Games 12/23/08: Ninjatown, Shaun White Snowboarding, Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip

For: Nintendo DS
From: Venan Entertainment/Cashmere Productions/SouthPeak Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence, crude humor)

One of the more upstart gaming rackets of 2008 is the tower defense genre, which basically is the real-time strategy genre with some of the fat trimmed. You’re still building armies and playing live chess with an approaching enemy, but the sole goal is to prevent your turf from succumbing to invasion.

The absolute best introduction to this genre is “PixelJunk Monsters” on the Playstation 3, but the most accessible — and perhaps stylish — comes courtesy of “Ninjatown,” which threads the needle between player freedom and entry-level accessibility to produce one of the most pleasantly surprising experiences to hit the Nintendo DS all year.

Part of that surprise comes from the fact that, with its cheerful color palette and obscenely cute cast of ninjas (the good guys) and demons, “Ninjatown” initially looks like a game for kindergarteners.

Give “Ninjatown” a whirl, though, and it becomes apparent awfully quick how polished every facet of the game, from the menus on down, is. A little time with the game’s characters reveals a sly writing style that both complements and belies the cute exterior. And while the tutorial level is pretty simple, it does more than enough to communicate the possibilities that lie ahead.

Once those possibilities kick in, “Ninjatown” starts rolling. At no point does the game offer troop control on a “StarCraft” scale, but between the different types of ninjas you eventually can employ and your ability to upgrade and manage each unit, there’s plenty of on-the-fly masterminding at your disposal. You’ll also acquire a few special powers, which come in handy when your ninjas need a breather or simply aren’t cutting it.

You’ll need them, too. Tiny opening levels quickly give way to larger maps, and “Ninjatown” steadily ups the challenge ante from there. Once you tap into the game’s latter half, don’t be surprised if you don’t find it so cute anymore, especially when the game slaps you with a C grade after you finally scrounge up a plan that gets you through a map by the skin of your back. (The grades don’t hinder your progress — only your morale.)

“Ninjatown’s” multiplayer component (two players, local wireless only) would have benefitted from co-op or a mode that allowed one player to play as the demons, but what you get — a race against a friend to clear a map first — is quite fun. Experienced players will particularly benefit from this feature, which lets you pit your management tactics against each other in the ultimate test of strategic supremacy.


Shaun White Snowboarding
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Alternate versions available for: PC, PSP and Playstation 2
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, lyrics)

The story of “Shaun White Snowboarding” is a tale of two fun, distinct games that, if joined together, likely would have formed something better than either attempt on its own.

Unsurprisingly, the feature nod goes to “White’s” beautiful Xbox 360/PS3 incarnation, which boasts four (or five, if you get the Target-branded special edition) huge mountains, lets you tackle challenges in whatever order you please, and features open-world online multiplayer (16 players). It also plays nicely, with easy controls and smooth animation leading the way.

Problem is, a major chunk of the game’s single-player objectives centers around platformer-style item collection, which isn’t exactly the best use of a forward-moving snowboarding game. A clumsy interface makes locating these items trickier than it should be, and while the ability to set a warp-to marker at will makes it easy to take multiple stabs at nabbing an item, the process nonetheless feels intrusive when you’d rather be racing down a mountain and racking up trick points.

That’s something the Wii version — a completely different game in every respect — does much better. “Road Trip” is less attractive, less ambitious and more linear than its 360/PS3 cousin, but the events fall more consistently in line with what one expects and wants from a snowboarding game.

“Trip” also benefits from excellent use of the balance board as a mock snowboard, though the game also works, surprisingly well, with just the Wiimote. The Wiimote scheme is considerably easier, but mastering the board is considerably more fun. In a nice touch, the game adjusts the target times and scores for every event to reflect your control method, and you’re free to change back and forth between events without sacrificing your overall progress.

The downside to either method is a familiar song for Wii games: less flexibility in controls. With buttons at a premium, your range of acrobatics is sorely limited, and while pulling tricks off isn’t a mindless cakewalk, the sense of risk and danger is considerably less than what the other game allows. “Trip” would have benefited from some kind of nunchuck attachment support, but the disparity between that degree of control and that of the available methods likely was too large for Ubisoft to justify its inclusion.

In the end, neither game completely nails it. Fortunately, neither game blows it, either. Issues await you no matter which poison you pick, but if you’re pre-steeled for those issues, a good time awaits as well.