Portable Fun: Mr. ESC, LocoRoco, Dancing Agents
Because portable game systems lack the serious hardware of their stationary brethren, there are many more limitations when it comes to game design. But this burden turns out to be a blessing in disguise, since game-makers are required to kick their creative genius into overdrive. The result: some of the most inventive games in the industry, designed for the Play Station Portable (PSP) and Nintendo DS (DS).
Exit (PSP, $20)
A professional "escapologist," Mr. ESC risks his life to rescue unfortunate souls from sticky situations. There are no enemies, just treacherous terrain to navigate as you find the survivors from a disaster (earthquakes, fires, collapsing buildings and the like). Then you try to find the path to safety -- the titular exit. The obstacles get trickier as you progress through the 10 stages (with 10 levels in each stage). If that's not enough, you can download additional levels. The survivors are slower and can't take as much abuse as your protagonist, which can be frustrating, and the sound is obnoxiously repetitive and muffled. Nonetheless, I'd suggest that you run, not walk, toward the nearest copy of Exit.
Bottom Line: Excellent brain teaser for all ages at half the price of most PSP games.
LocoRoco (PSP, $40)
Instead of guiding your character through a 2-D stage (a la the original Mario Brothers), you move the world. Because the smiling blobby rocos lack any motor skills of their own, the happy creatures will roll whichever way the land pushes them. The game uses a control scheme that is simple and elegant: the left trigger button tilts the world to the left, the right trigger tilts right, and pressing both buttons simultaneously "shakes" that world, causing the rocco to jump. If this sounds too simple to be interesting, fear not. Special roco abilities (you can, for example, fracture your roco into many mini-rocos to squeeze through tight spaces) and ingenious design ensure that all 40 stages the roco moves through stay fresh and challenging. Indeed, they roll by regrettably quickly. A wealth of hidden content encourages multiple play-throughs, adding fun and value to this utterly cheerful game.
Bottom Line: Innovative design and an excellent and entreating game in its own right.
Elite Beat Agents (DS, $35)
They're a team of superheroes who solve problems by carrying out daunting dance routines to a variety of pop tunes. And you tap a stylus in time to the music to get them going. Only some very adroit choreography can save the two desert island dames (who bear an uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie). The "stages" are essentially individual --and often very bizarre -- stories in which the agents have been inserted. Note that Agents is the only entry in this guide without an 'E' rating -- it's rated 'RP' for Rating Pending, essentially because the ESRB doesn't know how to deal with the lyrics from the pop music.
Bottom Line: Hilarious, loads of fun, gets quite difficult toward the end. One of the best games in the genre and one of the best on the Nintendo DS.
New Super Mario Bros (DS, $35)
There have been some 40 iterations of the Mario Brothers platformer worldwide, and Mario himself has appeared in more than 160 games since he became Nintendo's mascot more than 25 years ago. But busting bricks, collecting coins and stomping on goombas never seems to get old. Amazingly, New Super Mario Bros. does actually offer something new in the form of new tricks -- like the super mushroom that makes Mario large enough to fill the screen. So the game doesn't seem moldy or stale.
Bottom Line: May be too easy for some but manages to entertain both newcomers and the nostalgia crowd.
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