Backstage: A genuinely great Nintendo DS title, and two others

You can sum up the single biggest difference between video game consoles and today’s portable media devices in one word: “software.” While iTunes is a great piece of software, its absence wouldn’t stop someone from buying an iPod competitor that was really well-designed – in fact, some people would be thrilled to drag-and-drop in Windows/Mac OS instead of needing any special program. But in the video game world, great software is the content that drives console sales, and is one of several truly critical factors separating successful platforms from failures.

Up until now, the Nintendo DS has not had a genuinely great piece of software. That’s not to say Nintendo hasn’t tried – it ported Super Mario 64, which was an A+ game eight-plus years ago. But the tweaked DS version of that game just didn’t cut it for me, mostly because of its odd and frustrating touch-screen controls. It felt like a hasty port job that lacked the controller necessary to let average people enjoy the experience.

But with the release of Kirby’s Canvas Curse, the DS not only has a great original game, but one that fully justifies the Nintendo’s touch screen. It took a bit more than six months, but Nintendo (and developer HAL Laboratories) have found the character and game design that make the DS’s stylus controller really fun to use. Click on Read More for the details.
Super heroes (and video game characters) are defined by their abilities. The best-known ones have done one or two things really well for a long time – Mario jumps on platforms, Sonic runs really fast, Sam Fisher sneaks around, and the GTA guys commit crimes. By design, Nintendo’s Kirby character has never been defined by one ability – he’s a jack-of-all-trades; like the X-Men’s Rogue, he absorbs the powers of characters he touches and uses them to beat bad guys.

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He’s also a study in touchy-feely design – an inoffensive pink blob who moves with slight arm and leg blobs, and sucks enemies into his mouth to absorb their powers. Or at least he mostly did, before Kirby’s Canvas Curse. Nintendo has long used Kirby as a “fun for all ages” (read: kids’) character, and recently placed him in games where his control scheme was dramatically simplified. Thus, a Kirby driving game for the GameCube called Kirby’s Air Ride was sort of like a 3-D roller coaster ride that you could slow down by hitting the A button. In fact, everything you wanted to do besides keep moving just required the A button. The game was a commercial and critical bomb, but kids liked it.

This same general principle of simplification works much better in Kirby’s Canvas Curse. As with Air Ride, Kirby’s always moving in Canvas Curse, but here, you’re looking at a side-scrolling platform game where you don’t use the joystick or a jump button – ever. Instead, you use the DS stylus to draw rainbow bridges akin to escalators or people-movers that Kirby will walk on whenever they’re placed in his way. Draw a loop and he’ll run through it. If he’s about to fall in a pit, draw a bridge over it. If he’s swimming under water, bridge over his head so he doesn’t float up to the surface. It’s a unique, elegant, and cute way to interact with an on-screen character.

 

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Instead of sucking enemies in – something that used to require a button press – you smack them with the stylus and then let Kirby crash into them. If they’re enemies with special powers, Kirby absorbs the powers at the moment of contact, and then exercises the powers whenever you touch him with the stylus. If he turns into a fireball, you can make him shoot across the screen and through whatever’s in his path. As a stone, he’ll sink to the bottom of water and roll around. And so on.

As a rule, platform games depend on three major factors for success: map design, enemy design, and artwork. Kirby rates pretty well on all three, but highest on artwork – each of the game’s stages is visually interesting, and occasionally inspired, with increasing treats and twists as you progress from beginning to end. The maps are largely linear and full of simple puzzles, but they’re all entertaining, and keep you coming back for repeat visits by hiding medallions that might not be found on your first play through. Similarly, with the exception of the relatively few enemies with special powers, there’s a fair amount of repetition in the enemies you see, however they’re mostly there to keep your stylus occupied (smack! smack! smack!) as Kirby’s moving through the maps.

 

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The “great” part of Kirby, like most classic Nintendo titles, is the way the game feels. Nintendo’s legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto used to devote weeks to tuning the speed at which your character responded to every button press, how enemies responded to collisions, and so on. With the exception of its linearity, Kirby feels like it was tuned by Miyamoto (even if it wasn’t) – something that hasn’t been easy to say about virtually any Nintendo title in recent memory. From the moment you go through the game’s tutorial to the way Kirby moves in all of the levels, the game feels intuitive, fair, and balanced, despite the fact that you’re controlling the character in a manner quite unlike anything you’ve experienced before. There are myriad other little touches that give the game a “special” feeling, including cinematic odes to classic Kirby titles and mini-games for “boss” confrontations and the like. Someone actually spent the time to fully develop this game, and it shows.

 

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I’m not as enthusiastic about two other DS games I’ve been playing recently, although both of them are entertaining in mostly forgettable ways. Pac-Pix is Pac-Man retold with the DS stylus – a series of blank canvases where ghosts appear, and you draw Pac-Men to eat them. Even though Pac-Pix feels like a warmed-over tech demo, it’s a bit more fun than I’m making it sound. Each stage is a notebook page where you have a limited amount of ink to draw Pac-Men to complete a specific objective. But it’s frankly not as fun as playing Pac-Man Arrangement (my favorite) or Pac-Mania from the old Game Boy Advance Pac-Man Collection. Decades after the first Pac-Man, those games remain stunningly well suited to portable (and even occasional non-portable) game play.

 

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The other DS title is Meteos. I have every reason to like this puzzle game: its producer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is one of the best game developers alive today, and responsible for three titles (Space Channel 5, Rez, and Lumines) that I consider exemplary in concept and execution. They’re the rare titles I blame poor marketing for dooming to semi-obscurity; critics loved them, but Mizuguchi chose (well, sorta) the wrong companies to market them here – Sega and Ubisoft. Now he has Nintendo as a marketing and distribution ally – for Meteos outside of Japan, specifically – and it’s yet to be seen how that partnership will turn out.

 

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Meteos repeats some of the themes that worked well with Lumines, a PSP puzzle game par excellence – spice up a simple Tetris-style block matching game with different “skins” (art/textures) for every level, and use music and sound effects to elevate the experience a different level. A new twist here is that you collect points during every game you play, and get to use them to unlock music/sounds and other items hidden in the cartridge. Another twist is that Meteos supports two robust multi-player modes – one using one cartridge for four people – though you’ll need to know other people with DS systems to enjoy either mode.

Whereas Lumines felt like a pretty smart idea that was polished with graphics and sounds to near-perfection, Meteos comes across as an okay idea that is made surprisingly fun by virtue of its special effects. Block-matching here is a mix between Sega’s old Columns and Bejeweled. Blocks drop from the sky, and when they hit your pit full of existing blocks, you use the stylus to re-arrange their contents into matching colors.

 

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When you match blocks, they shoot off into the sky like rocket ships, and can be used to attack a planet on the DS’s second screen. (In multi-player mode, you’re attacking a few planets. This is the only way the second screen is used – unfortunately, neither Kirby nor Meteos (nor most other DS games) do enough with that screen.) You can sometimes push flagging ships off the screen by firing loose blocks upwards at them. Everyhing moves fast, so the stylus in your hand is always moving, trying to make something else happen. It’s like playing a puzzle game that really wants to be a vertical shooter.

This isn’t a bad thing – the activity is fun enough for a bit, though I blew through the single-player mode on my first try (using only one continue – not even at the end), and repeated the feat on a higher difficulty level thereafter without any continues. But at some point relatively early on, the game became less about making smart block matches than rubbing the stylus as fast as possible to make random matches – anything to keep the ships flying in the air. It’s a phenomenon known in gaming circles as “button mashing,” the derisive term applied by expert gamers when a kid or idiot can blow through a seemingly thoughtful game just by smashing their hands on the buttons and/or joystick. When playing Meteos, I was this idiot, and I won – very quickly. Not so in Lumines, which had its own problems, but button mashing was not one of them.

 

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Visually, Meteos is engaging and exciting in a way that most puzzle games aren’t, but it’s not a system seller – just a good diversion for existing DS owners. If I was a kid with a DS, I’d buy Kirby, rent Meteos, and skip Pac-Pix. Adults? If you’re a good gamer, consider buying Kirby, but definitely rent the other two. You might like either of them enough to buy them, depending on your tastes.

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