During my time with GameCritics.com, the most important thing I've ever learned so far is this: If there are two versions of a videogame in our inventory, for the love of God, don't review both. It doesn't matter how much I like a game, or if it's the most amazing, groundbreaking piece of software ever spawned; after I've spent 30 hours with it, I'm ready to move on to something else. Unfortunately, this lesson got learned the hard way. After reviewing Rave Master for the GameCube and swearing, groaning and practically headbanging my way through two weeks of almost more Rave Stones and puppy-dog snowmen than I could stand, I'm finally finished with Rave Master: Special Attack Force! And as much trouble as it was to complete, I liked it better than the GameCube version.
Like its console cousin, the Game Boy Advance's Special Attack Force! is a fighting game. Characters still have their own reasons for saving the world or destroying it. In other words, I know the drill. Or, do I? There are certainly subtle divergences between the games. Special Attack Force! has different (and more female) fighters available at the outset, and its graphics—thank goodness—don't try to fake 3-D realism. But not all of the handheld Rave Master's alterations are superficial ones. Even the rules for fighting have changed. Instead of just whomping an opponent until his lives run out, someone playing Special Attack Force! must keep an eye on the bar at the top of the screen. This bar is filled with colors that represent the fighters. (Human players are red). When one hurts another, his color pushes his enemy's color back, like sumo wrestlers in a ring. The sumo-bar makes fighting seem much more like…fighting. By pushing my enemy's color out of the way, I felt like I really was in some antagonistic contest.
But my favorite feature in Special Attack Force! is the game's Ranking Mode. Tournament-style combat in games is nothing new; even action role-playing game Kingdom Hearts used it in the Olympic stadium. Still, there's something empowering about starting off as the worst-ranked team of 50 and systematically eliminating one's competition, especially when one's accomplishments earn new fighters and cold, hard cash.
Battles in Ranking Mode take place on the kind of grid found in a strategy role-playing game. Teams move across the board, triggering fights when characters are one square away from each other. Rounds last 60 seconds, and after defeating a rival team, the player gets money and moves on to the next challenge. This money is used to "purchase" fighters for the team. Moving up through the ranks unlocks more characters to buy and increases a team's Capacity. Greater Capacity means players can put more and stronger fighters on their team. Ranking Mode is a system with surprising depth.
My fighting-game appreciation is broadening, slowly. While my attention span is getting short and Rave Master: Special Attack Force! never really amazed me, I had fun playing it. I liked the button-mashing. I liked experimenting with new moves (though all fighters had the same basic ones), and deciding exactly when an opponent was weak enough to finish off. Special Attack Force! didn't strike me as a great game, but it's all right for what it is.