Monthly Archives: February 2006

Pac & Roll

Pacman has now made two appearances on the young DS. His first appearance, Pac Pix, seemed to be more a tech demo moulded into the form of a game rather than a fully fledged title in its own right and so when Pac and Roll appeared I was quite sceptical. Luckily this has had considerably more development time given to it and the time has been well invested as it has turned this DS release into one of the most solid platformers I have played in quite a while.

Pac and Roll is a cross between Sega’s Monkey Ball and Nintendo’s Mario. You control the spherical Pacman across a variety of levels in search of his kidnapped friends, avoiding hazards and fighting ghosts along the way.

The thing that makes the game unique, as with all DS games, is the way you control the lead character. Pacman has been cursed by a guitar-playing ogre and it is up to you to roll him (do you see how they got the title?) around the world with strokes from you stylus; the direction and speed of the stroke being the direction and speed you want to roll him.

Early levels operate as tutorials to get you used to the controls with walls to keep you on the straight and narrow but the path ahead soon opens up with a nasty amount of pitfalls to hamper our hero. I would say that the levels remind me of many a Mario game with basic gaps in the earlier levels giving way to collapsing walkways, rotating platforms and jump pads as the game progresses.

The feel of each level, and I don’t mean in terms of decoration, is quite unique; one may challenge you to negotiate a very classically shaped, Pacman grid of corridors while another may involve traversing past falling walls. Each set of obstacles comes at you for a sustained period of time and then relents for a level or so before possibly being combined with another item to prove a different challenge. This setup meant that Pac and Roll continually felt fresh throughout with some great, if a little frustrating, level design being found in the latter stages.

The penultimate world and its levels was my favourite; the stages were set in a castle environment where you had to dodge collapsing walls whilst rushing up a slope and simultaneously avoiding the rising lava. It made you exist in a controlled state of panic as you negotiated so many things at once, all the time maintaining control over Pacman – not to mention how it wore your hand out as your strokes battled against the gradient.

A criticism I would have to give is that the difficulty curve suddenly spiked. Out of the six worlds the first four were enjoyable but easy. As soon as you entered the fifth you knew that the designers had taken the kid gloves off and were prepared to make you suffer. At least a few audible outbursts happened during the more Monkey Ball-esque levels that involved taking your charge where no right minded person would ever dream of putting a spherical object. Having said that the challenge was welcome and really showed off what the game was all about, I just wished they had build up to it.

Pacman wouldn’t be Pacman without pills and ghosts somewhere in the game. The pills are this platformer’s coins/notes/bananas and you must collect enough of these to open up the next portion of the level. Standing in your way will be a series of ghosts which will attack you and steal energy until you can prod them away with your stylus. Of course Pacman has his Power Pills to fend off his supernatural foes but they are generally only common enough for you to have one shot at dispatching a group of ghosts. If you get your attack wrong or just run out of time you will find yourself skirting round the little blighters for the rest of the level.

The good thing is that the ghosts aren’t too prevalent. Again, sensible level design only places ghosts in line with the difficulty curve. In the early stages you will face them on the flat but as time progresses you will have to fight them in confined environment or mixed in with a tricky platforming section for extra spice. They are never overused and so when it does come to the fiendish areas where you have to concentrate solely on the environment you don’t have to worry about a ghost popping up to frustrate you yet further.

Where they can prove a pain in the backside is during the boss battle that tends to reside at the end of each world’s set of levels. You must face off against the ogre who cursed you and, according to video game lore, consume three Power Pills to take down one bar of his energy. You of course then have to do this three times to dispatch him completely.

Although the general outline of the boss battles is routine the levels he resides in are nothing if not varied with some clever designs awaiting you. One fight sees you on a sphere bobbing in lava whereas the final engagement takes place on an oversized pinball table. The environment shapes the strategies you need to take down your guitar wielding foe and on more than one occasion I was dispatched before I could get the measure of the level let alone the boss.

Pac and Roll is definitely worth a gamble for those with a few hours spare who enjoy the feel of classic platformers or puzzle games of the ilk of Monkey Ball. It features a very intuitive control scheme and some lovely set pieces involving swaying platforms and its own take on mine carts, but beware the difficulty spike. Many will find it a challenge however I can see some finding it frustrating.

It has a reasonable amount of replay value, too; once completed in story mode levels can then be played in time attack mode or with the challenge of collecting just the right amount of pills. Top that off with the chance to unlock some of Pacman’s more classic titles and you have yourself a very nice portable package.


Pikmin 2

I don’t think I truly appreciated the first Pikmin. I played it and enjoyed it but had no problem trading the disk in at Gamestation for my next digital fix. I registered the release of its sequel but something distracted me from picking it up and so once more the Pikmin were left unloved.

When I finally did pick up the title it didn’t take me long to remember just how magical Pikmin could be. Everything about the game screams that it’s a Nintendo pet project that presses all the right gaming buttons leaving you grinning at the screen.

The plot is quite ridiculous as you take Captain Olimar and his brother, Louie, in their space ship to a nameless green a blue planet where they are given the task of collecting the treasures that litter its surface. Being a strange planet you can only venture out during daylight hours meaning every portion of the game is all about balancing resources to tasks and not over stretching your characters before the sun sets. The quirks of the game are that you are dwarfed by the environment through which you roam as you only stand an inch or so tall, and that the treasures are random pieces of junk which can range from rolls of sticky tape and doughnuts to pieces of electronic gadgetry. Oh, and you have an army of walking seedlings to do your bidding, namely the Pikmin.

Controlling your Pikmin is simple as a quick press of your B button will cause Olimar to whistle and bring all troops within the vicinity of your cursor under control. Once called then the Pikmin will follow you around like a colourful set of ducklings following their mother. As fun as a flock of Pikmin can be they need an aim and you can give them just that by either tapping A to throw them towards a target or using the C-stick to swarm them forward to either attack an enemy or carry home a treasure.

The highlight of Pikmin, for me, is the animation and the sound that come from controlling your Pikmin friends: the bustling as they get called to Olimar; the tiny trumpet as you command them to swarm forward. Both are so simple but consistently heart warming. Should you leave a lone sole out of reach they will shiver and whimper until you feel moved enough to rescue them.

Initially you start with only one of five possible breeds of Pikmin by your side but you’re soon finding and rescuing the others to aid you in your quest. You have red Pikmin who are resistant to fire; yellow that can withstand electricity; water loving blues; super strong purple Pikmin and a poisonous white breed. Each must be used in certain situations to reach goals, destroy elemental specific foes and to clear blocked pathways.

It is the white and purple breeds that are new to Pikmin 2 but it is the latter that are the most useful of all as they can take down most enemies in seconds; one purple Pikmin has the strength of ten reds. As long as you have enough of the little blighters very little will stand in your way.

What does stand in your way, even if not for very long, is a vast array of natural enemies all imaginatively created and beautifully realised. There are standard grunts in the shape of lumbering frogs and skittering beetles but most require very definite tactics on how to defeat them, whether it is immunity to their electric attacks or a mass charge to overpower stronger enemies before they drag your Pikmin off into a dark hole.

The majority of your enemies, apart from the boss battles, are relatively straight forward and it should only be the unlucky or careless player that loses vast number of Pikmin in a confrontation. It was always quite painful when I lost more than a handful of my troops as it was either my fault entirely or a new foe had surprised me with a new attack pattern – damn those balloon-suspended bomb-droppers!

There are a lot more boss battles and enemies in general due to the way that this follow up has now introduced caves that can be explored. When on the surface you must return to your ship by sundown to avoid the night life devouring your Pikmin, giving you roughly 15 minutes to complete all you need to, but when in the caves there is no time limit. Instead the game just lets you take it at your own pace as you explore the darkness.

Both the surface and the caves show reasonable level design as natural barricades stand in your way and treasures just lye out of easy reach. You know that your Pikmin will always eventually be able to break through or reach these but the puzzle is how and whether you’ve brought the right ones for the job. Whereas the planet’s surface shows a beautiful, natural landscape the underworld’s levels have a varied feel to them but generally are dark places that focus more on set pieces and their maze-like structure than glowing visuals.

The overworld presents challenges that are all about resource management which involve splitting your Pikmin into squads and setting each a task to complete before the sun goes down in order to open up new areas that contain yet more caves and, in turn, treasures. The underworld is a different kettle of fish as they tend to be more combat based with the variety being how you defeat your foes. It doesn’t rush you, instead it allows a thoughtful approach, should you so wish.

My personal favourite cave was the level that had massive creatures that had seemingly swallowed a loaf of bread. These tall fellows required the Pikmin to be flung high on their back to exploit their weak spot and the entire landscape appeared to be taking place in a picnic hamper on a series of dinner plates.

I think the division of the game into these two parts really helped the enjoyment of the title as it allows you to vary between the action and the exploration. At times the caves could feel like they dragged on a little too long but usually this was offset by the quality of the boss battle at its end.

To help you in your passage through this strange new world you can split duties between the two brothers; whilst Olimar ushers the blue Pikmin away to destroy a submerged barricade Louie can move the flame retardant reds to take down a fire-breathing beastie. Whilst a nice feature I don’t think I utilised it too much as the Pikmin can tend to function on their own once given a task, although it did allow you to herd the little blighters up quicker as the sun started to go down.

Something I do have to praise Pikmin for is the way it fitted gaming into nice bite sized chunks. As previously mentioned a day lasts less that a quarter-of-an-hour whilst a single level in a cave roughly the same allowing you to easily fit in a quick session here and there. It allowed the title a great pick-up-and-play feel that other RTS games (if Pikmin does indeed fall into that category) never seem to, in my opinion.

Pikmin 2 is a great title and is another Nintendo title that is dressed up as a child’s game in all the primary colours; whilst this is accessible to children it also is hugely enjoyable for us grownup gamers. It has the potential to engage your brain whilst simultaneously holding a certain charm due to the Pikmin and their environment. If you’re looking for something different, something that could be a puzzler or a RTS, then this might just be the title for you.