First things first, it's Elasto Mania on the DS! We had no idea it existed either. But clearly it does, because a man from Noviy Disk Company in Russia emailed us politely asking us if we'd like to preview it, and then sent over a DS cartridge.
Similar in many ways to the excellent RedLynx Trials 2: Second Edition, Elasto Mania predates it by the best part of a decade, having first asked you to navigate complex 2D platform environments on a motocross bike back when the world was about to end and Britney Spears was just getting started, shifting your weight with the cursor keys to hook the front wheel onto jagged hills you had no right climbing. The bike, that is, not Britney.
Both games kill you off when your rider's head strikes solid objects, but whereas Trials asks you to reach the end of the course with as few checkpoint resets as possible, Elasto Mania was about collecting apples and making absolutely no mistakes. Failure meant a full restart. Doing things apace - the Trials 2 endgame - came many tantrums later.
A few superficial differences aside - like the Duke Nukem menus, and stars instead of apples - the translation to DS is faithful in most of the right ways. The suspension's fluffy as pillows, as the back wheel threatens to climb inside the rider at even the gentlest start, which means that coming to a precise halt is fraught.
You can flip between facing left and right at the jab of a button, and performing supernatural aerial feats is brilliantly easy. Flick forward and then back as you gather speed and it's possible to launch yourself to a raised level with virtually no run-up or incline, while flips and trailing the back wheel over a thin platform to dangle beneath it are barely intermediate skills. It's even possible to control the bike completely with the d-pad - with up and down for acceleration and braking and left and right for flicking - in a throw back to the PC cursor keys interface.
At first the changes developer Mobirate has made don't seem so sweeping. The levels are their own design, for the most part, and physics now apply to objects like barrels, logs, rope bridges and seesaws, albeit in a kind of slow motion. Interestingly, going back and playing Elasto Mania on the PC illustrates how quickly the DS rider moves by comparison, too.
You can also upgrade the bike, although we haven't worked out if this is more than superficial, and pressing the Y button shows you the location of the next star you're after. Meanwhile the top screen is used as a 2D mini-map for the stage, and to remind you of your current time and the number of stars left to uncover.
But then as you reach for the X button the umpteenth time for a restart, you grab the right trigger by accident and something weird happens: you turn into Otto Octavius. Or, to be more precise, a grappling hook with a claw hand flashes from your body diagonally up ahead of you, like a UFO Catcher bursting out of your chest. It's disconcerting. Playing around a bit, you realise you can hook onto platforms and haul yourself in.
Then you realise you can grab loose objects and pull them to you as well. If there's a forklift pallet leaning against an upright log, for example, you can tip forward carefully, fire the grapple to the pallet and then turn and haul it out of the way, giving yourself a free run at the log to topple it. Then you realise you can use it to rein in the collectible stars, so if you can't find an angle to launch yourself to gather one, you might be able to time a jump and grapple it instead. Holding A or up on the d-pad then hauls it in.
Which gives you an idea, which leads to the best of all: you can grab the end-of-level smiley face and tow it around the whole stage like a ball and chain. It doesn't affect your acceleration, speed or braking, and when you collect the final star, you hit it instantly. On bigger levels, where it's more difficult to locate all the stars, or more perilous to trace a path to the end goal, it's a boon. Except the game is partly conscious of that, and occasionally stops you doing it, as with a level that involves descending past numerous ramps and crates, and then clambering back to the top. The end-of-level smiley is stuck fast near the start.
In fact, by the time we left the game, it was becoming a little unpredictable, although mostly in a good way. There were more and more physics objects (including a topsy-turvy rope-bridge), and seemingly arbitrary additions like bounce pads, and spinning wheels to cross, and planet-like rocky circles with gravity fixed at the centre.
Mobirate also plans to include an online leaderboard system, a level editor, and a two-player mode, in addition to the single-player's more-than-60 tracks. Wherever it's come from, it's easy to imagine a cult success. Elasto Mania, like Trials, is about doing absurd things easily; and then later it's maximising traction, stopping without tipping, conserving momentum, and flying through the air exactly as you intended. The back-to-the-start punishment for failure might rub us up the wrong way in the long run, but it's just as likely we'll call a truce and celebrate the rest of the ride.
Failing that, it's as good an excuse as we've had since Trials to dig out the Elasto Mania shareware and remind ourselves. It's barely aged at all and it probably runs on a toaster. Try.
Elasto Mania is due out for the DS in Q1 2009 according to Noviy Disk Company. We'll let you know when we hear anything more specific.