Games 9/1/09: Spectrobes Origins, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, Shadow Complex

Spectrobes Origins
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Genki/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The debut of “Spectrobes” on the Nintendo DS was an auspicious anomaly — a game intricate enough to merit its 80-page manual, yet one so recognizant of those intricacies that the whole experience was startlingly accessible. Its mix of depth and user-friendliness was so pleasantly enjoyable, in fact, that it was able to draw inspiration from Nintendo’s “Pokémon” games while simultaneously engaging players who typically would want nothing to do with them.

“Spectrobes Origins,” by contrast, ships with a nine-page manual, but that merely is a testament to its ability to adapt itself to the platform rather than any sign that it’s dumbed itself down. “Origins” thoughtfully transfers the DS game’s chief ingredients to the Wii, employing smart but modest motion controls and using the increased screen real estate to integrate the instruction manual into the game’s opening hours.

It can be overwhelming at first, because even without taking the storyline and “Spectrobes” lore into consideration, “Origins” has much ground to cover. The game will fill in the narrative blanks, but the objective is (as with “Pokémon”) to discover, raise and eventually employ Spectrobe creatures in battles against an invading army of enemy Krawl creatures.

The chief difference is that in “Origins,” those battles take place in real time instead of through turn-based play. The Wii remote’s buttons handle your human character’s combat, while a series of adequate motion controls allow you to order your Spectrobe to fight, retreat and target one particular enemy while you work on another. Party management comes down to little more than switching out Spectrobes and keeping yourself healthy, but the no-frills approach nicely complements the battles’ fast speed and brief nature.

Especially fun is “Origins'” capacity for drop-in/drop-out local co-op, which allows a second player to control the Spectrobe directly. The game’s camera occasionally struggles to frame both players when the fight spreads out, but the small quirk does little to diminish the fun of taking the game on with another person in tow.

Where “Origins” gets a little bolder — and where it nails the motion controls — is in its intricate system for intervening at every stage of a Spectrobe’s evolution, from fossil excavation to incubation to training to using them in battle (or, the case of child Spectrobes, search expeditions.)

For the most part, “Origins” handles these tasks through interfaces similar to what we’ve all seen in some form before.

But the game’s fossil excavation mode, in which you use tools to break apart a fossil that’s encasing a living Spectrobe organism, is, as it was on the DS, more fun than it has any right to be. The Wii remote perfectly mimics the tools at your disposal (a hammer, a drill and a laser, to name a few) and the liberating nature of the task — excavate the organism quickly and safely, but do it however you please — does wonders not only for immersion, but for instantly creating a meaningful relationship between players and the creatures they rescue.

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Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level-5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference, mild violence)

The most surprising thing about “Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box” might be the fact that it’s here and ready for public consumption. Nintendo of America has been uncommonly quiet about the game, stealthily unveiling its existence a few months ago and keeping similarly quiet in the run-up to its arrival on shelves.

The hushed tones somewhat make sense, because really, what is there to say? For those who played “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” last year, “Box” is explicitly more of the same — a new storyline, three digits’ worth of new brainteasers to solve, but otherwise a nearly-identical game in terms of graphics, music, presentation, interface and philosophy.

For those less familiar, “Box” is, in a nutshell, a collection of genuinely smart riddles — the stuff of which brainteaser books and bar tricks are made — packaged inside a charming story that benefits from a level of care (hand-drawn animated cut-scenes, terrific voice acting, a compelling storyline) typically reserved for action and role-playing games. “Box” presents itself somewhat as a point-and-click adventure game, only with self-contained brainteasers as the barriers one must overcome to complete the story.

As with “Village,” the riddles in “Box” are startlingly diverse both in the way you maneuver through them and in how they tax your brain. The game’s optional hint system, along with its allowance for players to pick different paths through the game, permit the riddles to approach a satisfying, rewarding level of challenge without creating a situation where a single, overwhelmingly difficult puzzle could completely impede one’s progress. The complete absence of time limits also removes any need to resort to guesswork, which in turn lets players approach the game’s puzzles as methodically as they would if those puzzles were in a rainy day book instead of a video game.

Totaled up, “Box’s” mix of challenge and concession is an extremely impressive demonstration of how to make a game that not only perfectly understands its intended audience, but remains completely accessible to all without intellectually neutering the riddles that make it so unique in the first place.

“Village” understood this philosophy so distinctively well the first time around that it’d almost be a shame if “Box” tried to be anything more than a retread with new content. A new story, and the 150 or so new puzzles it brings with it, are more than enough to command the $30 asking price even (perhaps especially) for those who wrung the first game completely dry. (As it did the first time around, Nintendo and Level-5 will sweeten the deal by regularly releasing additional puzzles for free download over Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection.)

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Shadow Complex
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Chair Entertainment/Epic
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence, mild language)
Price: $15

Someone, eventually, was bound to create a two-dimensional “Super Metroid” facsimile using modern technology, but that someone was supposed to be Nintendo. Instead, Chair Entertainment takes the initiative, crafting a tactical espionage game that stars you as an everyman, mostly uses plausible real-world guns and environments but still, for all intents and purposes, plays like a classic “Metroid” game. It works, and rather beautifully, because Chair — which openly and refreshingly copped to “Metroid’s” influence — did its homework. “Shadow Complex,” like “Metroid,” consists of a single open-world environment, and accessing certain areas requires you to first find powerups and weapons that pave the way. (Surprise!) The concept isn’t fresh, nor is the storyline. But “Complex’s” level design is no slouch by “Metroid’s” lofty standards, and those modern amenities — essentially high-definition 3D graphics and animated presented from a 2D perspective — make it the most polished of its kind as well. Best of all, Chair has designed “Complex” in such a way that — again, like “Metroid” — there are tangible incentives for playing through it multiple times. If the asking price seemed high at the outset, it feels like a bargain after your third or fourth trip through.