Version tested: Wii
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
Initial impressions of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy are surprisingly rather favourable. It's an instantly enjoyable combination of Power Stone and Guardian Heroes elements, with a generous garnish of Itchy and Skratchy cartoon-style ultra-violence. In short, it's the kind of multiplayer comic book-style carnage we rarely see on console in an age where roaming beat 'em ups seem to be exclusively reserved for in-game musclebound gangsta types to settle their rap-based differences.
Gameplay is extremely straightforward and is all the better for it - players are dumped into the cartoon surroundings and the objective is simple: to smack the living daylights out of the opposition until they have been pummelled into complete and utter submission. Making matters easier (or more difficult, depending on your opponents' skill level) is the inclusion of treasure chests that yield a vast range of bonus weaponry. Swords, clubs, guns and even flamethrowers appear at random and boost your offensive prowess. Levels are crammed with items that can be picked up and thrown at your foes, or else used to smack them over the head. Mojo energy orbs also issue forth from the chests, allowing you to build up a reserve of special power that is used to perform brutal combo strikes on your foes - essential in finishing off an otherwise defeated adversary.
Adding to the sense of absolute chaos is the fact that the environments themselves are out to get you. Toxic green slime, red hot lava and spike-pits are just some of the hazards that crop up in the game's first levels, but as the action progresses the environments and their traps get evermore wackier. This is one of Billy and Mandy's greatest strengths - the amount of variety across the game world is very impressive indeed, and there's always a new danger heading your way in addition to whatever your opponents have planned for you. The sense of variety is further strengthened by the range of characters available - up to 15 are available for combat duties.
The only real problem with this Grim Adventure is that it's excessively short. The Story Mode requires little effort to master, and the Mission Mode simply throws you into one of 45 different battles, each of which has a bizarre/obscure objective to achieve during the brawling. Versus mode is by far the best element in the game, allowing you to set-up the match of your choice against bots or human opponents and indulge in a wealth of different game-types. This would be excellent were it not for the fact that the actual combat system used in this game is so ridiculously simplistic. The root of the problem is that each character has just a handful of moves, so therefore there's little strategy - it's only a matter of time before you reach the inescapable conclusion that the game is just a one-note button masher.
This complete lack of depth is not helped by the 'exclusive' Wii enhancements. Graphically, it's not much different compared to its siblings on current gen consoles (to the point where the game runs in 4:3 with no 480p option) and its meagre support for gestures does little to make it any better than playing the game on PS2 or GameCube.
It's such a shame because the initial Power Stone/Guardian Heroes nostalgia rush made me realise just how much I miss those great games, and how brilliant next gen versions of them would be. As it is, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is best sampled as a rental for Wii owners looking for a multiplayer party game that'll last a night or two. I can't even recommend it as a full-price purchase for kids - while the extra lure of the Cartoon Network characters might be worth an additional point, repetitive gameplay is simply a massive turn-off no matter how old the player is.
SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab
In what is becoming a distressingly familiar turn of events, this latest SpongeBob SquarePants offering is essentially exactly the same game as the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions, with a casual dusting of Wii-specific features that includes an all-new Wiimote control method and support for 480p widescreen.
Gameplay switches between two different styles. For the most part, you control the eponymous absorbent cleaning implement through generic cartoon-style platform environs, collecting collectables, subduing foes with SpongeBob's flailing arms, and solving ridiculously simple mini-puzzles. Once that's out of the way, it's on to the driving and flying sections - ultra-generic, playable enough, but devoid of originality. Then it's back to the platforms and the pattern repeats itself.
Where developer Blitz Games does deserve credit is in its handling of the Wiimote controls - on the platform sections at least. While basic directional work is nunchuk by the numbers, when the motion sensor is used everything is perfectly logical and rather fun - charging at enemies is performed with a vicious forwards swipe, and winches are turned with circular movements of the controller. The balance between stick-work and motion sensor is excellent - Blitz Games has played to the controller's strengths and relied on good old fashioned analogue control where it's needed.
If only the same could be said of the driving and flying sections. Here, the Wiimote takes centrestage: the controller is flipped horizontally and steering is 100 per cent tied to the motion sensor. This causes many problems. The first is that the nunchuk is now in the way all the time, so you really need to manually disconnect it and put it aside. And secondly, there's simply zero correlation between the control of a car or rocket and wobbling a rectangular bit of plastic about. It's entirely counter-intuitive, almost totally devoid of feedback and just doesn't work.
So SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab is very much the archetypal game of two halves. Aside from being just a tad too repetitive and too long, the platform levels are well-presented and plenty of fun. The vehicular sections could've been the same where it not for the illogical controls, but even here the wacky cel-based graphical style and solid update help to make it look a cut above the average Wii port. But there's just no sense of imagination throughout this game, no surprises to keep you entertained, and for the SpongeBob fans out there, very little aside from the main character that is actually tied to the TV show. Overall then, an average game that has just about earned its average mark.