Welcome to the fifth instalment 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.
Some genres translate more smoothly to portable systems than others. Monster breeding, for example, seems ideally suited to the Game Boy, while an atmosphere-intensive genre like survival-horror struggles when stripped of its two most powerful assets: console-powered graphics and sound. This month I size up games from both of these genres, as well as the platformer Sonic Advance 2.
Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare
Survival-horror is a difficult genre to critique on a handheld platform like the Game Boy Color. With its hardware limitations, the system struggles to produce the fearful and restless atmosphere that is so vital to the experience. Not to imply that The New Nightmare is a bad game. It's an acceptable 'point-and-click' graphical adventure that emphasizes puzzle solving and exploration, much in the tradition of Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars. The problem is, it just isn't scary.
All the ingredients of a survival-horror, bar one, are present: There's a millionaire recluse living in a foreboding mansion on an island who's suspected of going a little crazy and committing murder. The victim's friend Carnby travels to the island to get to the bottom of it all, bringing with him an inconsequential female associate who succumbs early on. There are links to strange native tribes and arcane rituals, and of course a storm that conveniently interferes with Carnby's walky-talky and cuts him off from human contact.
The mural-like backdrops and huge Carnby character animation are ambitious for the Game Boy Color but are suspiciously much darker, less colorful and less detailed than the back of the box (and the game's online screenshots) would suggest. The music isn't at all creepy, but given the sound quality of the system that would be asking a miracle. The only inadvertently scary audio experience for me was when the wall-of-sound melody would suddenly kick in after long periods of silence interspersed with beepy "atmospheric noises."
Random monster encounters take place in special self-contained areas with severely simplified backgrounds that are totally divorced from the point-and-click environments. Carnby must shoot at wolves, spiders and other blackish blobs that come at him from an isometric perspective that makes shooting accuracy a challenge. This is a problem since if Carnby runs out of bullets during one of these encounters, it's an automatic Game Over. Ouch.
The game is an example of how system limitations prove to be the downfall of such an ambitious goal.
Sonic Advance 2
Sonic is fast alright. Yet here's a game that openly discourages Sonic and his friends from fully embracing the thing that made the Sega's mascot so popular in the first place: raw, uncontrolled speed.
What's painfully, cynically ironic about the situation is that the potential is there for Sonic Advance 2 to be the best portable Sonic to date. The power is finally there in the form of the Game Boy Advance to let gamers experience the same level of excitement generated in Sonic's 16-bit golden age. The processor can handle the speed, the colorful graphics, and the coins cascading from Sonic in beautiful arcs after a hit with not an ounce of slowdown in sight. There's also an automatic battery save after each completed stage.
Yet the levels are designed with plenty of nastily placed spikes and gaping, death-inducing pits so that the player must navigate fairly cautiously and rely on memorizing patterns and the endless repetition of levels that this process entails.
The boss battles are another point of frustration. The bosses are all moving vehicles that Sonic must fight in a screen that is constantly scrolling sideways. It's a struggle even to catch up with the boss, let alone hit it; the effect is similar to running against wind being generated by a giant fan that also happens to be shooting projectiles. Each stage is two levels plus a boss battle, so after losing all lives to the boss the player is sent back to the beginning of Stage One.
Cream the Rabbit is a cute but inconsequential new addition to the Sonic line-up. Her gimmick is the ability to fly by twirling her ears around, but in this regard she is too similar to Tails, who can also fly.
Following the tradition of other Sonic games, the mini-games and final levels of Sonic Advance 2 all have to be unlocked by collecting Chaos Emeralds and rings—not only with Sonic, but with all four of the characters. It's a long, slow process to unlock everything the game has to offer. Long and slow are two words I never thought I would find myself associating with Sonic.
Monster Rancher Advance
It's fair to say that monster breeding is a genre perfectly suited to portability. After all, the first Pokémon game was released on the Game Boy first, and later spread to the Nintendo 64 and other consoles. The collection-oriented goals of monster breeding make it ideal for short bursts of solo play or quick exchanges between friends. It's therefore not at all surprising that Monster Rancher Advance (MRA) is a success.
In MRA, the ranching cycle is broken into a three-step process. A monster is first generated, then trained at the ranch and entered into tournaments where it battles other monsters for money, experience points, and other goodies.
The Monster Rancher series has a unique system of monster generation; on the PlayStation, monsters were generated using the player's CD collection. In MRA, players input combinations of letters and numbers to unlock different monsters. It's an interesting system, and one can easily spend an hour or so at the monster shrine simply experimenting with different combinations.
Old monsters can be retired as coaches, and two monsters can be bred to form a unique creature. With over 300 possible monsters to generate, the game is addicting as any Pokémon to the obsessive collector.
To the not-so-obsessive collector, the game's monotonous nature will become apparent more quickly. MRA is a purely menu-driven game with no role-playing or exploratory elements. The game includes "random occurrences" to give the illusion of an ongoing storyline, but after a few repetitions of the same occurrence it becomes clear that the plot is static.
Each month at the ranch consists of feeding the monster and training it once a week to improve its stats. Tournaments occur every two months or so, give or take, so much of the game is spent watching the monster go through the repetitive training animations. The only other diversions are taking a trip to the town to buy items, generate more monsters or visit a few other buildings.
Still, those already converted to the unique sport of monster breeding will find Monster Rancher Advance to be a fine continuation of the PlayStation series that translates very well to the Game Boy Advance.