New Games Feature Some Old Friends

Friday, October 31, 2008

For a self-effacing, portly little plumber, Mario may be the most ambitious guy in video games. It's not enough that he has the most recognizable face in the industry; his parents at Nintendo have promoted him everywhere, from T-shirts and lunchboxes to cartoons and cellphone ring tones. He's probably more familiar to kids of a certain generation than Mickey Mouse. Mario's closest competitor is Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, but he has had some pretty rough years, with a run of lackluster games. But you can't keep a popular mascot down forever, and Sonic may be on the verge of a long-awaited comeback. Here is a look at recent titles featuring franchise characters.

Wario Land: Shake It! (Everyone; Wii, $49.99; Nintendo) Wario is Mario's evil alter ego: He's fatter, meaner and greedier, and his mustache is out of control. Although he began his career as an antagonist for Mario, he has taken the lead in about a dozen games since, including the terrific WarioWare series of five-second-long microgames. Shake It! isn't anywhere near as inventive as those gems. Instead, it's a fairly linear, two-dimensional running-and-jumping game. It's exactly the kind of game that made Mario famous two decades ago, and it feels awfully old-fashioned. The twist is that by shaking the Wii remote, you can cause earthquakes, which flip your enemies upside-down and open up new areas to explore. The levels on Shake It! aren't very challenging: You can get through each one in about 10 minutes and polish off the entire game in just a few hours. Bonus goals provide motivation to replay levels, but most gamers will be disappointed.

Kirby Super Star Ultra (Everyone; DS, $34.99; Nintendo) Kirby is one of those second-string Nintendo characters that gamers love or hate. He's a simple pink ball with flipper-like arms and big red feet, and he sucks. Literally. His primary power is the ability to inhale his enemies, which allows him to absorb their powers. Amazingly, this cipher has his own Saturday morning cartoon series. Ultra is a remake of a 1996 game that came out on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. After you breeze through the initial levels, subsequent stages throw in variations: You may need to race against an opponent or collect a certain number of treasures before time runs out. There are also a few mini-games in which you need to match cards or hit targets, but they aren't worth more than a couple of plays. Young Kirby fans who missed the original game will get a kick out of Ultra, but it's not the best showcase for the iron-lunged dynamo.

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (Everyone; DS, $34.99; Sega) Sega has been trying for years to recapture the excitement generated by the original Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991. For this DS adventure, the company put its marquee performer in the hands of BioWare, the studio that made the last great "Star Wars" game, Knights of the Old Republic. The result is a crafty genre mix that could introduce Sonic fans to BioWare's specialty, the role-playing game. Knuckles the Echidna has been kidnapped, and Sonic and his friends uncover a millennia-old conspiracy when they set out to rescue him. The plot doesn't aspire to the sophistication of BioWare's Mass Effect, but it's a cut above most similar stories. There's a lot of territory to explore in Dark Brotherhood and a variety of interesting puzzles that require the talents of all of Sonic's friends to solve. And the combat sequences mix turn-based strategy with the need for nimble stylus tapping. BioWare has delivered a fresh approach to the Sonic saga, and I hope this is just the start of a long partnership.

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

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