Games 6/6: Crush, Odin Sphere, Mario Party 8

For: PSP
From: Zoë Mode/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

When we talk about puzzle games, we usually mean some variant of “Tetris” or “Bejewled” that’s not so much a puzzle as an action game that engages the brain more than your typical action game.

“Crush,” on the other hand, is a puzzle game in every sense of the word — a brilliantly imaginative title that doesn’t engage the brain so much as exhaust it with a combination of innovation, genius and arguable malevolence.

The best way to attempt to explain “Crush” is to reference Nintendo’s recent “Super Paper Mario.” In that game, you could “flip” any portion of any level from two dimensions to three, revealing hidden items and pathways that previously were invisible or out of reach.

“Crush” works on the same principle, but it takes that principle, ties it to a rocket, and fires it into the stratosphere.

The object of “Crush’s” 40 levels, as explained by a surprisingly cool story about a grumpy insomniac, is to collect a certain number of marbles and reach the exit. Actually doing so, however, requires you to not only transform the playing field from 2D to 3D and back, but do so from a number of different perspectives. You might, for instance, flatten the level from one side, move to a once-unreachable area, unflatten it, rotate the perspective, and flatten it again from the top in order to press on further.

The addition of perspective control transforms a potentially pedestrian mental exercise into something that belongs on a Mensa exam, and “Crush” further sharpens the difficulty curve by throwing in everything from random objects to moving platforms to giant cockroaches to blocks that act differently based on color and dimension. Simply reaching the exit is an accomplishment; getting there while collecting everything and nabbing an “A” grade is the stuff of which PhDs are made.

If that sounds intimidating, mission accomplished. “Crush” quickly gets its hands dirty, with perhaps only the tutorial and opening level not requiring your brain to sweat and get a little creative. Those easily frustrated or intimidated by hard games will quickly find themselves overmatched.

Should you be up to the task, though, there are few games that can match the feeling of accomplishment this one lavishes on. With respect to “Tetris” and friends, there is no truer puzzle game on any game system than this one.


Odin Sphere
For: Playstation 2
From: Vanilla Ware/Atlus
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

There is a small but dedicated segment of the gaming populace that has been waiting forever for a game like “Odin Sphere,” which combines the fun of a mindless sidescrolling brawler with the depth of a 40-hour role-playing game. No publisher soothes these kinds of aches quite like Atlus, and developer Vanilla Ware has done plenty to signify that the long wait not only is over, but completely worth it.

If you’ve played and loved the likes of “Final Fight” or “Streets of Rage,” you will, to a point, know what to expect with “Sphere.” A bunch of enemies come from the left or right, and it’s your job to mash those buttons and lay waste to them. “Sphere” juices up the combat by providing combos, spell capabilities, special moves and a ton of items, but the twitch action that has powered many a great brawler is the same element that makes this game so consistently fun.

What elevates “Sphere” to another level — besides role-playing elements and an adventure that features five playable characters and hours of compelling storytelling — is how challenging these fights can get. “Sphere” consists of a ton of branching mini-levels, and these bite-sized levels will toss anything from standard enemies numbering in the double digits to multiple screen-sized boss encounters in the span of a single space. Victory is never out of reach, but neither is death. Unless you’re some kind of savant, it will find you. Often.

The mass of activity leads to “Sphere’s” single serious problem: slowdown. With its handcrafted artwork and enormous character sprites, “Sphere” is one of the most graphically gorgeous games to grace the PS2 (or, for that matter, PS3). But all that beauty can send things screeching to a crawl when too much is happening at once. The slowdown is infrequent and never a deal-breaker, but it does make selected encounters a chore to endure. (Some lengthy load times also pose an issue for PS2 owners, but this problem goes away if you play the game on the PS3, which also beautifully upscales the graphics on high-definition hardware.)

It didn’t need to, but Vanilla Ware provides the cherry on the “Sphere” sundae by offering an optional English voicework dub in addition to the original Japanese language track. That, along with a stunning orchestral score, make “Sphere” as much a joy to hear as it is to see.


Mario Party 8
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Imagine you’re in the Super Bowl. Your team outruns, out-passes, out-tackles, and even scores more touchdowns than the opposing team … but loses anyway.

Now imagine this has happened for the last eight Super Bowls in a row. That’s what it’s like to play “Mario Party 8.”

The Wii needs more mini-games about as badly as the world needs an eighth “Mario Party” in as many years, but “MP8” still generated more interest than normal because of the possibilities Nintendo’s new system brings to the proceedings. The hope was that Hudson would not only introduce an entirely new suite of games geared toward the Wii’s unique capabilities, but perhaps overhaul a tired series in doing so.

Alas, neither scenario has come to pass.

On the games side, much too little is new. “MP8” boasts dozens of mini-games, but only a handful of them are new and designed specifically for Nintendo’s new controller. Most of the mini-games are retreads that feature either tacked-on motion controls or none whatsoever. All but a scant few of the motion-controlled mini-games are simple and uninspired, and Hudson was so lazy about freshening up the series that it pigeonholed a chunk of them in a separate mode rather than integrate them into the rest of the game.

Like its predecessors, “MP8” forces you to play through a board game format in order to experience most of these mini-games for the first time (after which point they become unlocked and always available). Why Hudson can’t try something (anything!) else is anybody’s guess, but if you want to see all that “MP8” offers, you’ll have to once again suffer through this mode, which comes packed with a host of problems that once again go unaddressed. You can, for instance, flatten your fellow players in every mini-game you see and still lose the board game, which might feature as few as four or five mini-game showdowns in one luck-drenched, 30-minute play session.

The Wii’s biggest problem is the sheer number of thoughtless ports developers have patched together in order to cash in on the system’s popularity. By publishing “MP8,” Nintendo itself is now guilty by association of the same disservice. The smart thing to do at this point is to give the inevitable “MP9” to a developer that actually cares about it. It’s clear Hudson no longer does, and until things change, neither should you.