At last year's GDC Nintendo President Iwata made the claim that the company was reaching out to everyone, in an attempt to expand the gaming market. They were planning to appeal to hardcore gamers, folks who used to play games, and folks who have never played a game in their lives. At the time, it sounded like a tag line. Today, I have impressions from three titles which suggest they've got what it takes to make us all into gamers. Hardcore players can sink their teeth into Metroid Prime Hunters, and have one of the most intuitive FPS experiences ever to come to a console. Folks looking for some nostalgia can enjoy Tetris DS, blockstacking like it's 1985. Even your grandmother can try Brain Age, proving to her bridge club that even though her license says she's 80 she's got the brain of a 20 year old. Read on for my impressions of three titles that give powerful evidence to support Iwata's grand claim.
If you're a PC FPS player, Hunters is precisely your cup of tea. Nintendo has taken the frantic energy of a Quake 3 match and miniaturized it on your DS screen. Hunters is, in reality, not a 'real' Metroid game. It's essentially a shooter based in the classic Nintendo world. While the GameCube and GameBoy games concentrate as much on exploration as action, Hunters is all about shooting for the kill. This focus is obvious in the dirt simple control scheme. You use the joypad to move, the touchpad to aim, and the right shoulder button to fire. You can drop into ball mode and switch weapons with icons on the touchscreen, and to jump you doubletap with your stylus.
- Title: Metroid Prime Hunters
- Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
What results from this fusion of simple control and Metroid trappings is nothing less than a grown-up shooter on a very small console. Single-player mode has sort of 'mini-Metroids' scattered around a small part of the galaxy. You head into an area, explore, fight a boss, and move on. It's not much compared to some of Samus' other epic adventures, but it is a good way to learn the controls. Despite the size of the single-player missions, they also manage to fit in some nice puzzling.
If you're wifi connected, you can get your ass handed to you by the thousands of people waiting to personally destroy you online. Just like with Mario Kart, the system just works, resulting in a lightning fast asshanding that will leave you wondering why you opened the DS's lid in the first place. There are numerous maps to play on, and many other bounty hunter personas available to change things up from the normal Metroid experience. Online play is wicked fast, with smooth framerates aiding in the sense of speed and danger.
Folks who dislike FPSes will not like this game, and even folks who enjoy the Metroid Prime titles on the GameCube may be turned off by the game's unrelenting speed. Quake 3 really is the best PC comparison I can draw, and being fragged moments after you've spawned is not out of the question. PC gamers who have avoided console shooters may actually be the real winners here, as you're going to find a lot to love in the 'touchpad look' system they've come up with.
I see this title as not only a great game in the here and now, but a preview of what's going to be possible in the DS's future. The control scheme and graphics (which simply should not be possible on a Nintendo handheld) speak of far-off games that will keep the hardcore coming back again and again to Nintendo's twoscreened juggernaut.
Like Metroid, Tetris DS is a new take on a classic Nintendo title. Unlike Metroid, this new title recaptures much of the flavour that obsessed moms across America in the mid-80s. It's not a remake so much as a refresh, with many new modes and ways to play a game we never really put down.
- Title: Tetris DS
- Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
The vivid displays on the DS play gracious host to the new game. Your first impressions of Tetris DS will be of crisp imagery and bright sound. The game manages not only to be a small shrine to the blockstacker itself, but almost every classic Nintendo title. The Mario theme accompanies the Standard mode, while a Metroid background scrolls past in Catch mode. The only drawback to this is that, if classic Nintendo isn't your cup of tea, the music is going to get grating sooner rather than later.
The sheer number of modes can be intimidating at first. Besides the original game (playable both by yourself or vs. other people wirelessly), there is Catch (a strange mode that has you creating four-squares while flying through a Metroid level), Push (a competitive classic Tetris mode), Mission (which has you completing specific objectives), Puzzle (which has you complete a screen with specific pieces), and Touch. Touch is the only mode that takes advantage of the touch-screen, and requires you to move block around in a tower of Tetris pieces. You break down the foundation of the tower, eventually freeing the trapped balloons at the top of the heap. Touch and Push are very fresh experiences, requiring you to use Tetris thinking in lateral ways. Catch is kinda funky, and I didn't get as much out of it.
Even if you're playing the classic game on your cell phone every day, this game is well worth experiencing on the DS. Like all Wifi-enabled DS games, it's seamless to fall into an online match, and the polish level displayed here is going to please every puzzler you know. Nintendo hit it right on the money with this one: Not too much newness, just enough to keep you interested. The only real complaint I have is the title's price. Thirty dollars for the cart is enough to ensure that not everyone that gets a DS will end up with this in their library. Which is a shame; The ubiquitous presence of Tetris for the original GameBoy was one of the pivotal moments in classic gaming. (Or so says my mom.)
The 'not a game' titles available for the Nintendo DS just keep coming. Nintendogs and Electroplankton are obvious examples, but Brain Age manages to slip into that category through the backdoor; It's a game that's also good for you. Brain Age is basically a series of mental exercises designed to give your grey matter a work-out. Lateral thinking isn't the name of the game here: Speed is what matters. One hundred arithmetic problems fly past, and you have to solve them as quickly as you can. Count the number of syllables in the sentence, but do it quickly. The 'easiest' task they'll put to you is forcing you to read snippets from classic works of literature. Reading the Brontes for speed is a new experience, and one which will definitely stretch your prefrontal cortex.
- Title: Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day
- Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
All of these simple games are intended to be completed on a daily basis. You do one or two each day to 'Train Your Brain', and after finishing up the game assigns you a 'brain age'. The younger the better, with 20 being as low as you can go. The amusement factor of the game doesn't sound very high, but the presentation sells it with gusto. The floating head of Dr. Kawashima (the man whose research the game is based on) is a very personable character, turning the DS sideways makes for a different feel to the game, and the cheerful attitude of the interface is hard to ignore.
I have some minor complaints with the title, but they don't detract at all from the enjoyment of the title. Specifically, the handwriting recognition can get a little confused at times. Even a few extra seconds writing out a '9' will seem like forever when you're on the clock. Similarly, I found the voice recognition would occasionally spaz out. I particularly had trouble getting the game to understand me when I said the word 'blue'. Be sure to enunciate your words so that the game understands you.
Those minor quibbles aside, the package is a great, simple, time-waster. For folks not used to playing games this is the perfect setup. Brain Age offers a series of discrete, approachable tasks that only have to be completed once or twice to feel that you've accomplished something. If you play daily, you only have to invest about 10 minutes to get your stamp from the Doctor. If you want to play more, for American audiences a Sudoku game was added. I don't play myself, but I'm told by accomplished players that it's a challenging set of puzzles. They're also convenient, allowing you to write down your guesses on the side of a box before committing yourself to an answer.
While Tetris and Metroid are great games, I'm most impressed by the reaction I've seen from non-gamers sitting down to Brain Age for the first time. There's a smile they get, and a light in their eye. When I talk to them about it, there's an understanding there about games and gaming that wasn't there before. That's the reason President Iwata gave away the title at his GDC Keynote; It's a subversive recruitment tool. You may not get your grandmother playing Unreal Tournament, but Brain Age can be a starter experience for an entire new multi-generational crop of gamers.