Review: Flipper Critters

flipper_critters_DS.JPGPlatform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 10/09/07
Genre: Pinball
Players: 1 – 2

If you’re a pinball fanatic like me, you probably keep an eye peeled for any and every game that shows up on a home or portable system. Well, set your sights toward your nearest game shop and roll on down, as Ignition’s new Nintendo DS game Flipper Critters is a neat little budget gem that’s fun to play and often quite funny. The game features a number of super colorful 3D worlds navigated like a series of pinball tables, platforming and quest elements along with three mini-games for good measure. While the game can be a great time for the money, sometimes the story literally gets in the way of the action. Developer Zen Studios gets a lot of mileage from an excellent engine, but to the uninitiated, the text boxes and spinning screen can be a bit disorienting.

The main story is a riff on the usual platform clichés, but upon closer inspection this certainly seems intentional. Two would be heroic types (Gawain, a tiger and his monkey pal Bubba) set out to do some good for a sick friend, run across a damsel in distress and get somewhat sidetracked as they try to become even more heroic. If you try to take this at all seriously, you’d have to be six years old and filled with too much wide-eyed innocence. On the other hand, if you’ve any sense of humor and/or sarcasm, you’ll get a good kick out of how the game pokes fun at stuff gamers have lived with since the invention of the jump button. While you can slap the game into your DS and get right to it, absolutely take the time to read the manual as it’s slightly subversive and often hilarious. Character profiles are written up as personal ads that contain a joke or three the target audience most likely won’t get. Then again, despite the simple controls, cute characters and brightly colored maps you’ll be traveling, the gameplay can indeed be a bit tricky and geared toward folks who love a challenge.

As you travel around the game world by whacking your critter (who conveniently transforms into a pinball), you’ll meet up with other critters that happen to need something taken care of. This usually consists of completing familiar pinball objectives, such as hitting a series of targets, drop holes or bumpers in order to succeed. There are enemies to bump off, boss battles and plenty of interactive elements you wouldn’t find on a standard pinball table such as vehicles and cannons. When you need to enter a new location, hit the proper ramp or exit and you’re asked if you’d like to travel to the next area as Yes or No choices appear. Select ‘Yes’ and you transform back to critter form as an animation plays of your character walking to a new entrance, meeting up with another critter on the way that requires assistance.

Character designs are a bit generic, but had the game featured a certain plumber and his cast of familiar friends, people would be knocking down each other to snap this one up. Zen might not have the best-looking characters here, but environments are all handled fantastically by the game’s robust 3D engine. As the maps are quite large, you’ll need to rely on pausing the game to check out the map that shows your current location and any objectives that need to be taken care of. While this does break up the action, it should be clear by this point that the game is more of a cool hybrid than a true pinball simulation, so you’ll need to adjust your thinking and play style accordingly. There are also some minor touch screen elements, such as tapping away to free your ball from a trap or move certain areas so your ball can pass through with full momentum, but the game is more focused on the exploration and story elements.

One complaint is the near constant distraction of dialog and hint boxes that pop up on the top screen as you’re flipping your critter around on the bottom. As the game doesn’t pause while this is happening, you might lose a life because you looked up at the top screen as your ball is heading down toward the flippers. This top/bottom screen deal is a problem in a number of DS games, meaning one solution is to ignore the text and keep playing. Of course this doesn’t always work, as the camera rotates on both screens, sometimes in two different directions. However, once you realize this is part of the game design, it becomes manageable and you start enjoying what’s here even more. Text doesn’t appear at all when the ball is on the top screen, so the key is to watch where the ball is exiting as the viewpoint shifts and quickly look down to hit it back.

In addition to the huge, great looking worlds, the game has a surprisingly pleasant soundtrack that’s light at times and slightly dramatic at others. You won’t here many traditional pinball sound effects, though. There are some simple clicks and clacks as your critter ball is smacked around, and plenty of cartoon noises as you smash targets and stuff, but they work regardless. In terms of mini-games, you get three that can be played in single player or two-player Duel modes that require a separate game card. Flying Battle is a fun arcade shooter, Gravity is a submarine maze game and Magic Bride is a kooky Bump ‘n Jump style knockoff. All are nice distractions from the main game, but once you’re dialed into the pinball action, you’ll probably want to concentrate solely on completing the story, tackling the mini-games when you have a friend nearby.

Overall, Flipper Critters is a nice surprise in a well-made twist on an old genre that works where it should. I’d like to see Zen move the game over to the Wii in the future just to see what they could create with once big screen and the Wiimote. Heck, you end up on the moon on the DS version – who knows where you’ll end up on hardware with a lot more to work with? Given the paltry fifteen bucks the game costs and the amount of tricky fun it offers, why not be a real pal and buy a copy for a DS-owning friend?

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