When examining the reasons why one console succeeds while another one fails, a defining factor is diversity in a console's library. Of course, it's a sound strategy for anyone to have a good number of "A" list titles, but there's something to be said for a healthy selection of "B" or even "C" listers to keep players busy between blockbusters. These smaller titles usually don't have the polish and spectacle that comes with a big budget, but a lot of them contain fresh ideas and personality that make them worthwhile.
Nintendo's conservative corporate strategy with regard to licensing games is notorious, but they seem to have re-learned the lesson of "diversity" after the less-than-stellar performance of the Nintendo 64. Its thin selection outside the cash-cow franchises was criminal, and they must be acutely aware of it. For proof, look no further than Saru Brunei's Cubivore. The game is nothing if not strange and original in every respect. It also falls squarely into the definition of a third-tier title with its strangely imbalanced design. From its Lego-inspired visual style to its deceptive elegance, there's a certain undeniable charm—yet the actual play is disappointingly shallow, not to mention having one of the worst camera setups I've seen in quite a while. Still, the very fact that the game was released is a step in the right direction for Nintendo in my opinion.
Basically, Cubivore boils down to being a third-person action game with a Pokémon-style collecting twist. You start the first level as a newborn cub-thing, with the ultimate goal of becoming strong enough to claim your rightful place at the top of the food chain. It seems impossible at first because the larval stage of the Cubivore is a weak-looking beast composed of only a head and a multi-purpose flap. A less imposing beast is hard to imagine. Appearances aside, the flap serves as locomotion and its placement in relation to the head changes its function. On the bottom, it's a foot. At the rear of the skull, it's a flipper or tail. On the side, it's analogous to being an arm, and so forth. Eating "boss"- caliber animals increases the number of limbs your body can grow, and with more appendages comes better stats and more power. Once you have six flaps attached to your skull, you'll be the toughest geometric shape in the jungle.
Adding flaps isn't the only element to the game, since "collecting" mutations are also key. A mutation is when the flaps on your body are rearranged in different configurations to give different attributes, categorized by color. For example, eat enough red prey and you'll become a "Redaped"—slow, but with good vertical jumping skills. Eating blue organisms will change you into a "Bluocyte." You'll walk diagonally backwards (it's as cumbersome as it sounds), but can perform sniper-like long-jump attacks. There are five basic colors, four intensities of hue (and power) to each color, and two super-predator hybrid categories, "Rage" and "Clash." To advance to the final boss encounter, you must mutate your creature at least 100 times, out of a possible 150.
While Cubivore manages to get off to a good start with its intriguing approach and straightforward controls, things go south only a few minutes into playtime. The first thing anybody will notice is that the game's camera is set preposterously close to your beast and far too low to the ground to be effective. Because of this useless perspective, it's often impossible to see predators or prey that are (literally) right next to you. Stalking game or even simply walking around requires constant re-orientation of the camera, and at no point would I say that it gave me anything remotely approaching a decent view. With a tendency towards unnecessary deaths and a lot of technical frustration, this inconceivably bad camera setup is undoubtedly the worst part of the game.
It's really a shame that the catastrophic camera hinders things so much because once you get past it (i.e., learn to ignore it and compensate) the intricacies of the game start to show themselves. By learning the advantages and handicaps of the different colors, there really is a good variety between the creatures' body styles and their effects on play. Because it's required to assume at least 100 different forms before finishing the game, the levels eventually take on a puzzle-like element as you search for the right combination of creatures to eat.
It also pays off to transform strategically. Beause of the movement quirks of certain colors and inherent weaknesses in others, you'll want to be very careful of which form you adopt and when. For example, changing into a Dark Greyodon would be recommended for major battles due to its superior strength and easy-to-control lupine shape. If you make the mistake of turning into a Pale Yellobrate before facing off with a boss, you might as well roll over and let him rip out your throat.
However, after learning the ins and outs of the tranformation system, you've basically seen everything the game has to offer. It took me four hours to go through the game's three worlds and collect roughly 60 mutations. It took me another four hours to collect the last 40 needed to finish the game proper, but this was done by replaying the same levels I had already completed. It's highly improbable that players will accumulate 100 mutations their first time through, and the developers seem to have anticipated this. There are new varieties of prey the second time around, but it doesn't change the fact that you're covering old ground. Quite honestly, Collecting 100 mutations is not nearly as much fun as Saru Brunei apparently thinks it is, and different tasks or a greater variety in the game's play design would have alleviated the repetition.
To take an honest look at the time I spent with Cubivore, I can say that my taste in games is eccentric enough to enjoy its weirdness in a cerebral way, but I'm not deluded enough to actually think that it can stand up as a good, solid game. Still, I'm very glad to see the GameCube offering riskier titles, and a broader range of games never hurt any console. Cubivore's wacky charm, hyper-stylized art and skewed evolutionary theory might outweigh the oversimplified formula and rough edges for gamers who cherish the fringe, but in the intense competition of this year's holiday season, Cubivore is most likely going to find itself a victim of natural selection.
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
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