order, and you’re free to complete any open challenge, increase Sonic’s abilities, and use that boost to tackle levels you previously couldn’t lick (or simply replay completed levels in hopes of achieving the top ranking in each). The best of both worlds are here: You get a decent enough story to glue the adventure together, but you also get plenty of motivation to replay levels long after you see how the story ends.

“Rings” scores additional points by tacking on a multiplayer party mode other developers might attempt to pass off as a standalone game (“Fuzion Frenzy 2,” anyone?). There are 40 mini-games here, and “Rings” offers multiple ways to play them (board game style, treasure hunt style, tournament style) and support for four players (or computer opponents of adjustable difficulty to fill in when necessary). Some of the mini-games are sloppy to the point of broken, but most are fun and quite a few of them are really inspired. Not bad at all for what essentially is a cherry on the sundae.


Wii Play
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Everything the Wii is today, it owes to “Wii Sports,” a freebie collection of sports games that everyone assumed would be a temporary diversion but instead materialized as the system’s first killer app. Who can blame “Wii Play” for wanting to ride the same wave into people’s collective consciousness? The price certainly is right: “Play” costs $50 but includes a $40 Wiimote, so it’s essentially a $10 game if you have some use for an additional controller.

“Play” features nine mini-games which aim — in case “Sports,” “Rayman: Raving Rabbids” and “WarioWare” weren’t convincing — to demonstrate just how versatile that Wiimote really is. To that effect, it certainly succeeds. Games range from a “Duck Hunt”-style shooting gallery (point and shoot, Zapper-style) to billiards (hold the Wiimote like a pool cue) to fishing (fishing rod) to “Pong”-style air hockey (paddle) to table tennis (ditto).

In terms of quality and control, “Play” aces every test. Billiards feels like billiards, fishing feels like fishing, and the stranger games — which include cow racing, a “Where’s Waldo”-style game involving your Mii characters and a fantastic little “Battle Tanx” knockoff — are great fun.

Feature-wise, though … yikes. While “Sports” certainly didn’t do all it could in the options department, it did enough. “Play,” however, offers next to nothing. The billiards game features only one game style, and the table tennis game only ends if you complete (or fail to complete) a 100-volley rally. There’s no scoring. Since the only object of each game is to obtain a gold medal-worthy score, options (or even varying difficulty levels) aren’t allowed. Once you’ve gone for the gold, little motivation exists to go further.

Some issues resolve themselves with a second player: Table tennis features scoring, while the games in general are more challenging and unpredictable. But that’s not enough to keep “Play” from feeling like a giant tease. It’s easily worth the $10 if you could use a new Wiimote, but you’ll wish you could pay four times that for a billiards game that combines this level of control with some real depth. Nintendo has made its case for the Wiimote’s versatility; now it’s time to make some games that speak to ours

Games 2/14/07: Sid Meier's Pirates! PSP, Capcom Puzzle World

Sid Meier’s Pirates!
For: PSP
From: Full Fat/Firaxis/2K games
Rating: Everyone 10+ (Mild Violence)

If the PSP must be a haven for downgraded ports of console games, they should at least be games that don’t choke on the system’s limitations and portable nature. That’s the case with “Sid Meier’s Pirates!,” which not only fits on the PSP but arguably belonged here all along.

“Pirates!” take a small but diverse collection of smaller games and melts them into one larger game, dutifully bridging the gap between mini-game collection and full-blown pirate simulator. What starts as a story of revenge eventually gives way to a free-roaming Caribbean adventure that you can enjoy on your terms and by any number of means — questing, assembling fleets, trading, taking out famed rivals, even dancing like no one’s watching.

Each action is executed as a mini-game, with “Pirates!” dabbling in rhythm, stealth, real-time (and turn-based) strategy and more. (“Resident Evil 4” fans will love the inclusion of quick timer moments when a rival crew’s ranks need thinning prior to a sword fight with the captain.)

The task of miniaturizing “Pirates!” fell into the laps of Full Fat, a developer with a bizarrely uneven track record. Fortunately, this one goes into the “win” column. It looks good, plays great, keeps the load times down, and makes the right moves to offset the PSP’s diminished control capabilities.

That’s good news for any port of any game, but it’s especially nice this time around. While “Pirates!” shined on the Xbox and PC, it also laid bare — like any other collection of mini-games — its susceptibility to repetition during long play sessions. But one platform’s problem is another’s selling point, and the ability to wake the PSP up, engage in a couple of small games, check on the status of your pirate empire and put it back to sleep, makes “Pirates!” an ideal and rewarding fit for a portable that can handle its ambition. Having almost every video game genre in your pocket isn’t too shabby, either.


Capcom Puzzle World
For: PSP
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Violence)

“Capcom Puzzle World” isn’t so much a puzzle world as a small, out-of-the-way puzzle island. Where Capcom’s recent arcade compilations featured roughly 20 games each, “World” boasts only five.

It gets worse: Three of these five games are very similar variants of the same game, “Buster Bros.” So you really only get three games.

The capper? “Bros.” isn’t a puzzle game — at all. Neither is “Block Block,” an “Arkanoid” clone that already graced one of the arcade compilations. So now we’re left with one puzzle game, “Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.” If Pluto no longer qualifies for planetary status, what chance does this not-quite compendium have?

To its credit, “World” does present the best-to-date version of a game that’s impossible to find on the original Playstation and the victim of downgrading on the Game Boy Advance. “Puzzle Fighter” is yet another falling-block, color-matching puzzle game, but the unlikely infusion of the “Street Fighter” and “Darkstalkers” fighting franchises — and the means with which it combines combos and combat — add a frantic layer of originality to what otherwise might be just another [insert falling-block puzzle game here] knockoff. “World” produces a perfect emulation job and piles on some good features — wireless multiplayer, a combo/counter editor, a few new variants on the standard arcade mode — for good measure.

Whether that alone is worth $30 or not is a matter of taste. “Puzzle Fighter” has a small but frenzied following, and that following has waited years for a proper translation of a game that’s long been out of print. For these folks, “World’s” one puzzle game is plenty. But Capcom’s fear of releasing it on its own has resulted in a misleading compilation that’s bound to leave a few people confused and let down. Puzzle fanatics who excitedly buy this one blind may be pleased to discover “Puzzle Fighter,” but they’ll be just as disappointing when they discover that’s all there is.

Games 2/7/07: Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, Fuzion Frenzy 2

Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters
For: PSP
From: High Impact Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (Animated Blood, Cartoon Violence)

There’s a certain danger involved when a top-shelf developer (in this case, Insomniac) hands the portable reigns to its most prominent game franchise (Playstation 2 mega-staple “Ratchet and Clank”) to a brand-new development house (High Impact Games). Usually, it results in a scary mess that sort of resembles the console games but plays like some fan-made project developed in somebody’s spare time.

But the only thing scary about “Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters” is how good a job High Impact did taking care of Insomniac’s baby. Hold the PSP really close to your face, or perhaps tape a television antenna to it, and you might as well be playing the series’ fifth console game instead of its portable debut. Outside of some (very) slight graphical downgrades and some unavoidable control issues related to the lack of two joysticks (switching to first-person view is cumbersome and pointless), “Matters” takes everything that’s great about the series and shrinks it down with jaw-dropping ease.

In fact, “Matters” does the series one better by returning it to its pre-“Deadlocked” roots. Our charming robot friend Clank is back in a prominent (and playable) role, the balance between platforming, puzzle-solving and shooting is happily restored, and the cheekily funny single-player adventure receives the same level of care as the game’s multiplayer component. As solo experiences go, this easily ranks among the system’s richest and most rewarding.

That said, as multiplayer experiences go, “Matters” (online and wireless, 1-4 players each) arguably stands alone as the class of the PSP. On paper, it’s mostly standard stuff — deathmatch, capture the flag and so on. But there’s no multiplayer map quite like a “Ratchet and Clank” multiplayer map, which typically bursts with traps, auto-defense forces, unattended machinery and platforming challenges other games couldn’t possibly execute. “Matters” doesn’t disappoint in this regard, and High Impact once again does the series one better by providing a mode of play — the teamwork-oriented, objective-driven series of mini-missions known as Iron Lombax — that’s as brilliant and diverse as the environments in which it’ll be played. Throw in community chat, leaderboards and a cleverly funny nemesis system that’s best left unspoiled, and voila! You have the best game of 2007 thus far.


Fuzion Frenzy 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Hudson/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (Fantasy Violence)

The original “Fuzion Frenzy” was a game with a purpose. The Xbox needed a mini-game collection that would appeal to casual tastes, and the passably fun “Frenzy,” which launched with the system in 2001, was a decent, if not ideal, stopgap solution.

And it remained so. For five long years. As undistinguished as “Frenzy” was, nobody ever stepped forward to do it one better.

Despite being around for more than a year, the Xbox 360 inexplicably has the same problem, and “Fuzion Frenzy 2” finds itself, once again, in the right place at the right time. But while expectations for what a $50 game should offer have grown considerably in five years’ time, this series has not. At all.

Blame any number of issues. The same generic design from the first game is back, and you’ll once again discover how easy it is to lose track of your character mid-game due to how similar everyone looks. The tournament structure is uninspired, the Dreamcast-quality tournament announcer is obnoxious beyond words, and the addition of point multiplier cards means it’s just as important to be lucky as skilled.

But the worst problem of all is that far too many of the 43 mini-games are hampered by problems ranging from sketchy control to dependence on luck to uninspired design in general. Play against computer-controlled characters, and you can add sloppy A.I. to the equation as well. There are good apples in the batch — some of which, alas, were present in the original “Frenzy” — but none remotely worth the high price of admission. The 360 may lack another game of this ilk, but there are far better four-player experiences, many of them available on Xbox Live Arcade at a fraction of the cost.

That goes as well for online play. Buoyed by gaming’s best online network, “FF2” could’ve redeemed itself by doing something revolutionary with it. Can you imagine a 32-player party game? Well keep imagining: All we get here are the same games, and playing them online isn’t nearly as fun as playing them with three friends in the same room — which, as mentioned earlier, isn’t all that fun in its own right.

Games 1/31/07: Diddy Kong Racing DS, Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Diddy Kong Racing DS
For: Nintendo DS
From: Rare/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Roughly a billion kart racers have come, gone and been forgotten since “Super Mario Kart” invented the genre more than 14 years ago, with only one — “Diddy Kong Racing” — being good enough and loved enough to endure the tests of both Mario and time.

But that was 10 years ago, and an enhanced port of a game from 3D gaming’s training wheel days still is a port. Anyone who has played “Mario Kart DS” will realize immediately that, in terms of graphics, framerate and overall gameplay polish, the year-plus-old “MKDS” pretty well smokes “Diddy Kong Racing DS.”

What makes “DKRDS” still well worth playing is the same thing that made it worth playing in 1997: variety, and lots of it. Races come in three flavors — via go-cart, unwieldy hovercraft and airplane (which suffers a bit due to the DS’ lack of an analog stick) — and are connected by an impressively large and open hub world that’s teeming with boss races, treasures and unlockable secrets. The enhanced port piles on more trimmings, with the ability to customize and upgrade vehicles and (finally!) design your own tracks and share them online.

The incorporation of DS hardware features yields mixed results: Some additions (blowing into the mic to jumpstart a hovercraft, random touch screen surprises in the hub area) are great, while others (rubbing the touch screen to jumpstart the cart and plane, a new magic carpet ride mode that’s saddled by some bizarrely bad control decisions) are clumsy and actually a needless step backward.

Perhaps the best news about “DKRDS” also is the least surprising: wireless multiplayer support for up to eight friends and online play (complete with friend list and matchmaker support) for up to six friends and strangers. The best news about the best news? The cheater-friendly control exploit that ruined online play in “MKDS” is nowhere to be found here. It remains to be seen how the online landscape will shape up once more people are logged in, but things look very promising so far.


Hotel Dusk: Room 215
For: Nintendo DS
From: Cing/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (Mild Language, Mild Violence, Alcohol)

Huh? Wha? What’s this? The Nintendo logo is on the box, so we must assume it’s a Nintendo game. But why has Nintendo — never one not to hype a forthcoming game in any number of clever ways — said almost nothing to promote “Hotel Dusk: Room 215?”

One guess: It has no idea what to say. That sometimes happens when you release a game that, like “Dusk,” represents a stark departure from any game you’ve delivered in the last two decades or so.

“Dusk” comes courtesy of the same development team behind the oft-overlooked adventure game “Trace Memory,” and similarities between the two are clearly there — particularly as far as basic presentation, exploration (first-person viewpoint on one screen, overhead view on the other) and puzzle-solving are concerned.

But where “Memory” was a game defined by its puzzle-solving elements more than anything else, “Dusk” tips even greater in the opposite direction.

Playing “Dusk” is akin to reading one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. The story — a mystery that drops you into the shoes of an undercover private detective — drives the game, and most of the gameplay consists of talking to people you meet, gathering clues, and doing your best not to say the wrong thing and sabotage the case. Puzzles do pop up, and certain challenges are scattered in pieces throughout the hotel. But dialogue trees rule the day here. If text-heavy games make you queasy, consider yourself positively allergic to this one.

Should that not scare you — and should you not be put off by a perilously slow start — “Dusk” is a novel (in every sense of the word; you even hold the system sideways, like a book, to play) addition to the DS library. If Cing hedged its bets a bit with “Memory,” it doesn’t here, and the result is a game that’s smarter, prettier, more expansive and more sure of itself than its spiritual predecessor. That it’s not for everyone can’t be emphasized enough, but gamers with great patience, a love of reading and a taste for something very different have an intriguing new means of complimenting all three.