Review by Tom Clark
"-OR- How Mr. Game & Watch got his groove back..."
Hello, and welcome to The Broken Thumb Retirement Home For Yesterday's Video Game Characters. Allow me to show you around. Here we have Zool, trying to explain to an uninterested orderly about how he isn't supposed to be an ant. Again. To your left is the solitary confinement block. We had to lock Princess Daisy up in there since we found her igniting a Princess Peach voodoo doll and yelling 'This'll teach the bitch for stealing my man!!' over and over in a quite distressing manner. Over there's Bubsy, telling again why his 3D adventure was rubbish. Bless. Oh, look, Rick Dangerous and Montezuma are arguing over which one of them is the original Lara Croft. Ah - dinner's ready. Pierre The Chef has cooked us up something rather lovely. You will stay won't you? We seem to have a spare seat... no wait, that should be Mr. Game & Watch's seat... where has he got to? Ah well, he's one of our oldest residents, he's probably just soiled his man-nappy, and is too embarrassed to come down. I'll go get him, and then we can - oh crivens... he's escaped again.
Game & Watch games were all the rage in the early Eighties (along with face paint and unbelievably odd hair). The simplistic gameplay made them easy to pick up and play, and the LCD display screens were pretty impressive for the time. Not only that, but they introduced some of the key Nintendo characters, such as Mario, Donkey Kong, and his son, to the unspoken depths of your pockets. And now Mr. Game & Watch - the infamous black blob figure that was the icon of the series - is back, like a very welcome bad penny. This is not the first time that the Game & Watch games have been collected together on the Game Boy (Game & Watch Gallery Advance is not also known as Game & Watch Gallery 4 for no reason, although any veterans of the Game & Watch Gallery series should be warned that many of the games released in previous Galleries are also in this title....), but with the advent of the rather wonderful Game Boy Advance the G&W games have been ported with more style than ever before. Indeed, you get the impression that this G&W collection is the realisation of what Nintendo were attempting with the previous collections. The increased capacity of the GBA means that there is an incredible total of 20 games on this one cartridge, and just over half of these have been given a modern day makeover (featuring improved graphics, and adding more modern Nintendo characters such as Toad, Yoshi, Waluigi, the Princess and so on) as well as being served up in their original flavour. Trousers!
But before you get too excited, only six of these games are available from the start, and they prove to be a bit of a mixed bag. Although further games are unlocked by scoring well in the initial titles, the first six games manage to sum up pretty much everything you can come to expect from this collection. The games here basically fall into two separate catagories - there're those that rely on simple reflex manoeuvres, such as 'Fire' in which you must position yourself underneath people leaping from a burning building in order to catch them, and there are the more ambitious games that feel very different to their peers, such as 'Donkey Kong Jr.', in which you control the titular simian in what is essentially a simplistic platform game. Of the initial six games available you get a good mix of these two types of game - other reflex-based games are 'Mario's Cement Factory' and 'Rain Shower', while the variety is provided by 'Donkey Kong 3' (which is actually vastly different to the original Donkey Kong - it's not even in the same genre, focusing instead on your effort to send bees - and in the updated version ghosts and fireballs - across the screen at your opponent by use of a spray can....), and 'Boxing' (which does pretty much what you'd expect). However, there seems to be a similar split in the quality of the opening titles, too.
The reflex games are, on the whole, superb. Blissfully simple, yet insanely addictive, you'll find yourself playing for absolutely hours in a maddening attempt to beat your previous high score - often finding yourself in a situation where all thought goes away, leaving just your actions (it's really rather therapeutic...). As you'd expect, the longer you are playing, the faster everything gets. Eventually you reach the stage where even the most minor of hesitations is punished. It's hard, but ultimately it's fair, because the challenge is all down to your skills: essentially it's a test of what you've already learned - simplistic difficulty like this is sadly absent in many of today's games. And when you do beat the score that has taunted you for the last few hours and get a new high score, you'll want to beat that high score.... These little games are genuinely amongst some of the most addictive I've ever played.
Some of the more superficially complex titles that are initially available fare less well. Boxing is a largely uninspired and dull title, due largely to the complete lack of challenge that it presents you - instead of becoming more difficult it opts for becoming more boring - the opponents you face stay too easy for too long, and as such the simple combination of hitting them with high and low punches until they fall is more of a chore than anything else. Similarly, Donkey Kong 3 fails to hold attention for too long, due to the fact that it's a bit of a bizarre title - on paper it should have the same sort of quick and frantic gameplay as the rest of the titles here: both you and your opponent (either computer-controlled, or via the GBA link cable...) are trying to blow the same bees / boo ghosts / fireballs at each other, and as such trying to second-guess your enemy's plan and turn it against them should be compulsive stuff. However, more often than not it just becomes a soulless experience, as both you and your opponent simply counter whatever is thrown, cancelling each other out - as such this game actually gets less enjoyable the better you get at it, as when you are less adept at the game the more your opponent poses a threat.
Although the fact that these two games are far below the standard set out by the others is quite a problem when you first pick up the title, since they amount to a third of the available games, it becomes less so as you progress, unlocking more and more different games. Scoring two-hundred points in a game earns you a star, as does earning four-hundred, and six-hundred and so on. As these stars add up the extra games become available. Although many of these extra games are very similar to other games on the package (the first game that you unlock, Chef, is virtually a carbon-copy of Fire, for example), they are largely of a very high standard, and all of them manage to retain the addictive nature that is the trademark of the series. There are even a few surprises tucked away in there too (just wait until you see what the last game you unlock is....).
But it isn't just extra games that are unlocked by collecting the stars - you also gain access to special features such as a history of the Game & Watch titles by way of a timeline detailing the release of every G&W title, or access to the 'music room' - essentially this is little more than a sound test, allowing you to hear every tune that you have come across so far in the game, but you do get an animation of Mario and Luigi playing the music themselves, which is amusing for a few seconds. The trouble with this feature, though, is that as functional as the music is when you're playing the game, none of the tunes here are really anything more than average, and as such not one really stands up to play in the Music Room: they're just not good enough to make you want to actually listen to them.
Graphically this game should please everyone. When you elect to play the games in their original form the recreation of the original Game & Watch screen is staggering - while the graphics are naturally very simplistic, what impresses is the minute attention to detail that has gone in to recreating the games here. Due to the nature of the original G&W screens, there was always a faint 'shadow' in every position n the screen where a sprite could appear. Although completely unnecessary on the GBA, that shadowing is included here, which adds to the nostalgic experience no end. Many of the more modern gamers may look at this and react in disgust, anyone looking back at the game through rose-tinted glasses will no doubt love the faithful way that the games have been ported. In modern mode the complete opposite is true: the graphics are astonishingly bright and colourful. The sprites have a much chunkier feel, and everything looks crisp and wholesome. There are a few odd touches (during 'Boxing' in modern mode, when King Boo is KO'd he looks astonishingly similar to ET....), but on the whole the game really does look rather lovely.
As a chance to go on a shameless nostalgia trip, you can't get much better than this game - everything is designed as a homage to the past. It's a chance to remember things as they were, and that is both a strength and a weakness. Everyone who looks back on the era fondly should get this game now, but you can't help but wonder if people who have never played anything that came out before the mid-Nineties will really appreciate this game in the same way. While the addictive gameplay is of course still as compulsive today as it was back then, regardless of whether or not the player was around back then, you have to wonder whether a lot of the extra features, such as the Timeline feature, will be of any interest whatsoever to some of today's gamers. As such this is a little bit of an oddity: it's a niche title that everyone can enjoy. Some people will get more out of this title than others, but everyone should find something to enjoy here. All in all, a triumphant return for our friend Mr. Game & Watch. His return may be shortlived, but it certainly was nice too see him again, if even for just the briefest moment....
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 02/01/04
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