Nintendo DS Reviews A-E

Aliens Infestation
Grade: D
Publisher: Sega (2010)
Reviewed: 2014/5/27
Rating: Teen (violence, blood, partial nudity, mild language)


screenshotI just want to know one thing: when exactly did Sega forget how to make a decent 2D game? Aliens Infestation boasts sharp graphics, a harrowing musical score, and perhaps the best movie license around. It's hard to screw up a game like this! The action gets off to a slow start as you explore derelict spacecraft by collecting key cards, riding elevates, and crawling through ventilation shafts. The ship layouts are a confusing labyrinth of repetitive hallways, elevators, and "you can't go here" dead-ends. You command a crew of four soldiers, one at a time. Periodically you'll encounter stranded crew members standing around like they're on their coffee break or something. Why in the [expletive] am I scrolling through all of this text? There's more dialogue here than an RPG for crying out loud! Early on you'll deal with regenerating robots which are a real pain in the ass. Eventually you encounter aliens, but they are so common that disposing of them quickly becomes routine. Infestation is at its best when you're splattering rows of eggs or facing off against one of the grotesque bosses. Getting stuck in a small area with a hyperactive face-grabber is not much fun, especially since you can't hurt them when they overlap with you. Whoever designed this game didn't think things through. Who would think to toss a grenade at the ceiling to blast open a ventilation cover?! Sometimes you come across what seems to be an important glowing object that you can't interact with or even identify. The lower screen selects weapons and accesses the map screen, but trying to figure out how to close the map is a puzzle in and of itself! Aliens Infestation is seriously lacking in the fun department and feels like a by-the-numbers effort. If only the developers had sat down and played Alien 3 (Genesis, 1993), they would have known what a good Aliens game is like. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Arkanoid DS
Grade: C-
Publisher: Taito (2008)
Reviewed: 2008/9/18
Rating: Everyone

screenshotI've always appreciated how Arkanoid took that classic Breakout formula and injected some much-needed variety and unpredictability. The basic premise is to clear out colored bricks by deflecting a bouncing ball, but each stage offers a new wall configuration. Some bricks are unbreakable, others release items, and some even float around. Power-ups cause your "paddle" to stretch (or shrink), unleash multi-balls (yes!), or become equipped with a laser cannon! Using the stylus lets you move your paddle with pinpoint accuracy. Unfortunately, that space between the screens creates a fairly large blind spot that's especially problematic when juggling multiple balls. But the real problem with Arkanoid DS is its lack of difficulty. The main mode provides minimal challenge, and with 35 rounds, you'll be absolutely sick of it after a half hour or so. A force field below your paddles allows you three misses per round, and that's entirely too generous. You can also try your hand at a mildly amusing "quest mode", which offers more specific challenges like clearing a stage within a certain time limit. My favorite mode was the versus mode where you race a friend (or the CPU) to clear a wall. Your opponent's progress is displayed in a small window on the side of the screen, and it's fun trying to stay ahead. Arkanoid isn't much to look at, but its techno/dance music isn't bad, and some songs even have vocals! Arkanoid isn't a bad fit for the DS, but this version feels too watered down. © Copyright 2008 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 4 players 

Asphalt Urban GT
Grade: D-
Publisher: Ubisoft (2004)
Reviewed: 2005/11/19
Rating: Everyone

screenshotI think it's safe to say that Asphalt Urban GT isn't going to get much playing time on my DS. It's a very generic racer that's not particularly well suited to the system. The touch screen isn't used at all, and the overhead map on the lower screen is pretty useless. GT's graphics are about Playstation One quality, so they're not likely to impress. It's difficult to see upcoming turns, but this is remedied by arrows displayed on the top of the screen. The scenic locations, including New York, Miami, Paris, and Cuba, make superb use of color, but the scenery suffers from a serious case of pop-up. There's a Gran Turismo-inspired "Evolution Mode" for people with too much time on their hands, and an arcade mode for more casual gamers. The racing itself comes off pretty flat. The camera angle changes to capture jumps and crashes, but even these are boring to watch. I didn't really enjoy playing this, and it actually made me feel nauseous during extended play. I can't seriously fault Asphalt Urban GT in any way, but there's nothing here to get excited about. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 4 players 

Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1
Grade: B
Publisher: Atari Interactive (2010)
Reviewed: 2011/6/7
Rating: Everyone

screenshotClassic gaming experts will always find fault with compilations like this, but there's no denying that Atari Greatest Hits is jam-packed with classic goodness. You get 50 games including 9 arcade ports and 41 Atari 2600 titles. The low resolution graphics look pretty sweet on the DS, although some of the vector graphics can be hard to make out. The arcade lineup includes strong titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, Tempest, and the underrated Space Duel. Most were controlled by a trak-ball in the arcade, and while the directional pad is a poor substitute, the stylus is a really, really good substitute! Tempest and Centipede work particularly well because you can use the shoulder buttons to fire. I love how you can configure Missile Command to fire using the directional pad, leaving your right hand to "spin the ball" with the stylus. The Atari 2600 game selection is less impressive. For every gem like Haunted House, Dodge 'Em, and Adventure, there are duds like Slot Machine, Hangman, and Math Grand Prix. I have no idea why they included all three Swordquest games considering they can't be properly played without the comic books they were originally packaged with. The emulation is first-rate and the 2600 games especially look extremely sharp without the RF interference of the original system. I like how the bottom screen lets you adjust all the switches from the original console, but mapping the fire button to the reset switch was ill-advised, as you often start a new game without even realizing your last one was over! A previously unreleased "military training" version of Battlezone is included, but it's boring and practically unplayable. Other bonus materials include scanned instruction manuals (nice) and an Atari trivia game that's surprisingly addictive. High scores are saved for the arcade games, but not for the 2600 titles, which is pretty lame. Still, Atari Greatest Hits is a great value, if only for the fact that you can now play Adventure in the doctor's waiting room. Finally! © Copyright 2011 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 

Atari Greatest Hits Volume 2
Grade: B
Publisher: Atari Interactive (2010)
Reviewed: 2011/7/4
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThis second volume of Atari hits features another 50 games - including 9 arcade titles. The arcade games are most notable because they contain several rarities that I had never even heard of! Liberator plays like the next generation version of Missile Command. You view the action from space as missiles are launched over the earth's horizon. It's very challenging because the missiles change their trajectories in flight. While not as playable as Missile Command, I found it fascinating nonetheless. Major Havoc is a colorful vector-graphics title that alternates between rapid-fire space shooting and platform jumping. The physics is really weird in the platform stages - I couldn't figure it out. Red Baron is a primitive dog-fighting game with monochrome vector graphics, and it's pretty hard to stomach. Also included is an arcade version of Super Breakout that I didn't even know existed. Asteroids Deluxe and Black Widow are two obscure but worthwhile vector-graphic shooters. Crystal Castles is a great-looking platformer but I found its sound effects to be a little off. Also, you really can't read the high score initials because they're too small. Few gamers have played the actual arcade version of Warlords, but it's terrific. Millipede is another winner, presented on a vertical screen and controlled with precision via the stylus. These arcade hits are enough to justify the collection, but the developers dropped the ball with regards to the Atari 2600 stuff. Paddle-controlled games like Circus Atari and Night Driver feature poor, non-configurable controls. Using the stylus to move is fine, but you're forced to use A as the fire button which is supremely awkward for righties. The big name titles include Yars Revenge, Video Pinball, Super Breakout, Maze Craze, and Star Raiders. I always enjoyed the blocky simplicity of Golf, but what happened to the sound effects? Unreleased titles like Combat 2 and Return to Haunted House are nice additions, but they could really use some instructions. High scores are saved for the arcade games, but not the 2600 titles. The bonus materials consist of a series of video interviews with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. It's cool to watch real video on the DS, and the interviews are fascinating. Purists will have their issues with Atari Greatest Hits Volume 2, but if you enjoy dabbling with the classics this will scratch your itch. © Copyright 2011 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 

Big Bang Mini
Grade: B
Publisher: Southpeak (2008)
Reviewed: 2010/8/12
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThis stylish, unconventional shooter is a hidden gem in the DS library. I've never played anything quite like this before, and I suspect I'll never play anything quite like it again. The idea is to launch fireworks toward the top screen by flicking the stylus on the lower screen. In addition to aiming for targets up top you must also protect your "ship" on the lower screen by moving it out of the path of raining missiles. Typically you'll find yourself alternating between unleashing a series of shots and moving your ship slightly to avoid the onslaught. Your targets are nonsensical shapes, and some are pretty outrageous. You'll see snowmen dressed as pirates, monkeys riding fans, and rabbits flying magic carpets while wearing 3D glasses. Whoever designed this game either had a very active imagination or a severe drug problem (get help, man!). Each set of stages has a distinctive theme, beginning with a colorful Hong Kong city skyline. Other themes include snowy meadows, rocky deserts, and haunted countrysides. Not only does each offer a distinctive visual and audio style, but each introduces a new element like homing missiles or the ability to create a vortex. Big Bang Mini's gameplay is unique but somewhat flawed. First off, you can't aim with any degree of precision, and most of the time you'll rely on your peripheral vision to see the top screen. The stylus frequently obstructs your view, especially in advanced waves when enemies begin to enter from the bottom. Big Bang Mini is still a blast though, thanks to its fast action and quirky style. I love how you can fire as fast as you can flick the stylus, and the collision detection is forgiving. The game looks extremely polished and the music is catchy as hell. Big Bang Mini is an odd title that doesn't easily fall into the "shooter" category, but it certainly falls into the fun category. © Copyright 2010 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Bolt
Grade: D
Publisher: Disney (2008)
Reviewed: 2009/1/7
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThe DS can produce lovely 2D graphics, but as this game illustrates, it's far less capable in the 3D realm. Bolt is a run-of-the-mill platformer that doesn't excel in any way. Bolt is a tiny dog with incredible strength, but you'll also play as Bolt's owner, a little girl named Penny. On a mission to save Penny's father, the duo scale tall buildings and explore jungle ruins while fighting generic ninjas. The blocky scenery is nothing to look at, and the constrained camera angles make it hard to determine the layout of each stage. The control scheme is clunky as well. Most DS games use either the stylus or buttons, but Bolt uses both at once, and that's ill-advised. How are you supposed to use the stylus (or blow into the mic) while you're mashing buttons? The fighting controls don't feel natural at all, as you'll exert too much energy trying to "line up" with an enemy for an attack. It's so hard to aim diagonally that you'll wish the DS had an analog stick. One original element of the game is Penny's "wheel bar", which allows her to zip up the side of buildings or across ledges with ease. The computer-hacking mini-games are better than you'd expect, offering a connect-the-dots style of gameplay that's simple and fun. Your progress is saved automatically between stages. Bolt isn't terrible, but lacks the charm and clever design of most Disney titles. The hamster on the title screen is hilarious, but otherwise this is one game you'll forget about the moment you shut it off. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Brain Age
Grade: B+
Publisher: Nintendo (2006)
Reviewed: 2006/9/21
Rating: Everyone

screenshotWhen you consider that my wife could generally give a [expletive] about video games, you have to give Brain Age a lot of credit for holding her interest over the span of several weeks. Unlike any other game ever created, Brain Age manages to be educational, fun, and competitive at the same time. Designed to be "played" on a daily basis, Brain Age supplies a series of short mental exercises and carefully tracks your performance. These "games" include rapid-fire arithmetic problems, speed-reading, and memory puzzles. Under most circumstances, completing these would be an unpleasant chore, but Brain Age makes superb use of the DS hardware. You hold the system like you would a book as you play, which feels remarkably comfortable. Voice and handwriting recognition are effectively used to provide an intuitive, responsive user interface. But what really makes the game addictive is how it maintains high "scores" and compares your performance to other players. And Brain Age is loaded with surprises. One day it asked me to write down what I had for dinner, and a few weeks later it asked me remember what I had on that particular night (I guessed right - chicken!!). In addition to "Daily Training" exercises, Brain Age also offers a well-executed Sudoku mode. If you've ever tried these "numeric crossword puzzles", you know how madly addicting they can be. Brain Age has a few quirks, but no showstoppers. The talking head "Doctor" is a bit verbose at first, but gradually becomes less disruptive. The voice and handwriting recognition aren't perfect, but in general they're surprisingly good. I'm not sure if Brain Age can improve your mental abilities, but it certainly can't hurt, and you'll have fun in the process. © Copyright 2006 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Break 'Em All
Grade: C
Publisher: D3Publisher (2006)
Reviewed: 2006/9/21
Rating: Everyone

screenshotSince the dawn of mankind, 1977, man has aspired to fling balls at walls, inflicting massive damage and loving every minute of it. Taking its cue from Breakout and Arkanoid, Break 'Em All is pure wall-smashing satisfaction. Adding its own twists to the ancient formula, the game features different types of bricks, random wall configurations, and a Gradius-style power-up system. Before each game you'll select from a list of possible power-ups, including extra-wide paddles, multi-balls, a "bomb" that blasts groups of bricks, and a "laser" that rips through an entire wall. Better power-ups gradually become available as you progress, and combining them is an effective strategy. You actually have some degree of control over the ball caroms, and the ball speed gradually increases to prevent boredom from setting in. Break 'Em All held my attention for a while, but maybe the game should have be titled "Break A Few", or "Break One or Two Later On If It's Not Too Much Trouble". Once you become proficient, the games tend to be drawn-out and repetitive. Even the random walls all tend to look the same. The Quest mode is worth checking out because it offers occasional "bosses" to defeat, but the ill-advised Survival mode (Breakout meets Asteroids) is worthless. Break 'Em All's ultra-modern visuals are plain but clean, and the electronic background music reminds me of an old Genesis PGA Tour game. It's pleasant enough at first but does get tiresome after it loops a few hundred times. Break 'Em All will never monopolize your DS, but if you're looking for a simple change of pace, you could do a lot worse. © Copyright 2006 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 8 players 

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Grade: A
Publisher: Konami (2005)
Reviewed: 2005/11/20
Rating: Teen (Blood and gore, fantasy violence)

screenshotYou really can't go wrong with a 2D Castlevania game, and Dawn of Sorrow is nicely suited to the DS. Instead of having to constantly switch to the map screen (as you do in every other Castlevania game), it's conveniently displayed on the upper screen at all times. Dawn of Sorrow even makes use of the touch tablet, letting you crack ice with the stylus, or draw patterns to open "magic seals". Yeah, it's a gimmick, but at least it's something. Other than that, the gameplay is pure Castlevania. Playing the role of a vampire hunter, you collect items, activate abilities, and upgrade attributes while plowing through legions of undead minions and gigantic bosses. The snowy village scenery looks absolutely stunning, although the modern cars seem a bit out of place. The graphics are slightly upgraded from the Gameboy Advance, but I had to hold them up next to each other to see a difference. There are a few eye-catching effects, including slashed zombies that cleanly split in half, and mirrors that reflect the walls you're looking through. Also included is a two-player mode that involves racing through custom-made castle rooms. Dawn of Sorrow is as enjoyable as any Castlevania game I've ever played, and it will probably clock more time on my DS than any other title. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Grade: D+
Publisher: Konami (2008)
Reviewed: 2010/11/23
Rating: Teen (blood, fantasy violence)

screenshotAlthough visually enticing, this is one of the more unsatisfying chapters in the endless Castlevania saga. This time around you get to play as a hot babe trying to track down some no-good bastard (I may be simplifying the plot a bit, but probably not). You'll explore picturesque locations including an ornate monastery and a quaint township with flowing fountains and beautiful architecture. When you enter one of the houses, the degree of detail is astounding. I don't know who took the time to incorporate so much exquisite detail in each room, but bravo for that guy! Less interesting locations include a prison, forest, and boatyard. The boat stage uses angular polygons to simulate waves, and that just looks awful! The prison is another low-light as you struggle to avoid pesky spotlights to prevent all hell from breaking loose. Ecclesia's gameplay failed to endear itself to me. Guess who your first enemy is? It's none other than that sorry-ass, bone-tossing skeleton who appears in pretty much every Castlevania game! Has Konami even changed that sprite since 1988? C'mon man! Other adversaries include pot-bellied zombies, screaming banshees, and giant floating heads. Some of the more annoying foes include flying horse heads that keep respawning, and floating tentacle monsters that lift you by the head. There are too many long hallways with the same creeps popping up over and over, giving you the worst case of deja-vu ever. Collecting glyphs imbues you with new powers, but the one that lets you slingshot yourself around is just plain dumb. Yeah - I'm talking to you Magnes glyph. You are really dumb - for real! Fans will enjoy Order of Ecclesia's rich artwork and sweeping musical score, but the gameplay feels stale. I think I'm finally starting to get tired of these cookie-cutter Castlevania adventures. © Copyright 2010 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Grade: C+
Publisher: Konami (2006)
Reviewed: 2007/10/21
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

screenshotI tend to enjoy these Castlevania games, but this one is overrated. At its core, Portrait of Ruin follows the standard Castlevania formula with expansive castles to explore, a wide range of demonic foes, and tons of special weapons and magic items. In an attempt to try something new, Portrait lets you control two characters at once using a "tag team" mechanic. You can switch between Jon and Charlotte at the touch of a button, or have them fight side by side. This opens up possibilities for more elaborate puzzles and team-based attacks. I've seen this gimmick employed many times before (Knuckles Chaotix on the Sega 32X comes to mind), and it's usually not very effective. In this case it adds a layer of complexity at the expense of the fun factor. Non-intuitive controls make solving even simple puzzles with your team inordinately complex (the mine cart switch comes to mind). Charlotte's primary weapon is a book - yes a book! Maybe in the next game she can attack monsters by hitting them with her purse! Otherwise, there's not much to fault with Portrait of Ruin. The graphics are rich and well defined, with a few unusual enemies like the guy who professes his love for Charlotte and explodes into roses upon his demise. Typical of the mammoth bosses, you'll face an enormous knight with a hideous disembodied blue head. It's fun to upgrade your characters with new items you find, and I like the way portraits are used as gateways to new "worlds". Portrait of Ruin is not my favorite Castlevania title, but fans looking for something new may enjoy its novel approach. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Chrono Trigger
Grade: B
Publisher: Square Enix (2008)
Reviewed: 2009/3/12
Rating: Everyone

screenshotI usually don't have the time or desire to review an RPG (Role Playing Game), but since Chrono Trigger for the SNES (1995) is widely considered the greatest RPG ever, I decided to give this portable edition a whirl. It's pretty impressive from the outset, with a "Back to the Future" time-travel storyline and unconventional characters including a frog warrior and robot. The ability to travel to the past and future provides for a diverse set of environments including a prehistoric world and a bleak "Beyond Thunderdome"-inspired future. I'm not a big fan of intricate storylines, but the game's innovative battle system definitely won me over. Played in real time, it brilliantly blurs the line between live action and turn-based combat. Attacks are imaginatively rendered on the screen, unlike the abstract "slashes" seen in many other RPGs. I also like how you can sometimes avoid unnecessary combat by sneaking around certain enemies. The 2D scenery boasts impressive detail, and the characters express a wide variety of emotions via physical mannerisms. The lush musical score is brimming with memorable tunes, and the dialogue is thankfully restrained and sprinkled with humor. Chrono Trigger held my attention for longer than most RPGs, but several issues tried my patience. First and foremost, not being able to save at any time is a major annoyance for a 2008 portable game. There was a long stretch in the early going where the game wouldn't let me save, and I had to go somewhere! The ability to travel though time offers a lot of exploration possibilities, but I struggled to keep the story moving. Finally, I wish there was a log screen to bring you up to date in case you take a break from the game for a few weeks. Chrono Trigger is imaginative and innovative, but like any RPG, you'll really need a lot of time and dedication to fully enjoy it. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Civilization Revolution
Grade: C
Publisher: 2K Games (2008)
Reviewed: 2008/8/26
Rating: Everyone

screenshotProducing a turned-based, conquer-the-world strategy game for the Xbox 360 was tough enough, but squeezing the same game onto the DS is a monumental feat. 2K Games got the job done, but obviously some things were lost in the downsizing process. For the most part the game plays like its big cousin, but there are fewer options. You still create cities, develop technology, assemble armies, and engage in battles with neighboring countries. Unlike most games of its kind, time passes quickly, allowing you to progress from the stone age to the space age in about two hours. Much of the progress is automated, but strategic decisions can determine if your country will be an economic superpower, a cultural hotbed, or a warmongering nation. Unfortunately, the small screen fails to convey the majesty of the grand buildings and mythical "wonders" you construct. The map screen is populated with icons, and viewing the details as illustrations on a separate screen isn't very satisfying. Likewise, the scaled-down battles lack punch due to their repetitive canned animations. The user interface is intelligently designed, and you also have the option of dragging units around with the stylus. I much prefer the 360 version in terms of scope and eye candy, but if you're looking for a little game with a lot of substance, Civilization Revolution is still a good bet. © Copyright 2008 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 4 players 

Commando: Steel Disaster
Grade: D
Publisher: Manasoft (2008)
Reviewed: 2008/11/8
Rating: Everyone (10+)

screenshotTalk about truth in advertising - this game really is a disaster, but it didn't have to be that way. Commando is a side-scrolling 2D shooter tainted by a preposterous degree of difficulty. If you ever wanted to play Metal Slug on your DS, this comes pretty close. Steel Disaster offers the exact same style of rapid-fire gameplay, complete with screaming soldiers, explosive weapons, and clunky mechanical bosses. Commando exhibits old school charm with its cartoonish graphics, simple controls, and hard-as-nails gameplay. The game kicks off with a high-speed snowmobile shootout, followed by several stages on foot through snowy mountains. Sadly, few gamers will ever survive this first mission. There's just too much crossfire and not enough health packs. Who designed this game? Did anyone test it at all? Allegedly there are missions that take place in other environments, and you can save your progress between each. I have nothing against hard games, but selectable missions or an "easy" option would have been nice. Hell, there's not even a score! It really breaks my heart, because at its core, Commando had the stuff needed to be a standout DS shooter. © Copyright 2008 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Contra 4
Grade: A+
Publisher: Konami (2007)
Reviewed: 2008/1/9
Rating: Teen (blood and gore, fantasy violence, language)

screenshotContra 4 represents a triumphant return for the classic franchise, mainly because it remains so faithful to the original 2D, side-scrolling formula. As in the original Contra (NES, 1988), you play a soldier forging his way through hostile jungle, harbor, factory and laboratory environments. As you blast soldiers and aliens, you'll need to dodge large projectiles that are slow but tend to create nasty crossfire traps. Thanks to the dual screens of the DS, you'll need to contend with enemies on both the top and bottom screens, so keep an eye out! Power-ups abound, including weapons that fire lasers, fireballs, and homing missiles. But just like old times, the "spray" weapon totally rules. Firing that thing from the bottom screen towards the top inflicts wide-spread devastation. With that kind of firepower, blasting through each stage should be a piece of cake, right? No, not when you have to negotiate perilous platforms at the same time. The environments are reminiscent of the original Contra, but more detailed and expansive. Likewise, Contra 4's electronic soundtrack has a distinctive old-school quality. Humorous voice samples include "Let's party!" and "Lock and load!" Best of all, the classic controls have been retained, resulting in a simple yet madly challenging experience. Holding the shoulder button lets you fire in place, making it much easier to aim diagonally. Another new wrinkle is your ability to toggle between two weapons. Since you don't lose your reserve weapon when you die, it's a good idea to tuck a powerful weapon away for later use against a boss. You'll always begin the game on stage one, but many continues are available and the replay value is high. As you revisit each perilous stage you gradually discover the best techniques, weapons, and routes to employ. Although Contra 4 is brand new, its stages are inspired by the original game, including the psuedo-3D "run into the screen" levels. Your high score is saved automatically, and a bonus "museum" provides information and screenshots of past Contra titles. Konami has taken a winning formula and elevated it to new heights, and the result is a fantastic new addition to the DS library. © Copyright 2008 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 

Cooking Mama
Grade: D+
Publisher: Majesco (2006)
Reviewed: 2007/1/26
Rating: Everyone

screenshotCooking Mama is a cute little cooking simulator, but is there really an audience for this? I sure many gamers have multiple hobbies, but how many would profess a passion for cooking? Playing games rarely puts me in the mood to chop onions or fry chicken. Cooking Mama's gameplay challenges you to concoct a series of delicious dishes including Salisbury Steak, Spring Rolls, Pork Cutlets, Potato Salad, and Octopus Dumplings (yum!). As you methodically prepare, slice, dice, mix, and fry your way through the recipe, each stage plays out like a timed mini-game. Controlled entirely with the stylus, Cooking Mama offers audio and visual cues to prod you along. Most games are intuitive enough, but you'll need to be quick. Some steps, like sautéing vegetables, are less obvious than they should be, which can lead to frustration. Chopping and slicing are moderately fun, but other tasks, like peeling potatoes, are as tedious as they are in real life. Completing a dish rewards you with a score and unlocks a new recipe. I assumed my wife would like Cooking Mama, considering she enjoys cooking and has shown interest in other DS titles like Zookeeper. But while she was intrigued at first, Cooking Mama couldn't maintain her interest. She struggled to keep up with the fast-paced games, and often had a hard time figuring out what she was supposed to do. She was also annoyed by some of the game's more arbitrary rules, like having to toss ingredients into a bowl in a particular order. Personally, I had no problem figuring out the games, but I found the subject matter boring and repetitive. I guess a few gamers out there might appreciate this one (young girls perhaps?), but this isn't my idea of a good time. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Diddy Kong Racing DS
Grade: B
Publisher: Nintendo (2006)
Reviewed: 2007/4/29
Rating: Everyone

screenshotLooking suspiciously like the original Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo 64, 1997), this DS edition brings back the same Mario Kart-style racing action with a few original DS touches thrown in for good measure. You can race in cars, hovercrafts, and planes, and there's an assortment of bright, colorful locales. I particularly like the cheerfully festive snow and ice tracks. As you win races and complete challenges, you collect balloons that gradually open up more and more areas. The action is pure arcade fun as you speed boost, launch missiles, and use magnets to overtake your opponents. Diddy Kong's controls are intuitive enough, but I did find it awkward to use the L button to deploy special items while steering. The DS stylus is used periodically, including rubbing the screen to "rev up" your vehicle. Magic carpet rides serve as bonus stages and add some variety. As you automatically fly around a course, the stylus is used to pan the camera 360 degrees while popping as many balloons as you can. At first I didn't know what the hell was going on in these stages, but once I got the hang of it, I thought they were a lot of fun. You can even "drag" coins into a pouch at the bottom of the screen. Diddy Kong Racing is just as fun as the original game, but this DS version does come up short in some regards. The graphics are surprisingly mediocre, with a lot of ugly textures and some serious clipping problems. The water looks like a pixelated pattern of blue and white squares, and the "fog" in certain stages (unintended or not) can make it hard to tell where the track is heading. Technical issues bring down the fun factor of an otherwise charming, addictive game. In terms of audio, Nintendo has managed to put together a collection of catchy, cheerful tunes that you can't help but like. Diddy Kong Racing could have been better, but its simple brand of racing fun has universal appeal. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 8 players 

Dig Dug: Digging Strike
Grade: F
Publisher: Namco (2005)
Reviewed: 2006/8/8
Rating: Everyone

screenshotDid you know that Mr. Driller is actually the son of the little man in Dig Dug? What's that? You don't give a [expletive]? That's how I felt paging through the endless lame text preceding this game's story mode. Digging Strike tries to expand upon the world of Dig Dug, but just needlessly complicates matters. You know, I can remember way back to the days when Dig Dug was a fun game. The original was a legitimate classic, letting you tunnel through dirt while "pumping up" bad guys and dropping rocks on their heads. Expert players could employ all sorts of risky strategies, and there was unlimited replay value. The lukewarm NES sequel, Dig Dug II, took an entirely different approach. Set on an island, the idea was to drill around and cause huge sections of land to collapse into the sea. This DS version unwisely attempts to combine the styles of both games, with the island displayed on the top screen and the underground areas on the bottom. Breaking up the island involves sinking strategically-placed spikes underground. The problem is, clearing out the dirt underneath the spikes is a tedious chore! The game attempts to incorporate all sorts of power-ups, but these can't elevate the tepid gameplay. In addition to rocks, you can unleash water, lava, and rolling mines. These new elements might have been interesting if the game had stuck with the original Dig Dug style. Certain power-ups trigger mini-games that are mildly amusing but inconsequential. I found myself searching in vain for some kind of "classic" Dig Dug mode, but it was nowhere to be found. In the end, Digging Strike did little more than bore the hell out of me. © Copyright 2006 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves the Mermaids
Grade: NA
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive (2007)
Reviewed: 2007/11/30
Rating: Everyone

screenshotDora the Explorer is an extremely popular Nickelodeon cartoon character, and this game takes her on an adventure through a series of tropical environments. Like its counterpart (Go Diego Go! Safari Rescue) this game is perfect for kids who want to play video games but aren't yet old enough to read. Dora Saves the Mermaids serves up a nice selection of mini-games complemented by bright visuals and pleasant steel drum music. On her journey Dora will dance the Conga, remove trash from a beach, call to animals, and blow away sand to locate a magic crown. Although most games are controlled with the stylus, occasionally you're prompted to speak or blow into the microphone. I advised my wife that if she heard me shouting "swipe!" or "squeak squeak" from the other room, I had not totally lost my mind (normally this type of behavior would be cause for concern). Each game concludes with a quick "positive reinforcement" screen, which leads straight into the next game. My 3-year-old niece Brooke took to this game right away, but did get briefly stuck on one part where you need to drag garbage into a bag. Like a similar sequence in Go Diego Go, the game doesn't register stylus movements as well as it could. That's too bad, because otherwise this is very well constructed, albeit short game for young kids that requires little or no supervision from the adults. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Dragon's Lair
Grade: B-
Publisher: Digital Leisure (2010)
Reviewed: 2011/1/1
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThe original Dragon's Lair arcade game (1983) made a huge impression on me as a kid, so over the years I've collected just about every home version I could find. Based on the recent releases of a Blu Ray edition and this portable version, the franchise is still alive and kicking. Dragon's Lair was the original animated Laser Disc game, and I'll be the first to admit that its creative visuals and amusing animations were the main attraction. Its gameplay is limited to pressing a button or moving the joystick at specific moments, and it's not everyone's cup of tea (understandably so). Despite the small screen size, Dragon's Lair looks sharp on the DS. You can't quite savor every tiny detail, but the colorful animation is still a joy to behold. When you fire up the game you're treated to the excellent intro from the original arcade game. It really gets you psyched up! The top screen displays all of the animation and the bottom screen tracks your score and lives. If you enable the handy "move guide", the bottom screen also prompts you with the correct moves. In terms of pure gameplay, this may be the most accessible version I've played. Clear audio cues indicate a correct or bad move, and you're not penalized for bad timing. Since there's no loading, the scenes are presented in a rapid-fire fashion. Occasionally the brisk pacing can be a detriment, as you'll suddenly experience death before you even realize what the heck's going on. You can select between the arcade mode and a "home mode" which contains scenes not found in the original game. Easy and hard difficulties are available, and high scores with initials are automatically saved. The DS may not be the ideal platform for Dragon's Lair, but it's a much better fit than I had anticipated. © Copyright 2011 The Video Game Critic.

Our high score: 25,994
1 player 

Dream Pinball
Grade: B
Publisher: Southpeak Games (2008)
Reviewed: 2009/4/5
Rating: Everyone

screenshotWhen it comes to bringing realistic pinball action to the tiny DS screens, Dream Pinball does about as good a job as you can do. With six different full-sized tables, this little cartridge packs a heck of a lot of replay value! Each plays just like real pinball in terms of scoring, difficulty, ball physics, and table layouts. I love the intriguing themes which include dinosaurs, knights, monsters, science fiction, automotive, and aquatic life. Each has roughly 50 targets to shoot for, so there's plenty to keep you busy. In terms of gameplay, Dream Pinball lives up to its name. The shoulder buttons function perfectly as flipper controls, and pressing the directional pad to nudge the machine is convenient. The tight camera angles provide an optimal view at all times, allowing you to really get "into a zone". When a multi-ball mode kicks in (always a blast) the camera remains low so you can focus on keeping the balls in play with the lower flippers. Each board has several flippers, but they are sometimes hard to locate. Several of the tables sport similar layouts, but high quality music and crisp sound effects give them all a distinctive flavor. The degree of detail in each table is limited by the DS resolution, and to be honest, there were times when I wished I were playing this on the Wii. The table art (shown on the top screen) is pretty sparse and the voice effects sound a little cheesy. That woman keeps asking me "ready for ball change?" but I don't know what that means. And what's the deal with those crazy sounds in the Aquatic table? Are fish really supposed to scream? A challenge mode is included, but it's more fun just to compete for the high score (which are saved). I like to play Dream Pinball each night before going to bed, and I'd advise you to do the same. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 

Elite Beat Agents
Grade: A-
Publisher: Nintendo (2006)
Reviewed: 2007/1/26
Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor, lyrics, suggestive themes)

screenshotThis may be the most insane video game I've ever played, and I absolutely love it. Elite Beat Agents is a quirky musical game that substitutes a dance pad with a touch pad. Its visual style is unlike anything I've seen before, with semi-animated comic-book style cels that leap off the screen with crisp lines and brilliant colors. Each selectable stage begins with an ordinary premise that takes a series of increasingly bizarre twists and turns. For example, a weather lady promises a sunny weekend to her son, but when the clouds roll in, she enlists the help of fighter pilots and forest animals to alter the weather conditions in ways that make absolutely no sense. You really need to see this stuff to understand just how wonderfully absurd it is. Elite's gameplay consists of tapping shrinking circles on the touch screen in time to the beats of songs. I'm never played anything like this before, but I like it a lot. Once you get into a groove, it really does feel like an interactive music video. There are plenty of familiar pop tunes like "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "YMCA", and "Material Girl", but even the more obscure songs sound great. There's even that dance song from Napoleon Dynamite, although the circles in that one seem oddly out-of-sync with the music. Also annoying is the big wheel you sometimes need to spin by moving the stylus in a circular pattern. Still, Elite Beat Agents offers something fresh and innovative, and I give Nintendo a lot of credit for taking a chance on this. Although best played in short spurts, the game's scoring system gives it some replay value. Clever and strikingly uninhibited, Elite Beat Agents is wacky fun you can only experience on the Nintendo DS. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

1 to 4 players 


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