There has been a lot of talk recently about Nintendo’s tough year. Following a successful launch of the Wii, the console’s year has been widely regarded as something of a letdown. With few killer games and even fewer taking advantage of the console’s motion sensor functionality, many users have either turned their Wiis back in or have hung on to them in the hope that another Super Smash Bros. Brawl is just around the corner.
If you think Wii owners have had it bad, though, spare a thought for us DS lovers. Current advertisements would have you believe the big games to entice new buyers to the handheld console are More Brain Training and Nintendogs. How depressing is that? These are titles that came out in 2007 and 2005, respectively, and while I’m not questioning their appeal for a second, has the console really not moved on? A look at some of the ‘big’ titles this year would suggest not. Mario and Sonic At The Olympic Games was a disappointing port of a pretty decent Wii title. The latest Ace Attorney was so-so and anticipated titles such as Guitar Heroes and Trackmania have proven brief distractions, but no lasting successes. Thank goodness for titles like Soul Bubbles, which suggest there is still life in the DS yet. Bottom line, though, is that there have been far too many duds outweighing the few golden games.
Which brings me neatly on to Monster Lab. For me, this sums up the big problem facing the DS at the moment. On the positive side, it sports an interesting premise for the younger gamers it’s aimed at.
Taking the role of an apprentice to a bunch of mad scientists, your goal is to become a member for the MSA (Mad Science Alliance) by creating your own monsters and carrying out a variety of challenges to improve your knowledge and eventually defeat the evil Baron Mharti. Gameplay takes place in two locations: inside three labs and outside. Inside the labs, you can create your monsters, develop their skillsets and equip them for battle. Outside, your monsters will come up against enemy creatures and engage in combat with them.
It all sounds like great fun and for a while it really is. Putting together a monster from various bits and pieces and then deciding on what to equip it with is neatly done. The first few combats too are pretty decent, taking on the style of RPG battles with monsters taking it in turns to attack each other and points being lost depending on how successful the attack was. You can defend and dodge attacks as you wish, plus rejuvenate your own powers, but, obviously, doing so means you miss a turn to attack your opponent. Each monster has critical attack points (legs, head, torso and arms) and you target one of these points with each attack. Once that body part is defeated, the monster loses it and so the battle goes on until one of the monsters wins the combat. If it’s you that wins, you get to bring your monster back to the lab and rebuild it or keep it out there to complete the challenges you’ve been set, and to fight any other monsters that cross your path.
Away from the battles, at the game’s core is a whole load of mini-challenges and experiments that must be undertaken as you progress, each of which uses the touch screen in some way. These mini-challenges are quite varied and different ones crop up the more you advance through the game.
The graphics are excellent and the overall feel resembles that of an early-90s cartoon caper, all very atmospheric and excellent for children.
With so much positive to say about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was one of the few DS successes of 2008. It’s not, though. In fact, it doesn’t even come close.
You see Monster Lab has two massive problems. The first is that it’s so repetitive, tiresome almost. Despite the mini-challenges that lie at the game’s core, combat plays a huge role as Baron Mharti’s monsters are always seeking your creation out for a ruckus. Once you’ve fought a few monsters two or three times in a row and then you find another couple of enemies snaking their way towards you, you realise that the RPG style combat is so dull (and easy) that it quickly takes the sheen off an initially entertaining experience. I fear that the seven-year-old audience it’s aimed at will soon be looking elsewhere for their gaming kicks as the monster fights, while looking good, are akin to playing a long game of conkers against an entire school’s worth of opponents. Including the teachers.
Then there is the issue of the touch screen. DS games that utilise this interface to its full potential are becoming few and far between and this is another example of how it’s not worth shoehorning in a bunch of challenges just for the sake of showing what you can do with the stylus. While the mini-challenges are varied, completing them is never more than a case of tapping the screen in various areas or dragging your stylus in a certain way. While I accept there are only so many things you can do with the console’s small touch screen, this game only serves to highlight that issue. It feels as though the developers have looked at the technology and thought of all the ways that they can take advantage of it, then tried to build a game around it. The big problem, though, is that we saw all this years ago with Wario Ware Touched! and, to be honest, that was much more fun than anything on offer here.
Monster Lab is by no means a terrible game. It’s just that it’s not a game I could ever imagine kids playing for more than a couple of days without wanting to trade it back in. Like so many other DS games this year, it loses its initial appeal all too quickly.
If Nintendo doesn’t watch out, the same could soon be said for the console itself.