Mad genius on display in obscure video games
Cult hits like ’Katamari,’ ’Chibi-Robo’ get surprising sequels.
By LOU KESTEN
I love weird games. Oh, I enjoy the blockbusters too: I’m in line with everyone else when a new “Halo,” “Madden” or “Zelda” comes out. But as a critic, it’s always a little more satisfying to point you in the direction of some obscure gem that may be hiding out in the back of the game store.
Video games cost a lot of money to develop, but there’s still room in the industry for the mad genius who may deliver something completely fresh. So we get oddities like “Crush,” “LocoRoco” and “Baten Kaitos.” They may not have sold a lot of copies, but their fans adore them.
Once a developer has unleashed something completely original, though, what does it do for an encore? Ironically, the next step is usually to start working on a sequel. But can inspiration strike twice?
*** “Beautiful Katamari” (Namco Bandai, for the Xbox 360, $39.99): When “Katamari Damacy” debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2004, it won a lot of attention for its distinctive graphics, off-kilter humor and infectious soundtrack. Most important, though, was its addictive gameplay, in which you simply rolled a sticky ball around various domestic landscapes, collecting enough junk to create a decent-sized orb.
Three years and three sequels later, the “Katamari” magic has gone flat. Creator Keita Takahashi bailed out after the second game, and “Beautiful Katamari” shows all the signs of a franchise that’s going through the motions. It adds online play, but otherwise the game hasn’t evolved at all from its original incarnation.
“Beautiful Katamari” still has lots of peculiar comedy, mostly coming from the arrogant King of All Cosmos, whose antics are the impetus for your ball-rolling mission. But the music isn’t as catchy and the graphics are flat; this is the least beautiful “Katamari” yet. It’s worth a look if you’ve never played any of the previous games, but “Katamari” vets won’t find enough new here to justify a purchase. Two stars out of four.
*** “Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol” (Nintendo, for the DS, $59.99): When “Chibi-Robo” came out last year on the GameCube, I was smitten. Its hero, a cigarette-lighter-sized robot, was charming, and his mission — saving a troubled family while keeping their house clean — was unusually good-natured.
In “Park Patrol,” a new Chibi model has a new mission: turning a decrepit park back into an urban oasis. At first, all Chibi can do is play music, which encourages the few remaining flowers to release buds — which Chibi can then water until they grow into new flowers. The little bot can sell flowers or transfer “happy points” into currency, which he can use to buy the equipment needed to further expand the park.
There is a villain, a guy named Sergeant Smoggler who wants to spread pollution all over the world. Chibi can attack Smoggler’s minions with his water squirter or run them down with one of his vehicles. Shoot-’em-up fans may find “Park Patrol” a little slow-moving, but it will appeal to fans of “Animal Crossing” and other laid-back games, and environmental types will appreciate its green message. Three stars.
**** “Touch Detective 2-1/2” (Atlus, for the DS, $59.99): Last year’s “Touch Detective” introduced gamers to Mackenzie, a naJive girl who was struggling to follow in the crime-busting footsteps of her late father. In the arbitrarily titled “2-1/2,” Mackenzie is a full-fledged gumshoe — though she’s still kind of an airhead.
Mackenzie’s first job involves tracking down some stolen noodles, and eventually leads to the discovery of a villain named the Cornstalker. Mackenzie and the Cornstalker pursue each other through the remainder of the cases, as the detective unravels a conspiracy that goes far beyond her little village.
The brainteasers in “2-1/2” make a little more sense than the sometimes bewildering challenges in the original. And the overarching story has some surprising twists. It’s a little too eccentric for its own good — mysteries require some grounding in reality — but fans of old-school graphic adventures will enjoy it if they have a high tolerance for whimsy. Two stars.