Thursday, November 20, 2008

Two Nintendo DS Games For The Kids (or Husbands Who Act Like Kids)

Please welcome my husband, Aaron, to Mommy's Must Haves. I've got a lot of great holiday gift ideas coming up in the next month, and he's helping to play-test and review some of the things that I don't have time for. In this case, he took these games from me before I had the chance to play them, so in return I let him write the reviews. Enjoy!


Ok, confession time, I may be a thirty-something dad, but I still like video games. If I’ve got a free moment on the computer, I’ll pull up City of Heroes or, if I don’t have time, Solitaire. And I rarely leave the house without either my Palm Pilot (loaded with Solitaire, Sudoku and Text Twist) or my Gameboy DS in my pocket. So, I was more then thrilled to get my hands on two fun new games for the DS - Kirby Super-Star Ultra and Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia. And I have to say, both games are wonderful for audiences both young and old.

Kirby Super-Star Ultra
I’ve always been amused and intrigued by Kirby, the little pink fluffball, but I’ve never actually played any games starring him before – other than learning to love him in Super Smash Bros, Nintendo’s fighting game. So, it was with some anticipation that I put this cartridge in my DS. “Am I going to be at a disadvantage playing this game, since I don’t know his history?” The answer, I am pleased to say, was “Not at all.”

Kirby Super-Star Ultra is a relatively easy game to learn, with simple but fun controls. The DS’s touch-screen is barely used in most modes, with most of Kirby’s controls being managed via the standard control pad and A-B-X-Y buttons. Where the controls are used, they’re simple enough that you don’t even really need to use the stylus, and can just activate them with a quick flick of the finger. The game includes several adventures for Kirby to go on, each slightly different as they add both difficulty and complexity in terms of Kirby’s controls and abilities. It also includes a mode where you can play through all of Kirby’s adventures as the mysterious Meta-Knight (whose powers are different enough from Kirby to add a very interesting twist to the game), and then there are multiple mini-games that you can play.

One of the best things about Kirby Super-Star Ultra is that it is relatively easy to play through – even the final adventure shouldn’t be a challenge for most gamers, meaning that younger kids will hopefully be able to play through the game without being significantly frustrated. At the same time, there are a fair number of “hidden areas” and extras in the game, and tracking those down with give more experienced gamers plenty to do.

Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia
I’ve been a Pokemon fan going way back. We had the Red, Blue and Yellow Pokemon cartridges for the original GameBoy, ran a Pokemon League for the Pokemon Trading Card Game back in the late 1990s and have played through most of the Pokemon games that have made their way through the various Nintendo handheld consoles since then. However, a notable exception to the games we’d played include the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Pokemon Ranger games, so I was incredibly excited to get Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia.

That excitement quickly faded as I started playing. While I liked the idea that I would use the stylus to capture Pokemon, I was unthrilled to realize that most of what I was familiar with from Pokemon was now gone. There were no items to collect and use in battle. Nearly every encounter with a Pokemon was about capturing the creature, instead of doing battle to gain experience for my Pokemon. And the Pokemon I captured would stick around long enough to do one task, and then they shuffled off. This was not the Pokemon game I was familiar with.

And then, I started playing deeper into the game, and I realized something: it wasn’t trying to be. Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia is a different beast entirely, with different goals and different play styles. But disliking it on that basis was like disliking hot butterscotch topping on a sundae because it wasn’t hot fudge. Different, but still yummy. The ability to use Pokemon to do “Field Clears” was oddly elegant, and the “Poke Assists” that the Pokemon could use in battle to help you catch their fellows add a lot to the game. The changes make Pokemon Ranger a more challenging game and make you more involved. It was true of the earlier Pokemon games that the human player was kind of secondary to the creatures in the other Pokemon games – in Pokemon Ranger, your avatar matters. You aren’t defined by the Pokemon you’ve captured, you’re defined by the quests you’ve completed, the power ups you’ve earned, and your ability to use the Capture Styler.

So, is Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia for everyone? No. It is definitely a more challenging game than the earlier games in the Pokemon franchise. Knowledge of Pokemon types and what is strong and weak against what will not be enough to get you through this game. You’ll need to have the manual dexterity to use the stylus – and well. Younger players might find this game frustrating as a result, but for slightly older kids who have been fans of the Pokemon series in the past, Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia might be just the game for them to find under the Christmas tree this year.

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