Version tested: DS
You don't have to scroll down any further than this to know that at least one of the games in this roundup is destined for a date with direness. Dip your hand in any random pile of DS games and 75 per cent of the time you're going to be grabbing hold of something unpleasantly squishy. Perhaps that's why this set of reviews contains two games that aren't actual games. Good old lifestyle software, the result of the DS's immense popularity with people who don't traditionally fall into the gamer bracket. And, surprisingly, one of them is rather good. Who'd have thought? Don't worry there's the traditional roundup stinker in here as well. Who are we to disappoint?
Cooking Guide: Can't Decide What To Eat?
- Developer: Nintendo
- Publisher: Nintendo
A portable electronic recipe guide seems a great idea on the surface, although the reality could be remarkably worse. Recipe books and cookery shows are ten a penny these days and any greedy publisher could slap Jamie Oliver's mug on a menu screen, list fifteen pages of pasta dishes and release 'Jamie's Pukka Pasta' for thirty quid (note to greedy publishers: please don't do this).
Mercifully, Cooking Guide is a lot more comprehensive than that. It's the latest in a torrent of non-gaming Touch! Generations titles designed to capitalise on the catch-all popularity of the DS. It was originally released in Japan some time back, although this version's been localised to include dishes better suited to Western palates. Of all the 245 dishes on offer, the game will talk you through each step in precise detail from start to finish. For nervous beginners, it's not afraid to explain the simplest of steps like finely chopping onions or boiling pasta in more detail either. At every point, it's prepared to offer a guiding hand and a full, concise guide of techniques, tools and food used is readily available, offering words, pictures and even a few short videos to demonstrate how to do some of the trickier things required.
The proof is in the pudding, however, or rather the meal I prepared with the guide's help to see how well it worked. There's some pretty tasty dishes in here and a pan-global cuisine of Hainanese chicken rice from China and a side dish of Italian peperoni marinati washed down with lassi, a yoghurt drink from India went down well with the other half, even if Gordon Ramsay probably would have balked at the assorted combination. Dessert didn't turn out quite so well. Most of the sweet Thai dish of sakoo paik went straight in the bin after the tapioca-based pudding ended up resembling something with the taste and consistency of watery mucus. Although, I don't think I can entirely blame the software for that one.
The few criticisms I can level at it are that the hands-free voice recognition it utilises to move onto the next step often failed to pick up the sound of my voice telling it to proceed while still managing to interpret the clanging of pots and pans as such. And if you're planning to cook more than one dish in its repertoire at once, there's no easy way to flick between them in order to get them all ready at the same time. You can save your position at any point but only once and backing out of a recipe into another manually can be fiddly. Perhaps that's asking too much, though. This is a well-made package that takes advantage of the handheld's capabilities as much as you could hope any interactive recipe guide would.
- Developer: Natsume
- Publisher: Rising Star Games
Your sister has fallen into a deep sleep, unable to wake, and only a scale from the mythical River King fish can cure her. Well, that's what it looks like to you. More likely she's making it all up in the hope of spending a few days free of your character's unhealthy obsession to fish the rivers dry.
Harvest Fishing, better known internationally as River King: Mystic Valley, part of the Legend of the River King series, is Natsume's side dish to its better regarded Harvest Moon games. Like its companions, it takes a peaceful, non-combat approach to the RPG. This is a world in which the answer to all your problems is fish: collect ten fish and the ogre will speak to you, find five carp and the weasel gardener will chop down those impassable weeds, and so on. These people love their fish.
The backbone of the game, the fishing, is easily accomplished by pressing A to cast your rod in the water and waiting for a nibble. Once you get a bite, the screen switches to a view of the fish and you circle the screen with the stylus to reel it in, stopping now and then to relieve the tension on the line. It's as serviceable a method as you could hope for. However the technique never, ever changes. From the lowliest minnow to the biggest trout and beyond, you're doing almost the exact same thing each time. Different baits don't appear to have any discernible difference nor is there a noticeable advance in skills elsewhere. There's nothing that would add a frisson of excitement to landing a big catch beyond having to spend a bit more time reeling it in.
The meagre adventure that frames the fishy action is a far less regimented affair than Harvest Moon ever was. You wander around talking to the occasional person until they land you with a task to help get you past the next obstacle, or feed your fish-loving pet until it's able to perform certain skills that help you out. Beyond that, most of what's required is to fill up your basket with the fish you've caught and trade them in for collector's cards. It eventually becomes a mind-numbing task for the even the hardiest stalwart of angling.
The serene nature of the game may be relaxing, but it's too simple and ultimately repetitive above all things. While the story mode is relatively short and generous in opening up new areas fairly quickly, fishing these days is far better suited to mini-game distractions in bigger titles than something like this.
My Health Coach: Manage Your Weight
- Developer: Ubisoft
- Publisher: Ubisoft
Don't take this advice as medical fact, warns the disclaimer that precedes the menu screen to Ubisoft's latest "go you!" digital foray into helping you improve your life. Don't worry, there's nothing here that will truly do you an injury unless you haven't gotten out of bed since last January. Despite the Manage Your Weight subtitle, My Health Coach places less emphasis on losing weight than advising you how changes in your lifestyle can lead to the desired results.
It's all terribly American by its nature, something that we of a more cynical European nature will heave a sigh towards. From the very beginning it maintains a positive can-do attitude, never offering up criticism, only encouragement. It certainly takes a little while to get rid of the image of inane whooping and cheering to Oprah in the back of your mind.
Upon firing it up, a lengthy intro process of entering personal statistics and answering questions about what you do and how you eat builds up an idea of where it should take things. Once done, it then becomes a daily planner interspersed with advice, giving you tasks to accomplish each day. Much of this is worked out in the form of voluntary challenges to surpass, like eating at least two vegetables for dinner or walking to the shops.
And while it might not be able to rustle up a balance board it does come packaged with a handy pedometer to help with step-based challenges. It's a smart decision to include something that physically requires you to do something (even if it turns out to be shaking it up and down for five minutes while sitting on the sofa) to progress. Indeed, you can't get on with the initial coaching session without it. Either that or it's an ingenious form of copy protection. I can't think of many people wanting to pirate Crysis if they had to walk around the block to load up a level. Maybe you can still get that done in time for Warhead, eh Crytek?
Still, it goes without saying that it's entirely reliant on your honesty and commitment in getting the results you want. There's no way for it to tell if you're cheating (although your doodle-drawn coach glaring intently at the screen letting you know you've let yourself and everybody else down would be a remarkable sight). In absence of that knowledge, it relies on its constant stream of compliments to encourage your participation in its programme. Every time you accomplish something of any note, it's determined to mark your progress in order to let you know how great you're doing. This is all that you need of it, but it's a shame it's nothing more than an animated checklist of goals, really. It would be interesting to see someone translate what you'd eaten that day or how many steps you'd walked into some kind of RPG adventure. Alas, not here.
As a guide to helping you on those first steps to ditching the burgers and fizzy pop, it only really works if you're in the right frame of mind. It's only ever encouragement towards a solution rather than the solution itself, and not a quick fix. As an actual coach it really only works in general terms: there's no way to finely tailor the experience for your own capabilities in ways that an actual person could, and there's not much to commit you if the determination lapses. My Health Coach is a fair package for those who treat this as a first small step in getting off their plump behinds, though it's not essential.
Wacky Races: Crash and Dash
- Developer: Farmind
- Publisher: Eidos
You can't begrudge Hanna-Barbera for being prolific at a time when kids wouldn't watch anything unless it had a wise-cracking animated animal in it. Yet their shows were of a variable quality, often more akin to bad sitcom than madcap cartoon. Only through the sheer force of nostalgia and the Adult Swim parodies like Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law have the memories been kept alive even after the time we learned that Hanna-Barbera was an animation studio and not a woman's name (come on, it wasn't just me, was it?).
Wacky Races, then, was one of the more memorable cartoons in which an eclectic series of characters in oddball vehicles competed for first place in your usual screwball style. Ideal inspiration for a racing game license, no doubt, in an industry still obsessed with trying to find a worthy competitor for Mario Kart. Indeed, there've been Wacky Races games before and they haven't exactly been great. No surprise then that this DS version is worse - as enjoyable as stepping in a pile of Muttley's steaming dog eggs.
Racing is done from a semi-top down view of the track. You accelerate and steer around obstacles by moving the stylus left and right. If the restricted viewpoint makes seeing what lies ahead difficult, the bigger problem is in the mess of vehicles that clutter the screen. What should be enjoyably hectic is just annoying as your rivals bump and bash around you without anything approaching sense. Every five seconds somebody unleashes a power-up, as you're constantly doing yourself, leading to the commentator babbling the same sound-bite over and over again until you're sick of his voice.
To make matter worse, the race will stop dead at certain points to forcibly initiate a mini-game in the guise of one of Dastardly and Muttley's futile foils. You're then required to tap or scratch the screen to get rid of it and get back into the race. Really, what were they thinking? Beyond working out how to add substance to a poorly made racing game that nobody in their right mind should play, it's an interruption as unwelcome as it sounds.
And even worse than that is the race to the finishing line. For some unknown reason, as soon as you reach the home straight all bets are off and you have to blow into the microphone in order to stand a chance of earning first place. I don't know exactly how hard they want you to blow, but my paltry lung power wasn't enough to do it. Thankfully, you can rapidly scribble on the screen to the same effect, but even that wasn't enough. The solution was to do both at the same time, puffing like a dilapidated steam train and scratching like an epileptic DJ. I eventually won the rally and lost all respect for this awful excuse for a racing game.