After Nintendo unveiled the specs for the Game Boy Color's successor, the Game Boy Advance, countless developers and publishers announced interest in releasing software for the new, more powerful handheld, mostly in the form of ports. As fate would have it, one of those publishers would be none other than Sega, Nintendo's most bitter rival. Now free from the burden of hardware manufacturing and in need of cash, Sega has been on a tear announcing any viable piece of software it owns for release on every conceivable gaming platform. It's for this reason that some may decry the release of Chu Chu Rocket! on the Game Boy Advance as nothing but an opportunistic business move by a publisher/developer trying to make a quick buck. But an objective analysis reveals this move to be one of the most beneficial towards gamers that Sega has made in a long time.
For the uninitiated, the premise is simple: herd as many space mice (Chu Chus) as you can into rockets so they can get away from the space cats (KapuKapus). It very much plays out like a quirky variation on the Lemmings theme. Staying with the Lemmings comparison, it's important to know that neither the mice nor cats are very smart. They travel in straight lines until they hit a wall at which point they can only turn to the right. Through careful placement of arrows, you have to direct the mice to their rocket(s) and the cats away from them. It sounds simple enough, but after a few minutes of playing, it's clear that the game has a lot more to offer.
Where Chu Chu Rocket! is successful is in its near flawless translation of all the things that made the original such an approachable and eventually addictive playing experience. The entire look and feel of the original has been faithfully reproduced. Granted, the game was never what you would call graphically intense by any stretch of the imagination, but it counts that the simple 2D bitmap (colored in shades of pastels) look just as beautiful on the 2.5-inch LCD screen. It gives off a child-like sense of playfulness that permeates the entire game and flourishes in this new environment. The tiny squeals of the mice, scratchy yelps of the cats, and the playful, merry-go-round tunes are perfectly suited for the Game Boy Advance's low-tech speaker. These elements are key to the enjoyment of Chu Chu Rocket! so Sonic Team's maintaining them in the translating starts the game off on excellent footing.
What truly separate the Game Boy Advance version from its Dreamcast cousin are the extensive features packed into the game pak. For solo players, there is the "Stage Challenge" and "Puzzle" mode. Each mode requires that you get the mice to the rockets (or lead the cats to all of the mice), only that the "Stage Challenge" is timed and the "Puzzle" mode is not. The "Puzzle" mode boasts newly created Game Boy Advance stages as well as those taken right out of the Dreamcast version. If that weren't enough Sega took advantage of the fanaticism of Chu Chu Rocket! fans and copped the best of the 17,000 customized stages and puzzles that were submitted. The result is 2,500 stages available to play through—you can't call yourself a fan and not be thrilled at such a prospect.
Sonic Team took things to a whole other level by allowing for some unprecedented customization on a handheld. In the create-a-stage mode, intrepid (or simply bored) gamers can create a puzzle themselves and try to one-up the developers at Sonic Team and other Chu Chu Rocket! users. Create-a-character offers an interesting twist. Here you can actually design the characters that appear in the game. Using a rather rudimentary, but effective editing program, you can create little icons to supplant either the mice, cats, or both. It's clearly a feature with appeal to the hardcore, but it's great to have the option nonetheless. Unfortunately, since support for the Game Boy Advance cell phone adapter is not included, gamers will have to forego online gaming and settle for trading customized stages and characters with other gamers in the immediate vicinity via link cables.
The most important feature in the game might be its multiplayer mode. Up to four players can compete at once with the objective being to guide as many mice to your own personal rocket ship and away from your opponent's while doing the opposite with the hungry cats on screen. It comes in two flavors, "Team Battle" which pits teams of two against one another and the winner-take-all tournament called "Four-Player Battle." Both modes are intense by themselves, but Sonic Team adds some interesting things to the mix. In addition to the normal eight, five new "Events" are available. Most notable are "Blindfold the Winner," which causes the mice to become invisible on the winning player's screen and "Nighttime," which limits each player's view to the area directly around his or her rocket. These additions and Chu Chu Rocket!'s mainstays only accentuate the unrelenting pace that these game sessions can reach as you try to place arrows while simultaneously strategizing on how to better help yourself and still hurt your opponent.
With all of this praise I'm heaping on Chu Chu Rocket!, you'd think it would earn a higher rating. Well, for one thing, the controls are not as concise as they were on the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast version used a simple control scheme where the four face buttons were mapped to the four arrow destinations. This was an incredibly easy scheme to grasp and it's one that I appreciate even more now that it isn't available. Sonic Team does offer some compromises but they are far from perfect. The L and R shoulder buttons can be assigned the Left and Right arrows, but during a frantic session, it is too easy to get confused with such an unintuitive setup. Another option requires that you use alternate double-tapping on the A and B buttons but it is totally impractical and not worth mentioning further. The last option was the best choice in the lot, though still not the best suited for this game. It called for holding down the A button and then using the D-pad for direction. This game was designed to take advantage of your reflexes and when the control modes slow you down, the game can't help but suffer as a result.
My last gripe may not really be something that Sonic Team could have avoided, but it is worth mentioning anyway. It's wonderful that so many users were able to contribute their unique, often clever—but mostly frustrating—puzzles for all to enjoy, but after a while it can get to be too much. Soon the puzzles begin to blur into each other, leaving only the most diehard Chu Chu Rocket! fans with the motivation to try and complete even one-tenth of the puzzles available. I am a Chu Chu Rocket! fan and was looking forward to trying out some of these 2,500 new puzzles, but succumbed to Chu Chu Rocket! fatigue very early on.
Chu Chu Rocket! was part of Sega's desperate last-ditch effort to reverse the fortunes of the then ailing Sega Dreamcast. As a result, we saw software that ran the gamut from unique (Jet Grind Radio) to the very bizarre (Seaman), but luckily in the midst of these releases we got a gem like Chu Chu Rocket!. Chu Chu Rocket! is so ingenious, yet simple in its execution that it would have succeeded on almost any platform. In spite of a few flaws, it is damn near a match made in heaven.