Welcome to the fourth installment of The Portable Project, a feature devoted to handheld gaming that gives critics a chance to comment on titles that aren't quite in-depth enough to merit a full-length review at the site. This month, Brad and Erin examine three titles in the Game Boy Advance's large library of re-issues, ports and scaled down versions of full-length console titles.
The matter of re-releasing old games onto a new system can be a sticky one. On one hand, porting old Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Genesis games to the Game Boy is a convenient means of reintroducing beloved classics like Super Mario World and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past to a younger generation of gamers—much in the way that older popular PC games are often re-released in compilation packages that have been updated to work properly with the technology of new computers. On the other hand, gamers who grew up playing the console versions resent the idea of being charged full-price to get a portable version of a game that they already have; especially since many games arrive on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) with only minor upgrades and are therefore painfully past their prime from the get-go.
The ability to link the GBA to the GameCube adds another dimension to the discussion, as it has lead to many popular GameCube titles being accompanied by a scaled down version on the GBA. One such example is ZooCube, which is one of the reviews discussed this month.
Altered Beast: Guardian Of The Realms
Developer: 3d6 Games
by Brad Gallaway
To start this review off on a perfectly honest note, I have to admit that I rarely play portable games. Maybe I'm stuck in the past, but it seems like every time I pick one up, it's too simple, too repetitive or too derivative. Sometimes they just plain suck. I'm sure there must be at least a few handheld titles out there that are worth the time and money, but Altered Beast: Guardian Of The Realms sure isn't one of them. An update to the arcade game from way back in 1988 (with a Genesis version packed-in afterwards), the new game's formula is almost totally identical to its dusty counterpart's. Nearly all progress in game design over the last fifteen years has been ignored, and it shows.
The game is a side-scrolling beat-'em-up, with the hook being the ability to transform your character into different sorts of monsters. Playing it is nothing more than walking, swimming or flying from left to right, and taking out everything that moves along the way. By defeating special enemies, you earn powerups that increase your attack power and eventually mutate you into one of ten different zoological specimens. Morphing into a wolf, shark or dragon is all well and good, but when you're mindlessly bashing wave after wave of enemies, the charm of being a were-anything doesn't last long. For me, I'd say that the novelty wore off somewhere around the middle of level two.
What makes it even worse is that Guardian Of The Realms' levels are far longer than they need to be, so even playing the game for the novelty of the transformations isn't an option. Tedium and boredom are the only things this little cart has to offer, and neither of those are high on my list of favorite things. I think the franchise has some potential if revamped for one of the current home consoles, but if Guardian Of The Realms wasn't running on the GBA, I'd swear it was some kind of fossilized relic.
Developer: Puzzlekings/Graphic State
by Erin Bell
This game offers what amounts to a gutted version of the GameCube's ZooCube for portable play. In other words, those who have played the GameCube version will know exactly what to expect. Or will they?
ZooCube actually has a lot to offer in the originality department, so that it can safely elude the "Tetris Clone" tag that any puzzle game of the stacked-block variety risks acquiring. The goal is still to collect shapes as they float towards a 3D block from various angles. The block can be rotated along X and Y axes in order to catch the shapes in identical pairs, which causes those shapes to disappear. Like Tetris, the object is to clear shapes off the screen before too many build up in a single row, which will cause the cube to shut down.
The result of transferring this block and its unwieldy rows to a small GBA screen is claustrophobic. Things can quickly get out of control, accompanied by the sense that the player is not altogether to blame for the mishaps. The most common error I encountered was misidentifying the shapes. Under pressure of shapes coming at the block from multiple sides, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between the bluish-green hexagon and the greenish-blue hexagon, and to position them accordingly.
I must admit that this last problem is what baffled me the most about the portable version of ZooCube. There are actually no animals in the game. Instead of striped, spotted and fanged animal shapes like in the GameCube version, there are just various nondescript geometric lumps. It pretty much defeats the purpose of calling the game ZooCube at all. An effort is made to justify the absence of animals in the instruction booklet by telling us that the shapes actually have animals inside them. Sorry, that just doesn't cut it.
ZooCube does have a battery-save feature, which is of course welcome in any portable title. It's simply a shame that in the console-to-handheld conversion, ZooCube was deprived of one of the main justifications for its very existence.
Super Ghouls N' Ghosts
by Erin Bell
The 2002 remake of Capcom's 1991 fantasy side-scroller Super Ghouls N' Ghosts is an example of a port "done right." In its day on the Super Nintendo, Super Ghouls N' Ghosts boasted a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack and some of the best graphics that the system had to offer. It was also infamous for its insane difficulty level. Not only did the player have to navigate eight difficult stages on pain of two-hit death, but there was no save feature. It was one of those games where we were content to bask in the beauty of the first few levels over and over again without being too hopeful of ever actually finishing the game.
In the ported version, there is now light at the end of that long, dark tunnel. The old-school difficulty has not been compromised, and the hero Arthur still dies after two hits: the first hit shatters his armor so that the poor lad is running around in his little white boxer shorts, and the second hit results in his convincing demise through instant reduction into a pile of bones. There is now, however, a save feature that makes it all a heck of a lot more bearable. It allows Arthur to begin at the starting point of whichever level he had been in the middle of, and most importantly to keep his armor, weapon and score intact. The ability to save is a welcome feature for any portable game, and if this sounds like a needlessly obvious thing to say, consider the fact that the GBA port of Earthworm Jim wasn't given a save feature.
Other than that, the game faithfully recreates every aspect of Super Ghouls N' Ghosts in miniature. The graphics and sound are virtually identical to the Super Nintendo version, and come across as being of even better quality than a lot of the completely new GBA titles. As a bonus to the portable version, never-before-seen extra levels have been included that are unlocked by playing a special "Arrange Mode."
Super Ghouls N' Ghosts is therefore a game that both those who have already played it on the Super Nintendo as well as newbies to the series will get something out of. For older gamers, the save feature means that they may finally get to experience those later levels that they never had the skill or stamina to reach back in the day; combined with new levels so that they don't feel like they are paying full price for something they already own.
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