Monday, March 26, 2007

Agents are.... GO!

In general, I shy away from the continual re-animating Theme-versus-Mechanics dead horse argument. I' not really sure I care about the chicken-or-the-egg issues that it devolves into (namely, which is more important), as games should be fun regardless.

But I thought I'd add this to the mix.

Early on, the story starts out like this: when the GameBoy Advance came out, I picked one up, thinking that it had the capabilities to do more adult games. Which it does, see Advance Wars. Sure it's cartoony, but it's pretty much a table-top chit-style wargame, with tons of strategic and tactical plays, especially against another human. But generally, the GBA pretty much became the heaping ground of poor games themed with whatever hot kids licenses were around at the time.

But not so with the Nintendo DS. Sure, there are the usual Pokemon games, and Dragon Ball Z games, and most likely Mary Kate and Ashley games. But there are an impressive amount of game available for the system that people over 13 can enjoy.

Games I've acquired so far along these lines are:
Brain Age: Basic quick play puzzles
Advance Wars DS: The DS verison of the cutest game of war and death you'll find
Hotel Dusk: An impressively artistic interactive film noir novel.
Trauma Center: I've already managed to kill a musician during a simple surgery involving lasering polyps off of his throat muscles.

And final game, which probably falls a bit younger than the above, but got me thinking about the theme/mechanics debate: Elite Beat Agents!!

Here's a game that is exceedingly well done at what it's supposed to do. Which is something that I didn't think would work well at all, which is do a Dance Dance Revolution-styled beat matching game using a stylus. But it does it well, and it's pretty darn addictive. Probably more addictive than Guitar Hero, or the original beat matching game, Parappa the Rapper.

But what REALLY pushed EBA over the top is the sheer amount of themed presentation tossed on top of the beat matching mechanics. It's utterly ridiculous the amount of stuff that you effectively never see because you are spending so much of your effort staring at the little "beats" you are trying to hit.

While I've often wanted to watch the little guitarists on screen in Guitar Hero do their thing while playing, ultimately, whatever those guys are doing on stage doesn't interest me too much. They are just sort of running through a set of jamming animations, with a few bizarre Star Power activation animations (however, kudos need to go out to the exploding drummer at the end of the Spinal Tap song).

Really, if all EBA did was just have a bunch of dancing animated guys with some trippy backgrounds during the songs, it would be a good game. But there is sooooo much more to enjoy.

Here's how the story works. At every song in the game, there is some crisis going on. However, the threat level of the "crisis" is sort of debatable. It's usually some personal crisis. Take the first stage, Jane wants the football player at school to ask her out, but the neighbor has dropped off all of the kids for her to babysit, creating a fairly ugly situation for both Jane, and the football player, who can't handle the hijinks of the kids. And as with all the levels, the introductory screen is played out in a comic book-styled storyline, with the main character yelling "HEEEEEAAAAALLP!" at the tops of their lungs.

This cry for help gets picked up somehow on the world scanner at EB control by Commander Kahn, who, with a flick of his wrist, announces that "Agents are......GO!" Which, by itself, always rises a chuckle.

The rest of the introduction is played out with the three Agents getting to the crisis scene (always in a different mode of transportation, often ridiculous). And then the beat matching game begins.

During the game, the upper screen of the DS is playing out the crisis based on how well you are beat matching. Not that you have any time to watch what is going on, mind you. At different breaks in the song, the game gives you time to rest, and let's you watch little vignettes of the story play out; again, based on how well you arematching the beats.

And all of it is completely absurd, silly, and continually cracks me up.

I've not really gotten very far into the game, but some of the nice touches in the presentation are simple things (even though they just add to the insanity of it all), like the shot of the three agents staring stoicly out of the window from the EBA Blimp on their way to the crisis. Typically, Commander Kahn is in uniform when surveying the world for cries of help; during a deserted island mission he is unexpectedly wearing a Hawaiian shirt for no good reason at all. Also during this mission, the three agents ride a large pool toy together to the rescue (still in theirEBA required black suits!), which is funny enough. But upon closer look at the quick scene, one guy has a pool ring around his shoulder, and at least two of the agents are wearing goggles and snorkels!

So, what can we learn from this? While the game is pretty great from a mere mechanics standpoint, it's the lunacy of the theme and presentation that really makes the game shine. Maybe this is why there seems to be some rumbling about "geez, not ANOTHER European board game about building a 16th century town/building." While the mechanics may be good, or great, do you really need to spend time rehasing the same theme again?

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