There’s a special kind of madness that’s caused by developing for the DS. 2004’s Project Rub (or as it was far better titled around the world, Feel The Magic: Project XX/XY, and in Japan, I Would Die For You) took the Sonic Team away from their increasingly tiresome hedgehog, and instead focused on the very involved business or winning a girl’s heart. And rabbits. And robot bulls. And vomiting goldfish.
And now we have Rub Rabbits (or as it’s far better titled in Japan, Where Do Babies Come From?), which also appears to be about winning a girl's heart. And rabbits. And robot crabs. And riding cows.
Not so much a sequel, Rub Rabbits is a parallel game to Project Rub, following the same structure of completing obscure mini-games of increasing difficulty, in pursuit of true love. The story, if that’s not too strong a word, follows a slightly different dynamic than the original. Before it was about seeing off a rival (and a demented) suitor in order to secure the object of your affections as your own. Here you are tasked with seeing off the advances of a particularly lunatic second girl, who is determined that you shall be hers, and will use her genius abilities with technology to achieve this.
I might just as well tell you the game’s about the invasion of evil toothpaste monsters from West Ealing, determined to mine the Earth of all its Magic Trees, for all the relevance it has to the events of the game. But this is not a disparaging remark - it is because of this cerebral free-for-all that both games are quite so appealing. They’re proper mental, and that’s the sort of thing we like.
A great thing about escalators is that you get to stare at people coming the other way, and there’s nothing they can do about it. So see a pretty girl/boy, and you don’t need to worry about hiding glances - have a good old stare at their lovely face, soak it in, and by the time they think you’re a crazed weirdo, you’re long gone, opposite directions, with steps racing in the wrong direction for pursuit. Thank you escalators.
However, what would happen if the girl going the other way were to have unequivocally won your heart? What if you just somehow knew she was the one? Why you’d start running back up the down escalator to reach her, dodging the prancing sumo wrestlers and dandies in their top hats, wouldn’t you? Yes. You would.
And then you’d likely play the piano to win her attention, before blowing the twelve other men who lust for her out of the sky with your blow pipe. And then I imagine you’d slide some sort of giant disc to her, bouncing it off walls to avoid the other guys. Obviously this would be followed by sending her some loving stares, before unicycling across narrow rooftops to reach her.
Thirty-seven of these ridiculous games stand between you and your goal. Which in this second game is not to win the girl - that’s taken care of early on - but to defeat the crazed advances of your psycho stalker, and recover the antidote to the poison with which she’s infected your girl. These involve daft implementations of the DS’s more peculiar abilities, from blowing on the mic to breathe fire at approaching robots, to all manner of touch-screen oddities, and delightfully, cunning use of the two screens that requires turning the machine sideways or upside down. These rotations are always necessary for the nature of the game - say you’re flirtatiously touching each other on the forehead or shoulder, far better to have that happening on a touchable top screen, while your legs dangle from the tree’s branch on the dormant screen below.
That sort of thing.
What makes both games so appealing, and certainly even more so in this new release, is the gorgeous design. Motion capture, combined with a colourful minimalism, creates a two-dimensional cartoon puppet show, with silhouetted human shapes engaged in peculiar relationships. Even though the game you’re playing is ridiculous enough to involve attempting to hold a rose near to a girl’s face, without pricking her with a thorn, as she moves about, her movement is fluid and realistic. It’s a guy rope-pegged to reality that prevents the nonsense from completely floating away.
Further deepening the charm is the wonderful sound, mostly consisting of gasps, yelps, screams, and one-word oddities, sampled over utterly fantastic J-pop mixes. Reminiscent of Yasuharu Konishi, the mastermind behind the wonderful Pizzicato Five, Mariko Nanba and Tomoko Sasaki’s chorus-based tunes range from engrossingly atmospheric to engagingly loony, the ideal score for such a surreal game.
Rub Rabbits is a peculiar choice of name, since it doesn’t overtly contain the lapine performance group of the original. The Japanese name makes a great deal more sense, with one of the more obscure sub-games offering you the two-player opportunity to create offspring. The DS, held by two people at once, is used to cooperatively slice a cake in twine. This performance, combined with information about each participant, goes toward designing the personality and décor of its prediction of your potential offspring. One partnership of mine resulted in the rather disturbing creation of a top hat-wearing moustachioed infant - I have no idea what this might mean.
There also exists Hullabaloo - a crazed game which involves as many players as you desire, taking it in turns to rapidly press particular buttons on a single DS. The notion being, "Maybe you’ll cross hands with your special someone!" It’s a sweet novelty, which acts as a micro-celebration of the joy of the DS. Try to imagine such a game played with a PSP.
As with Project Rub, there’s a ‘Maniac’ mode, which again is a rather grandiose title for a screen that allows you to dress up a girl in unlocked clothing. Rather than the rather silly clicking on rabbits, or reading of other Sega GBA cartridges required to fully approach this on the original, here the points scored during the Story mode are accumulative, and reaching targets unlocks new clothing items. Pointless in the extreme, but at least not ludicrously hard to get at this time.
More entertaining in the world of dress-up is the ability to design your own clothes for the girl. Pleasingly, the dress you design will be the clothes she appears in during the ‘Break Time’ cut-scenes, and in title menus. It’s another needless addition, but an addition all the same, for which we certainly don’t complain.
And as ever, more is available once the main Story has been completed. Not only the imaginatively titled Another Story, consisting of four repeated games seen from the perspective of the enemy, romancing a robot (just go with it), but also six multiplayer games that only require a single cartridge. None are awe-inspiring, but again they’re fun extras. Most significant is the Memories mode, which allows you to replay the games that interest you in an extended mode, and the unlocked Hard mode, which adds on an extra five levels to each game, and offer a much tougher challenge for anyone who burned through the first time.
Winning even adds access to the catalogue of game sounds, letting you play any of the excellent tunes, and play in your own SFX samples, to which (and this is the best thing of all time ever) any of your created babies will dance along. Undiluted lunacy.
Difficulty is far better balanced than in Project Rub, without the crazy spikes in the main Story mode. And the finale doesn’t lazily re-use previous boss games, but instead offers a series of brand new challenges of a tougher, but possible, nature. There aren’t quite the brilliant novelties of the former - it is the same idea repeated, and it’s clear that not quite as many new ideas came this time around. However, improved menu screens, the sensible Quick Start button for repeating failed games, and the extra depth of detail (an extremely odd narrative plays out on the top screen of the Break Time pauses), make this feel a far more complete and rounded refinement.
Despite the relatively short first-run time, the improved Memories mode encourages a Wario Ware-a-like desire to max each out level, and the Hard mode sets a genuine repeat challenge that significantly extends longevity.
It’s silly, strange and possibly psychotic, but it’s our silly, strange and possibly psychotic. You’ll criticise it, maybe even question its validity as a complete game, but you damned well won’t put it down before you’ve finished it. It’s marvellous.