Welcome to the third 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.
The Pinball Of The Dead
Developer: WOW Entertainment/Sega
by Brad Gallaway
I've never been a big House Of The Dead fan, but I enjoy the franchise when it's not being a straight-up shooter. There's something undeniably appealing about the camp and fun of Sega's light-gun escapade, but take away the predictable bang-bang interface and all kinds of creative possibilities present themselves. I find that when its horrific elements are juxtaposed with unexpectedly mundane choices, the result is fascinating and irresistible. Everyone knows that zombies and guns go together like peas n' carrots. But take away the guns and add something a little off the wall, and you've got the makings of a hit.
The first such experiment, Typing Of The Dead, was an instant smash with me personally, and is still a favorite to this day. Following in its footsteps, Pinball Of The Dead is every bit as enjoyably offbeat, and less physically taxing to boot. That's not to say that the game is the first of its kind, though. WOW's effort was preceded by TurboGrafx-16 classics Alien Crush (aliens and pinball) and sequel Devil's Crush (Satanic imagery and pinball), among others. Pinball of the Dead is just as good as those pioneers, and easily earns a spot right alongside them.
Played like a standard pinball game, there are at least two pairs of flippers on each of the game's three tall tables. Various point bonuses and qualifiers are scattered throughout, along with the kind of special additions only possible in a videogame. Tiny zombies shamble in circles and explode in gushes of red when struck by the ball, and special features come into play after triggering certain sequences. On one board, a fleshy gash runs up the center of the playfield. After working the ball, the wound opens and a gigantic fetid head is obscenely birthed through. Players familiar with House Of The Dead will recognize the signature stark imagery and characters taken from the source material, right down to the miniature boss battles that take place in hidden chambers around the tables.
Technically, the game looks great on the GBA's small screen with fluid animation and a painless vertical transition as the ball zooms around. The cart also sports well-rounded production with a superb tutorial that explains the scoring nuances of each board as well as a "save anytime" feature that's a godsend for players on the go. To top it all off, there's even a challenge mode (complete with an ending) that involves taking on all of the game's bosses across the triad of levels. For fans of pinball or the walking dead, the game is a must-have.
Fire Pro Wrestling 2
by Chi Kong Lui
In Japan, there isn't much difference between pro-wrestling (the fake stuff), kickboxing (boxing with kicks stuff), and mixed martial arts (the as-real-as-it-gets stuff). To the pacific native spectator, a fight is a fight. If you put two combatants in an elevator and sell tickets, you can be sure the Japanese will show up... in droves. It doesn't seem to make much difference to the fighters either, who routinely jump back and forth between 'worked' and legit matches in Japan. This phenomenon is probably best explained by the concept of Bushido, the samurai warrior spirit, and its deep indoctrination in Japanese society and culture. Regardless of why, Fire Pro Wrestling 2 for the Game Boy Advance, the latest sequel to a long running series of wrestling titles from Japan that has finally made it stateside, is evidence of this phenomenon.
Fire Pro Wrestling 2's most unique attribute is that its roster of playable fighters is a massive Hall-of-Fame-like culmination of past, present and future up-and-comers from nearly all the popular fighting federations like the WWE, WCW, UFC, PRIDE FC, K-1, and some others operating exclusively in Japan. To avoid any licensing and intellectual property wranglings, the developers have altered the names of the fighters (Kazushi Sakuraba becomes Kazuki Makurada) and made minor modifications to their appearance (Kane is now black & white instead of his trademark red & black). However fans of respective organizations will instantly recognize their idols through their physical gestures and attack moves.
It's not hard to see why Fire Pro Wrestling 2 never made a big splash on U.S. shores. The legal issues surrounding the licensing probably keep it off larger platforms and doomed the series to an obscure release on the Game Boy Advance. For publishers, this is also a difficult game to market outside of Japan. For Americans, where winning is everything, it does matter if the fighting is fake or real. Putting this roster of fighters together wouldn't make sense to American gamers. So between the legalities and American mind set it's no surprise that Bam! Entertainment promoted Fire Pro Wrestling 2 as a straight-laced rasslin' title.
Once past all the marketing pretense, players will discover that Fire Pro Wrestling 2 is not just one thing. It's a mixture of wrestling, kickboxing and mixed martial arts styles of matches and fighters compete in each type specifically or in a hybrid ones that combines rules from different styles.
The two most obvious deficiencies are the graphics and the transparent feel of the fighters during the in-ring action. Visually, Fire Pro Wrestling 2 isn't very attractive. The strangely skewed perspective combined with the simplistic and pixilated look of the fighters almost gives the impression that the art director was a 10 year old. The strangely transparent feel is attributed to how the fighters seem to have no mass. Fighters can almost pass through one another like ghosts. It's an unusual design decision that feels awkward considering these are suppose to be 200 plus pound wrestlers and it took me awhile to adjust to the controls.
The two biggest positives are its deep fighting gameplay and it surprisingly up-to-date roster. Fire Pro Wrestling 2 has a fighting engine that's been refined for years and it shows. Those who can get past initial awkward feel, will find hundreds of different painstakingly hand-animated moves and challenging gameplay that requires an almost simulation-like strategy and efficiency. At the time of its release Fire Pro Wrestling 2's roster was so fresh; it had fighters that weren't accessible on any other platform, portable or otherwise.
It's a shame that a Federation Management mode in the Japanese version, that allowed players to micro-manage an entire venue from contracting the talent to pricing the merchandising, was omitted from the U.S. release for a more run-of-the-mill Ironman Road arcade mode. In spite of removing the feature that would have possibly made the game truly special, the create-a-wrester mode was left intact and the title remains the only portable title with a unprecedented roster of fighters and mixed martial arts gameplay. Chalk it up to the publishers once again altering a game for the worst in order to pander to the cultural differences between the American and Japanese market even if it is justified in this case.
Developer: Vivid Image
by Thom Moyles
The Game Boy Advance is a unique machine in the day of modern gaming platforms. On one hand, it represents a chance for developers to create new 2D games in a gaming industry still currently infatuated with the 3D engine. On the other, it is frequently the target of ports from older gaming systems, which serves the dual purpose of archiving past titles on modern equipment and also dulling the development of new games with too many developers concentrating on bringing over old work.
Dual Blades is one of the few games that use the GBA as a fresh start, although it does offer up something that should be familiar to most gamers, a 2D fighting game. Clearly inspired by games like Samurai Showdown, Dual Blades is based on weapon based combat featuring a number of various combos and plenty of juggling. With so many older fighters existing on previous consoles, it's a somewhat pleasant surprise to see a developer willing to give a new entry a try.
However, Dual Blades is a doomed effort from the word go. The characters are not only woefully generic, but poorly drawn and animated. Rather than offering up something different or exciting with the fresh slate they've granted themselves, Vivid Image instead chooses to give us stale leftovers. The overall aesthetics are far below the standard for the GBA, with many moments managing to be completely laughable, including one death animation that's shocking, but only in terms of how awful it is. On a slightly better note, the fighting engine is adequate, although nothing spectacular. But the actual fighting is still no good because the AI is dead on arrival - as in dead easy. Any rudimentary knowledge of the combo system makes the game far too easy, effectively removing any challenge that the game might have offered.
There's no way to recommend that anybody pick up Dual Blades, as there are plenty of other fighters on the GBA that are of far higher quality. The time, or lack thereof, spent on Dual Blades is painfully obvious in almost every aspect of the game. The GBA will continue to struggle to overcome the idea that it's little more than a wayback machine for older ports if the original content produced for it continues to be this poor.