By Katie . May 24, 2006 . 3:10pm
To create a game that doesn’t mimic grim, exhibitionist reality down to the finest detail, to elicit an appreciative ‘awww’ from even the most macho jocks or emo teens, to appeal to the innocence in all of us desensitized media drones – who amongst you can decry the dwindling efforts towards cuteness in the game industry? As an art that is being less and less attempted as everything ‘grows up’ and becomes something it’s not, it’s the wholesome cuteness, with the substance to back it up, beyond the reproach of even the most jaded writers – that kind of cute, I’m out to defend. On the other hand, I ABHOR cute as a disguise – like when ill-bred, homemade-movie stars, addled by a life of partying, hold equally ill-bred dogs in questionable positions for jean ads …without the jeans. And then they get their own video games, and of all the E3 coverage to air on CNN, they choose a five-second mention of Paris Hilton’s Jewel Jam. Blame societal change, blame whatever you will, but for the love of crimony, make sure to blame the sickening cute-detractors, all.
Back on topic. When it comes to games, the developers of Cuteness Past knew, or quickly learned, that cuddly characters and candied colors shouldn’t equate to cakewalk gameplay. Our reflexes and perceptiveness are at their best while we’re young, after all, and cute, challenging games, such as Kirby and Lolo, are now rightfully revered for taking those two abilities to task, respectively. Respectful of all age groups and skill levels, they see a steady progression in difficulty throughout the levels and an overarching learning curve within their series’ that made veritable marshmallow warriors out of mushy-spined, miscreant children. That is probably why Nintendo opted to acquire HAL post haste, and bring over their works throughout all their generations, for consoles and handhelds alike.
Not so is the case with one of their very own, first-party franchises, Legend of Starfi.
With this fourth in the long-running series in Japan now out for the Nintendo DS, the uninitiated ‘gaijin’ might best consider the cutesy aquatic cast and platform gameplay akin to like-themed hero Kirby and his Dreamland games, except in Starfi, we play an apparent narcoleptic, perpetually-smiling starfish, with Starpi, a pink female clone, stepping in when his unheroic nature gets the better of him. Our story opens as the floating sky castle where our hero makes his home and the city below come under siege from another sky fortress and forces unknown… or possibly well-known to all who have actually followed the series. One such as me simply can’t tell – whereas games like Kirby have graced handhelds and consoles far and wide, Starfi, first spawned on GBA from a project going as far back as Game Boy Color, has somehow never made the trip. Why not?
The obvious explanation is that Nintendo has always had enough cuteness to go on, and would risk bursting the child market at the seams with a game like Starfi. Well, it’s not for game players to fathom why marketing experts port one super-‘kawaii’ game and not another, but since you’re reading this article, you’ll have to deal with my opinion that Legend of Starfi is neither as inspired nor as enjoyable as the child-friendly titles we DID get. While, from a technical side, the graphics – an anime-esque blend of 2-D spirtes atop multi-plane polygonal backgrounds – check out in typical top-of-the-line fashion, Starfi’s simplistic gameplay and inane, tinny musical score, coupled with a MUCH-too-cute factor, are definitely what put it overboard on the good ship Domestic Release.
The design and play mechanics prove peculiar as all punch, though they’re sure not to bubble anyone’s bath with their cleverness. Within the levels themselves, you’ll collect standard orb power-ups that serve as cash for the shop, solve simple switch puzzles, and bop (wait for it…) cute enemies on the head, as you float, glide, run, slide, swim, and crawl through water and air, across chasms and platforms, and from door to door and room to room, until you acquire the missing item(s) for other members of the cast, and/or for your collection. Attempt to summarize gameplay in a run-on sentence, complete. Add in a boss battle for each world, and there really isn’t a whole lot more to it than you see here – and even now it sounds more dynamic and innovative than it really is. Each element is borrowed or totally replicated (like the Kirby dance) from other games, which doesn’t by any means make them inadequate or unenjoyable this time – just very… done.
On to character design and challenge! Good guys or bad, safety or hazard, who knows which is which in Starfi – when you’re accosted by a strange muscle shirt-clad lobster, a raging mollusk, and a stereotypical Japanese interpretation of an African American DJ, not much is sacred (and these are the good guys). Perceived threats like long falls, glowing bumpers, and spike balls pose no real threat of dehydrating our heroes, and Game Over is a screen nary seen if one exercises the barest childlike care in life preservation. A repeated seahorse transformation seems to have been intended to demand a perfect run-through in short, spike-laden areas lest you be sent back to the beginning, but with their length, it’s no real loss… and a more boring ‘helper’, who has but a single attack move and bouncier swimming, they couldn’t have conceived for Starfi. The bonus stage, which employs the game’s only gainful use of the stylus, also demands perfection – and that might possibly be the single most challenging task of the game, but we won’t be needing a bonus anyhow.
The world map is also a reflection of the difficulty – you receive highly-animated mission briefings, see short tutorials when new moves become available (all of which could really go without demonstration), and have the chance to buy clothes for the dress-up mode before setting off for stages of multi-room, action-adventure. Yep, seems there’s a mode dedicated entirely to dressing up your stars, and with every stage under your sea-sponge belt, the most visible progression is more strange costumes and props, some of which are also real head-scratchers. I know there’s that infamous culture gap, but come on! That gap is being debunked as perceived more than actual every day, but not much to the aid of elaborate Iron Chef mock-ups starring starfishes.
Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 2
Here we have the occasional cutscenes with the standard story of world domination, told manifold times in the dialogue-free manner by games of yore. They just happen to heap on the dialogue this time. Some stages do actually require you to gather cards of different suits, and the like, so it’s good to be armed with a passing knowledge of katakana.
Even though the games have a strong following in Japan, Nintendo has not announced any plans to bring Stafi to North America.
+ Pros: Child-friendly, and won’t break anyone’s thumbs. Exudes a little graphical charm here and there, by letting you tap and drag characters on the title screen, for example, and expressive touches like falling sakura blossom petals. Hypnotized Starfi/Starpi when you spin too much is also a must-see.
- Cons: Excessively passive enemies and lackadaisical design make for momentum-free gameplay. Nothing else sorely lacking, but nothing particularly distinguished about it – a paradox for a first-party title.
Overall: Waterwings, anyone? For those who answer ‘no’ to that question, Starfi will simply prove to be a fish out of water. It’s unfortunate, but the game feels like a calculated risk, a composite of working ideas for the early childhood gamer, with an outcome too deflated to send the slightest ripple through the big pond.
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