Imagine a game where you got to solve crimes, hunt dragons, fight armies, complete crosswords and play cards with Doctor Who. It would be amazing, of course. And it'll never happen.
However! This month's selection of DS games do allow you to do all those things, albeit individually. Whether you like your games competent, mediocre or designed to exploit the gullibility of children, there's something for everyone. So let's press on.
The Sun Crossword Challenge
1. What the Liverpool fans did not, in fact, do to the dead (4, 2)
Not content with sating Britain's insatiable desire for thinly disguised racism and tits, The Sun has done a crossword game. For GBP 19.99 you get more than 1000 puzzles to complete. The crosswords are just like the ones you'd find in The Sun, with the added advantage they don't have a copy of The Sun attached.
With each puzzle, you can choose from 'Coffee-Time' or 'Cryptic' clues. The answers will be the same regardless but the clues will be different - "Design on body" versus "It needn't require the Army to put on this show", for example. As you've probably surmised the Cryptic option offers more of a challenge, while you'll only occasionally find yourself stuck on the Coffee-Time puzzles.
If you are stumped you can ask for missing letters to be revealed - a serious advantage electromagic crosswords have over the paper version. However, if like me you are pathetically impatient and a bit thick, you'll find yourself doing this all the time. This means you miss the satisfaction of puzzling things out. Points are deducted from your score each time you ask for a letter to be filled in, but it's hard to care.
The handwriting recognition is pretty good, and if you prefer there's an on-screen keyboard you can use instead. You can choose to pencil answers in if you're not sure they're right, and it's easy to erase mistakes - another advantage over paper crosswords. The muzak's bloody awful, but you're probably not buying The Sun Crossword Challenge because you've run out of records.
So. There's a decent number of puzzles to solve. There are two types of clues to choose from. The control system works. There aren't any extras - a dictionary might have been nice, or perhaps some extra word games. But if you're just looking for a straightforward collection of electronic crossword puzzles, and are too young to remember the coverage of the Broadwater Farm riots, The Sun Crossword Challenge will do the job.
Top Trumps: Doctor Who
For those who aren't familiar - perhaps you were raised by wolves, not known for their proclivity for numerical data comparison as a form of entertainment, or are foreign - Top Trumps is a card game. It's played with special packs of cards, and there are many differently-themed sets available. You name it: cars, sharks, dinosaurs, planes, serial killers, contraceptive methods. Probably not the last two.
Each car features a different car/shark/dinosaur etc., and a set of statistics. One player picks a stat category (horsepower, for example, or number of victims, rate of effectiveness etc.) then each player reveals the card on top of their deck. Whoever owns the card with the highest number in that category wins, and gets to keep both cards. The process is repeated until one player has all the cards and the other has a tantrum.
Top Trumps: Dr Who lets you play Top Trumps electromagically, using a set of cards featuring ol' two-hearts plus assorted friends and enemies. They're all here - the cybermen, the daleks, Captain Jack, that one who turned up after Billie Piper went off to flash her Coco Hernandez all over ITV2.
It's instantly familiar if you've played Top Trumps before and easy to pick up if you haven't. You hold the DS like a book and your cards are displayed on the right, while your opponent's appear on the left. Statistics include things like height, intelligence and courage. Between games characters are depicted as they appear in the Dr Who cartoon series, but the cards feature images from the TV show.
It's played in just the same way the card game, and is fun for the same reasons. The more you play, the more you get to know the cards and the better you get at picking stat categories. There are a couple of twists, such as power-up cards that increase the stats on your next card by 25 per cent. Each win tops up a meter at the side of your screen, and when it's full you can activate a 'Time Warp' that gives you a glimpse of the next three cards on top of your opponent's pile. Plus there are some mini-games, which are rather simplistic and a bit dull. Other than that, there's no difference between playing Top Trumps on the DS and playing it with a pack of cards.
Except, of course, you can play it solo. Great if you're an only child and/or unpopular, though you'll miss out on seeing your opponent's face consumed with rage as you rack up your ninth win in a row. But there is a multiplayer mode, and happily you only need one copy of the game for wireless two-player matches.
Top Trumps: Dr Who is nicely done. The presentation is of a high quality, there's enough data to please fans of the TV show and they haven't mucked about with the classic Top Trumps gameplay. It's a shame none of the modes really make the most of the fact you're playing on a DS, and grown-ups are likely to memorise the cards and find it gets repetitive rather quickly. Still. Dr Who Top Trumps!
Undercover: Dual Motives
Hmm. A quick tally reveals that's two games which work properly and are entertaining if you like that sort of thing. What kind of a roundup is this, anyway?
Have no fear, Undercover: Dual Motives is here. A spin-off of PC title Undercover: Operation Wintersun, It's a point-and-click adventure that tells the story of Dr John Russell. One day he's jogging along, minding his own business and conducting strange experiments at a mysterious UK nuclear research facility, the next he's being accused of treason. So what's a man to do but attempt to clear his name via a series of increasingly tedious fetch-quests?
The gameplay in Undercover: Dual Motives consists entirely of finding a thing, using it to do a thing, then having a conversation with someone who tells you you need to find another thing, and going to find the thing. There is no sense of suspense or mystery whatsoever. It is impossible to care about any of the characters or what happens to them. The whole thing is entirely linear - you just follow an endless series of mundane instructions and any attempt to deviate from the path results in nothing happening at all.
It looks horrible. Everything is brown. Characters move painfully slowly, bumbling through the mud like robots powered by batteries from a pound shop. Their conversations are banal and plodding. And they are pathetic. One of the early puzzles tasks you with finding a way to eavesdrop on a conversation. You send Audrey, John's assistant, into the ladies' toilet, and discover she can hear mumblings from the air vent. You try to get her to remove the covering, but she replies, "I can't raise the vent, I am too small and fragile."
So, logically, you switch control to John, and try to send him into the ladies. But he won't go. "Never!" says John. "That's no place for a gentleman!"
"Okay John," says you. "Piss off then. Go to prison for treason. Much better you should do that than risk stumbling across a box of Tampax and dying of shame. I hate you, I hate this game and they are not paying me enough to keep playing it. Goodbye."
And I thought explaining the rules of Top Trumps in a paragraph was hard. Stratego is much more complex, and if you're that bothered you're best off doing some extensive research on Wikipedia.
In short: Stratego is like a cross between Chess and Risk. It's played on a chequered board with numbered pieces to represent soldiers. You take it in turns to move and attack, and battles are decided according to which piece bears the highest number. The object of the game is to capture the other person's flag, but you can also win by eliminating all their pieces.
Not that you'd know any of this if you relied on the rubbish in-game tutorial in Stratego DS. Actually it's not in-game, which is the problem. It's just a long series of text-based instructions and diagrams, which you're supposed to absorb and then recall while play the game. This would appear to be a hard task, as the instructions are complicated and the diagrams are confusing.
However, get stuck in and it's possible to work out what's going on pretty quickly. As with all the best strategy games, Stratego's rules are easy to grasp and it's the tactical element which takes time to master.
When playing the board game, the way you lay your pieces out before the battle begins is key to developing a winning strategy. In the DS version you can choose from a number of pre-determined layouts. Handy if you don't have a lot of time to spare or are feeling lazy, but Stratego purists would probably say this is missing the point. While picking stray strands of Golden Virginia from their beards and rubbing the stains on their CAMRA t-shirts.
The DS game offers three game modes to choose from - original Stratego, Stratego 90 (the board is tilted 90 degrees) and Stratego Duel (each player has 10 pieces rather than the traditional 40, making, obviously, for a much quicker game). There's no online option. There is local multiplayer, but if you've only got one copy of the game you can only play Stratego Duel.
As a single-player game, Stratego DS is fun for beginners. It's rewarding to work out how the tactical element works and develop your own strategies. However, once you've got the basic rules down, it quickly becomes apparent the AI isn't good enough. You'll find yourself winning game after game without any problems at all.
What with the sub-par AI, stingy download play options and limited long-term challenge, it's hard to recommend Stratego DS. Which is a shame, because it's easy to see how the fundamental principles could make for an involving, satisfying game against a human opponent. You might want to give the board game a go instead.
This game is based on the apparently-popular animated series of the same name. It follows the adventures of a big fat man called Lian-Chu, a small thin man called Gwizdo and an annoying blue pig-rabbit-dog thing called Hector. The cartoon show looks all right, and the theme tune by The Cure is quite good. The game, however, is rubbish.
It's a side-scrolling platformer that lets you play as all three characters, who each have different abilities. Gwizdo can double-jump to reach higher ledges, Lian-Chu can punch and lob projectiles at enemies and Hector can curl himself into a ball and roll into small spaces. The problem is that's all they can do.
To get through levels you have to switch between characters using the touch-screen while the action plays out on the top screen. This is highly tedious. You have to switch from the running man to the fighting man every time you see an enemy, then back to the running man so you can jump to the next bit of the level, then back to the fighting man and so on.
It doesn't help that the touch-screen icons can be irritatingly unresponsive. By the time you've jabbed a thumb at Lian-Chu's face three times the enemy will have taken several bites out of Gwizdo, who is utterly defenceless. You're left wondering why you can't just play as a character who can double-jump and punch things and crawl, as in almost every other game in history.
The whole thing smacks of spectacular laziness. There are only a handful of "realms" (environments), each with just a couple of "portals" (levels). They're desperately sparse and the "puzzles" are stupidly easy. You have to play through each level repeatedly as you complete five different missions - race against the clock, race through a load of checkpoints, hit things, collect things, collect some other things. You might get to explore a new area of the same level now and then but essentially you're trudging through the same landscape again and again. And again. And again. And again.
The boss battles are so boring I've forgotten what happens in them in the time it took to write the preceding paragraphs. There are two mini-games. One involves collecting things and the other involves hitting things. You can play against a friend, but only if you both have a copy of the game. Thanks for that.
Even if you know a small child who loves the Dragon Hunters TV show, do not buy them this game. It's devoid of charm, imagination and variety. Buy them something more entertaining instead, like a yoghurt. Or just sit them down and tell them about the good old days of cartoons, when the tales of Homer and Dumas were told through the mediums of space and dogs, and for those golden moments the children of Britain were able to forget they lived under perpetual threat of nuclear holocaust. Ah, ah. Ah ah ahh.