Welcome to the second installment of Portable Project, a feature devoted to handheld gaming that gives critics a chance to comment on titles that aren't quite in-depth enough to merit a full-length review at the site. This month we examine three titles, Star X, Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams and Hot Wheels: Velocity X that are drastically different, both in terms of genre and quality.
Developer: Graphic State
Space-shooter Star X owes a lot to the Super Nintendo's Star Fox, most obviously in the way it mimics the primitive polygonal style of graphics. Unfortunately, just as the objects in Star X look like collections of spliced-together geometric shapes, the game itself seems haphazardly thrown together and as a result has some rather serious flaws.
Instead of the typical "pilot a ship into the heart of enemy territory" story, in Star X the player has to instead escape from a hostile alien planet and make his way back to the safety of Earth. This emphasis on the journey home as opposed to heading into danger is strongly reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey, yet there is nothing epic about the plot of Star X. There is no real sense that an important journey is taking place, and the observations that the pilot makes as he flies through a series of planet-surfaces and space levels are more or less robotic variations of "wow, I'm on a different planet now," followed by "oh no, I see some enemies in the distance."
The game's 22 stages are primarily "rail" levels on planet surfaces, meaning that the ship is automatically propelled forward and has a limited range of movement to either side. Occasionally there are free-flying levels in outer space, where the goal is invariably to blow up a certain number of objects within a harshly imposed time-limit.
The most serious problems in Star X lie with its controls. The ship's movements are limited due to poor button configuration; for example, pressing the R button will tilt the ship to the right, but the ship cannot tilt to the left since the L button is used for the break. (In spite of what the instruction manual says.) The ship's targeting system is problematic as well, which turns the simple task of hitting an enemy into an unexpectedly challenging ordeal.
There are scanty power-ups to be had, and only two weapons: a laser and a bomb. Incidentally, there is no sound or graphic trigger to indicate that a bomb has been launched—if it is successful the enemy will simply disappear.
The final annoyance is a password feature that records not only the level, but the status of the ship, so that it's possible to have to continue a game with a ship that's down to 0 lives and less than a quarter of its energy.
Star X is one instance where I wish they had just ported Star Fox over to the Game Boy Advance. It was a superior title in every way.
Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams
Klonoa: Empire Of Dreams is basically a puzzle game disguised as a 2-D action platformer (or is it the other way around?) with a few snowboarding stages thrown in for good measure. Though Klonoa is a fairly recent franchise, and this is its first handheld title, the game is air-tight and sure of itself with the sort of immaculate level design reminiscent of the classic early Super Mario Bros. platformers.
The majority of the levels require Klonoa to collect a certain number of coins and jewels to open the exit portal and unlock secret areas. The key to the puzzles lie in Klonoa's deliberately limited jumping abilities, which force the gamer to use ingenuity to reach higher places. Klonoa has an impressive list of moves that are all based on the simple concept of item manipulation. For example, he can grab enemies or objects and launch them at unreachable wall switches, stack them to block off water spouts or air currents, or even use them to vault off of as a kind of double-jump.
Graphically, Empire Of Dreams is colourful, detailed and bright enough to look good on the Game Boy Advance (GBA)'s screen. Also, the music is more sophisticated than the average platformer fluff. I would strongly recommend playing the game with headphones, since there is some stereo separation in the music that would be otherwise lost being pumped through the GBA's speaker.
Rounding out the package is a beautiful story where Klonoa must literally fight for the freedom to dream—a freedom that has been denied by a grouchy Emperor suffering from chronic insomnia.
There's no doubt that Empire Of Dreams is a rock-solid title and an innovative hybrid of puzzle and action (with some surprisingly intense boss-battles to boot.) If the game is lacking one thing, it's that Klonoa just doesn't have the pizzazz of a Mario or Sonic. But that could come with time.
Hot Wheels: Velocity X
The little toy Hot Wheels cars are known for two things: there are about a billion different models, and they can be made to do neat loops and stunts on a plastic track. Hot Wheels: Velocity X delivers on both counts, although the number of available cars has been pared down to 30.
Velocity X has both a story mode, which has about as much depth as the average Saturday morning cartoon, and a racing mode, which resembles a commercial from said cartoon. The story mode's 37 missions range from straight racing levels to delivery quests and car-on-car battles. While not as contrived as the so-called plots of other racing games, Velocity X's story is definitely on the "lite" side, full of the typical good-guy vs. bad-guy clichés.
Racing mode offers fifteen tracks to choose from, each with ample opportunities for aerial stunts that are performed using various button-mashing combinations. The stunt sections are by far the most interesting part of these tracks, which are otherwise uninspired in their design. The racing itself is also quite lacklustre, due to the fact that it is very easy to win once the best cars have been unlocked. There is also no 2-player linking option, so the player is stuck with the slow computer opponents.
Controlling the Hot Wheels can be mastered eventually after a rather severe learning curve. The cars steer as though they were remote-control, meaning that the steering perspective changes in relation to the direction of the car's nose. (So "up" doesn't always mean "up," for example.)
The game's cause is hindered, not helped, by its graphics, which are below par for the Game Boy Advance. For a game that's supposed to be featuring the cars, Velocity X's Hot Wheels are disappointingly rendered as tiny and grainy with a low amount of detail.
Velocity X also lacks a save feature in favor of a password system. This, coupled with the general mediocrity of the game and the GameCube linking option, would seem to indicate that Velocity X was meant as nothing more than a hasty addendum to its console counterpart.