Version tested: PSP
PaRappa the Rapper
- Publisher: Sony
- Developer: Sony
Kick! Punch! It's all in the mind! And now on your PSP! The paradigmatic rhythm action original is back, along with all its Saturday-morning kooky cool: PaRappa and chums PJ Berri, Sunny Funny, Katy Kat return, as do PaRappa's musical mentors Chop Chop Master Onion, Mooselini, Master Prince Flea Swallow, Cheap Cheap the Cooking Chicken, and MC King Kong Mushi. Indeed this is almost precisely the same game that wowed the videogame world when it was originally released ten years ago: six songs, the original rhythm-action button-tapping game mechanics, and a still-superb sense of style.
That does mean that the game's chief drawback remains that it is only six songs long - rhythm action specialists will complete this in an hour or so. But the six songs in question remain gleefully infectious and it's difficult not to want to play them again and again - not least because the PSP version allows you to download multiple remixes of all six after you've completed them once. Apart from that the only new addition is a rudimentary and pointless ad hoc mode.
So it's a difficult game to review. It's difficult to divorce the game from its original context, and it's difficult to put a score on the sense of joy that the game effortlessly imparts. The great strength of the game back in 1997 was its originality and verve, which cut through a vast swathe of cookie-cutter similarity like one of Master Onion's paper-thin kung fu kicks. Now, though, it's been out-originalled by about a million other quirky music games, and its rudimentary rhythm action mechanics have been absorbed and evolved by an entire genre. It's still cool, and it's still charming, and it will still fill you with glee. But it somehow fails to make such a dramatic entrance as it once did.
Dave Mirra BMX Challenge
- Publisher: Oxygen Games
- Developer: Left Field Productions
Ah, Dave Mirra. You make reviewing games so simple. After all, how much easier it is to stick the boot in to a lazy cash-in, than to try to do justice to the intangible ingredients of videogame excellence. You barely even need to play the latest BMX title to bear his name to know that it will be another quickly-churned out pile of graceless dross. After all, this is the guy whose name graced the charmless BMX XXX, right? Right. Actually playing through Dave Mirra BMX Challenge confirms every woeful preconception you might have had.
The game's career mode is divided across two modes: Race or Trick. You'll wonder why you bothered with either of them, partly because of the absurdly rudimentary track design, or physics-impaired trick mechanics, and partly because of the sheer, pointless ease with which you'll breeze through everything the game has to offer. Which, in case you're in any doubt, is not much. Your AI opponents are so idiotic that they can barely make it round the track, while the trick mode is beset by cheap exploits and hampered by boring and basic trick selections. The environments are an uninspiring selection of murky and sparsely furnished locations that do little to elevate the banal bike action.
This is an unfinished, utterly forgettable mess of a game. It can't possibly have been playtested, and everything from the horrible, unintuitive menus to the joyless game design is a dramatic statement of the low budget with which the game must have been developed. It's absolutely gob-smackingly disheartening to discover that BMX Challenge was created by the same company behind the amazing Excitebike 64. What a sorry squandering of such sublime talent. And what a waste of time it is to actually play the thing. Do yourself a favour and don't bother.
Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai 2
- Publisher: Atari
- Developer: Dimps
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sequel to Shin Budokai provides more of the same: sumptuously cel-shaded one-on-one beat 'em up battles, though this time they're wrapped up in an adventure mode which sees you flying around above rudimentary cities chasing enemies before the real action starts. And the real action takes quite a while to start, because there's so much story to get through, which, if you're not a Dragonball fan, will just be a lot of rudimentary waffle involving senzu beans, time travel and about a million characters who won't mean anything to you.
But then, if you're not a Dragonball fan, why would you want to play Shin Budokai 2 at all? The game's alternative vision of the Dragonball canon is clearly designed for diehard devotees, as is the flashy but superficial beat 'em up that forms the heart of the game: it acquits itself reasonably well without ever reaching the sophistication of a proper beat 'em up, and it's particularly susceptible to button-bashing. But it's super quick, and super stylish, and it looks pretty when you're winding up one of your wide array of over-the-top special moves, and that, really, is what Dragonball fans will be looking for.
A card-based power-up system ought to add a lot of depth, though it all feels a bit superficial in practice, and there are all sorts of multiple paths, alternative endings, and various different play modes (including arcade mode, ad hoc multiplayer, and Z trials). So there's certainly more here than most Dragonballers will be able to shake a senzu shaped stick at. But with more than 26 different games based on the Dragonball series, including the almost identical original Shin Budokai, it's difficult not to feel that this is a Dragonball too far.
Marvel Trading Card Game
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Vicious Cycle
The unimaginatively titled Marvel Trading Card Game is based on Upper Deck's Vs. battle system. Which means it's based on a proven set of game mechanics. Like Magic: The Gathering, to which it owes an obvious debt, the basic structure is fairly simple: draw cards from your user-created deck, and take turns with your opponent to put those cards into play as various characters from the Marvel universe, who are then free to attack and defend, or power themselves up with equipment or plot twists. And like Magic, that simple structure, combined with the open-ended nature of deck design, creates a deep and absorbing challenge.
Unfortunately it suffers from a fairly heavy-handed attempt to digitalise it: long load times, no mid-game saves, tiny text, and a slightly confusing interface are among the minor frustrations. More major frustrations include a pretty useless tutorial, which will probably leave newcomers resorting to trial and error to work out the rules as they go along, and AI that lacks nuance. The biggest complaint, however, is simply that it takes too much time to unlock new cards, so you're left with an underpowereduninteresting deck for too long. Indeed your first encounter, against a fairly standard weenie deck, serves only to demonstrate the inadequacies of your starting deck, and a sense of frustration endures because the deck design element of the game continues to feel undernourished throughout.
Nevertheless, there is a comprehensive suite of online modes, including the ability to pay cash for new cards, and trade and play with other players (including owners of the PC version of the game). It's still hampered by the ill-considered interface design, but it's also still characterised by deep and absorbing game mechanics with the result that the game is, in spite of itself, pretty entertaining stuff.