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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Player 1: A DS double whammy

Metroid Pinball and Trace Memory


The weeks after Christmas are pretty slow for video games. Very few new games are being released which made it the perfect time to weed through my pile of yet-to-be-or-might-never-be-reviewed games.

Here are two for the Nintendo DS released late in 2005 that are both a bit of a gamble yet offer addictive game play and DS-exclusive features.


The alien bounty hunter Samus Aran has starred in several of her own great platformer and shooter games, most recently the Metroid Prime series. Using her unique armor, she can curl into a powerful ball to bash opponents and drop small bombs.

Usually taking a franchise character as strong as Samus and plopping her in a lesser, off-genre game is a blatant attempt to exploit a franchise and eke out extra bucks between feature releases. This crossover, however, is not only successful, but is the most fun handheld pinball game I've ever played.

MPP features six boards based on Metroid games with familiar enemies, such as killer Shriekbats, Beetles, Burrowers, Space Pirates, lobster-style Triclops and big-time leggy boss monsters.

Like most games, you mash the flippers and launch the balled Samus at bumpers, ramps and various holes to score points. Here, however, you also need to bash enemies who wander around the board, sometimes catching balls or even launching anti-Samus missiles. When activated, Samus will also stop rolling, stand, uncurl and shoot at swarming opponents.

As if the game itself were not good enough, Nintendo has also included a rumble pack that will fit into the DS's bottom slot, adding a rather precise tactile element to the game. The graphics are great and the controls are straightforward, only lacking a tilt or nudge function.

This is an addictive take on pinball that is a great - rather than insulting or derivative - addition to the Metroid franchise.


In this graphic adventure game, you play as Ashley Robbins, a soon-to-be 14-year-old girl whose parents disappeared when she was very young. She gets a birthday message from her scientist father along with a DTS (that looks exactly like a DS), enticing her on a quest to solve a few mysteries with the help of a ghost named "D."

For most of the game you run around a mansion on a mysterious island collecting hidden objects and solving puzzles that reveal clues to Dr. Robbins' memory research.

Trace Memory is heavy on story and requires a bit of roaming and tons of button pressing to get through lengthy conversations. The top screen shows a closer, first-person view you can investigate, while the bottom screen shows your actual location.

It might seem a bit slow at first but it is far more enjoyable than it sounds. After the first hour or two you'll become engrossed by the story and a few of the unique puzzles that use the bottom touch screen to manipulate objects and the microphone to blow dust off objects.

If you are a fan of graphic adventure games such as Myst, or at least slightly interested in Myst, this is a worthwhile game to try. Trace Memory may may test your patience by being periodically slow and frustrating, but once you get in the groove of the game, it's pretty engaging.

This is a game I can't see doing well on a console, but on a handheld system it is somehow more fun, making it a good introduction to the graphic adventure genre.


More on Metroid Prime Pinball...

Even though the game might be on two small screens, it still includes an impressive amount of detail, such as rain and rusty metal. Also, once you activate the rumble pack (which ships with the game and fits in the GameBoy Advance cart slot in the DS), zapping bats and bouncing off the walls helps the game feel more real than even a decent PC pinball game.

Also borrowing from the Metroid games, the Morph ball has a shield that can be broken down by powerful attacks. You can collect power-ups such as shield regeneration, but also missiles you can fire when standing and powerful bombs that essentially clear the boards.

Several of the boards have more than one multi-ball mode, so make certain you learn to aim and target every nook and cranny of each board.

The main multilevel game lets you play through two boards, then warp to more difficult boards to defeat bigger and badder bosses. In many cases a direct hit or a well-placed bomb will help, but later in the game you'll need to ignite the ball with some extra energy for a more powerful hit.

The wireless mode lets you compete with up to three other DSers with only one cart, trying to be the first to achieve a target score.

The only small fault with the game is the inability to nudge the board. When the ball is falling between the flippers, there's not much you can do except watch and then scream in horror.

The rumble pack, however, more than makes up for it. Even with the volume turned down, the pack works well, letting out little grunts that sound like small frogs while shaking the DS with enough variety to make big booms feel bigger than smaller booms. My favorite rumble moment is when Samus is zapping a swarm of baddies, letting out little rat-tat-tats at precisely the right speed.

I tried the rumble pack with other DS games, like Meteos and Pokemon, but it apparently only works with MPP and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time for the DS.

Once you beat all the boards in the Multilevel mode, you get to go again, this time with an optional Expert Mode you can toggle on or off. finishing the game also lets you go back and individually play all six boards in the Single Board mode.

More on Trace Memory...

Yeah, it can be called "very Japanese" in the way it heavily relies on a story, but Trace Memory is not a horrible game. It just requires a bit of patience to get through.

If you have seen a Japanese game with talking characters, then you are oh-too-familiar with the talking head phenomena. When someone in the game is talking, the cartoon head of a character will pop up inside, next to or above a balloon where the words are written in slower than spoken speed. Then you have to press a button to get to the next sentence (which can sometimes simply read "... !"). Often the heads are barely animated, but in TM, the animation is a bit smoother than normal with fluid mouth movements and even a few body gestures.

You can quickly press buttons to speed through some of the dialogue and not miss many of the game's goals, but you'll lose a bit of the atmosphere of the story and environments and miss some clues that can best guide you through the game.

Most of the puzzles are pretty familiar, such as a rearranged nine square, using keys to unlock doors in the right order and placing found objects in the right place. There are a couple twists to the normal puzzle games with some scratching and spinning tasks that use the touch screen, blowing dust with the microphone, and, my favorite, where you take two photos and superimpose them on each other, flipping and rotating them until sections match up, revealing a secret code or another important clue.

Called "Myst for Kids" by some critics, this was pretty fun for me, but I fear it has too much reading and too little action for young gamers. That makes TM a hard sell since it seems aimed for younger gamers, would be most appreciated by teen-aged gamers who are least likely to play it, and not really appealing to adult gamers. Definitely get it when it ends up in the bargain bin.

What can - or should - a gamer do to work off that extra layer of holiday lard? Tell PJ "Player1" Hruschak at

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