Nobody can accuse the Japanese of being boring when it comes to their hobbies, interests, and obsessions. Anyone who dabbles in Japanese culture or frequents import shops can tell you that not only do the Japanese create all of the coolest toys, they also come up with some of the funkiest, craziest, and most off-the-wall stuff youve ever seen. The differences in culture are readily apparent as they put their own unique spin on things as simple as pets (giant beetles are popular), vending machines (selling absolutely everything from canned coffee to cell phones), and television programs (some of which make the current wave of reality shows seem like old hat.)
Keeping that in mind, is it any surprise that Japan is home to some of the quirkiest titles known to the world of videogames? What other country could possibly come up with something as bizarre as a videogame that simulates managing a convenience store, a title that functions as a dating simulator, or an arcade unit that recreates horse racing by having the player bounce up and down on a plastic horses rump, resembling something you would normally be downloading in the privacy of your own home? Following in the grand tradition of games that are just a little bit "different" comes a surprise release from out of nowhere—Power Shovel. Its extremely rare that console games so obviously created for niche Japanese audiences will get released in the states, but after picking up this game, here are three words I thought Id never say: Hooray for Acclaim!
In a nutshell, think of Power Shovel as the "Gran Turismo of Backhoes". Never before has a game attempted to simulate heavy construction equipment so faithfully and in such a meticulous manner. Ive never personally operated a backhoe, but I imagine it to take a great deal of skill. Following that logic, it makes sense that controlling these large pieces of equipment in the game is no easy task. To be perfectly honest, its damn hard. When I first popped the disc into my PlayStation 2, the complex control scheme made me feel as if I was all thumbs, or had never played a game before in my life. Every button, except for the analog sticks, is used and things arent exactly laid out as logically as youd think (there are a few alternate control setups to be found in the Options menu.). It took a little while, but once I started to get the hang of it, thats when the real fun began.
The game offers two basic styles of play: simulation and recreation. Simulation consists of real-life tasks such as digging holes, moving piles of dirt, and breaking up large rocks. Thats not to say that the simulations are boring, though. In the scenario using the largest backhoe (out of three sizes), you are given the task of rescuing a town from a few natural disasters. Among these are clearing a mudslide thats preventing firemen from getting to their destination and building a dike to stop the flow of lava from a nearby volcano.
Recreation takes the huge machines and puts them in fantastic situations like scooping baby sea turtles from a swimming pool, using the shovel to hit balls like a golf club, and (my personal favorite) dumping monstrous amounts of curry onto huge plates of rice. Its all off-the-wall and brightly-hued fun. These kinds of juxtapositions between the mundane and the insane really spice up what would have been a fairly drab game without them.
If you get tired of those modes, theres an option to create your own level. While its pretty limited, its nice just to have the option. As a nice touch, accompanying the entire game are out-of-control screaming Japanese voiceovers. These, in particular, were a very nice addition, since I found them to be utterly hilarious. I have no idea what they are saying without the subtitles, but the energy and emphasis put into these sound bites just cracks me up. For the true backhoe connoisseur, this disc is simply a must-own since no other game Ive ever played has come as close as Power Shovel to displaying the same level of love and fascination for the big yellow monsters, combined with enough refreshing irreverence to make the whole thing light and enjoyable.
I wrote this review with the assumption that you might be interested in playing a game about backhoes. Now that you've read this far, there are a few negatives to discuss.
The biggest complaint I have about Power Shovel is the ego-shattering, backbreaking difficulty level. No matter what kind of gamer you are, prepare to have your abilities mocked and your skills scoffed at on all but the easiest settings. While the control scheme is extremely difficult to come to grips with initially, the real problem here is actually the intense time limits placed on the player. In my entire gaming history, there have been less than a handful of games that I wasnt able to overcome. Power Shovel was very nearly added to that list due to "Fill The Long Hole" on the license exam. I suppose that if I devoted a larger portion of my life to it and trained like I was entering the Olympics, Id be approaching the level of proficiency required to rank higher or score the really big money on the advanced difficulty levels. However, for such a quick and dirty little niche game, the effort isnt worth it.
Besides the difficulty, the developers didnt add enough mini-games and events for my taste. Whats there is very fun, but it just made me wish that there were more of them. Its possible to get through the entire arcade mode in less than an hour (as long as you get the hang of the controls) so the game is extremely brief in length. In an attempt to add replay value, there are extras to buy with the money you earn from the various challenges. Available are some voice samples, pictures, and movies as well as three more minigames and the "Professional" option, which appears to be about a third of the arcade mode. Its great to have things to unlock, but with such a limited number of ways to earn money in the game, the steep price tags equal a little too much repetition. Compounding this, you can only earn a fraction of the normal wages on the playable difficulties. I had unlocked everything except for the Professional mode by the time I had become tired of the same old tasks, which is a shame since it had been quite enjoyable up until then.
If I was able to rate Power Shovel strictly on charm, kook factor, and craziness (three things I LOVE in any game) it would easily sail through with a ten. However, the game will have very limited appeal to most people due to the subject matter, with the intense difficulty and manual dexterity requirements turning off a lot of the people who do check it out. But despite those negatives, I was able to look past them and find a whole lot to like about Power Shovel. Releases like this are exactly the reason why the PlayStations library is one of the most diverse and well-rounded in the history of gaming. If youre an open-minded player bored with the usual genre offerings and youre looking for something more than a little different, I cant think of a better way to spend twenty dollars.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway