What makes a "kiddie game," exactly? Cute characters in colorful environments? Bloodless violence? RPG heroes who are always coming of age, yet never seem to get there? Gore and hookers don't make a game good, and neither does their absence. A videogame's longevity isn't due to its paint job—it's what's under the hood that counts. Though Konami's Elebits looks like a Huffy bike, don't be fooled; a Harley-Davidson's motor purrs underneath.
Elebits is a first-person shooter (yes, really) where gamers play hide-and-seek against the clock with adorable creatures called Elebits. These creatures are full of watts; beaming them into one's Capture Gun turns on lights and powers up just about anything: lamps, pay phones, giant flying robots. Switching on these appliances releases special "power Elebits" that charge up the Capture Gun, allowing players to lift heavier objects and, thus, find more Elebits. It's a logical, addictive cycle, reminiscent of the Prince of the Cosmos's quest to find bigger and bigger katamaris. There's some of Pokémon's "gotta catch 'em all" fervor thrown in, with a dash of Pikmin aesthetic for taste. And somehow, the game manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
Certainly, some of the innovation in Elebits is thanks to the Wii's control system. One reason I don't play first-person shooters (FPSs) is because trying to aim my weapon with analog sticks and trigger buttons is such a pain. Any gun I wield—no matter how B or F it is—feels like a remote controlled machine I'm using from somewhere else. But when I point my Wiimote at cute little animals and shoot them, it actually feels like I'm firing a gun. As Dan notes in his review of Red Steel, Nintendo's controller changes the way console FPSs are played. That's a major feat in itself.
But a game of hide-and-seek is only as fun as where it's played. Had the developers just dropped us into a maze of sterile hallways Master Chief-style, Elebits would be as flat as three-day-old soda. Instead, the young protagonist hunts Elebits in a very familiar world: the one he lives in. He and his Capture Gun travel from his bedrooom to the hall closets, from lamplit streets to the local amusement park. All around him are objects he sees all the time—toilets, toy trains, vending machines—but he has to look at them with new eyes. Can he shake Elebits out of that toy bin? Force some out of the faucet by turning it on? Pull on the fancy chandelier and yank some from the ceiling? Our hero's corner of suburbia has all the secrets of one of David Lynch's small towns, but none of the creepiness. It's the perfect playground.
Still, there are rules. In some levels, I wasn't allowed to break more than a small amount of items; in others, I couldn't make too much noise. (The player's decibel level is shown on screen, with a bar that rises and falls). The Elebits can break things and make noise, too: before letting them stream like machine-gun pellets from their hiding places, I had to move vases and other breakables out of the way.
Also, players have only so much time to collect enough watts in a level before the clock runs out. This stipulation may sound daunting, but if we know a little about Elebit behavior we can harvest more energy with less effort. Elebits give different amounts of watts at different times, depending on their mood. They give the least when they are frightened, but when they're sleeping or singing, they give the most. Good strategy involves manipulating the Elebits' moods to get the most watts out of them: sneaking up on those that are sleeping, and shocking panic out of others with a ball of electricty, like a pulsing anti-hysteria slap to the face.
Having so many factors to consider (including spiky Elebits that hurt whomever tries to capture them and the occasional shooting cannon) makes for a surprisingly deep adventure. After completing missions, I'm graded on my performance. That makes it fun to go back and try to beat my old scores. (It also makes me wish that Nintendo had ganked Microsoft's GamerScore concept. The variety of stuff to do and unlock in Elebits would fit very well into a system like that). I can also design my own levels in Edit mode, and send them to friends through Nintendo's wifi network.
Is Elebits the best game ever made? Of course not. The story—a little boy named Kai feels that his Elebit-scientist parents love their research subjects more than him—feels tacked on and uninspired. At least it has the good sense to stay out of the way. The game's hit-detection is a bigger problem. It's accurate for the most part, but if I shoot around corners or between buildings, I don't hit Elebits I think I should be able to. There's also a hint of lag in the largest levels, possibly an artifact of the Wii's GameCube-and-a-half style graphics ability.
Even with these minor hiccups, I liked Elebits a lot. The game is a showcase of everything Nintendo hopes for its new console: the novel simplicity of the Wiimote, deceptively simple gameplay that's easy for non-gamers to learn yet a challenge for gaming veterans to master. While I can't say that shooting cute little animals will revolutionize gaming as we know it, Nintendo has definitely made the first-person shooter to someone as clumsy as me. Here's hoping that Elebits is a sign of things to come.