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Bury The Shovelware: Pokemon Dash

Kaes Delgrego

Nintendo's big E3 press conference has come and gone. While the mainstream media outlets will praise titles such as Wii Music and Wii Sports Resort, the hardcore gamer has reason to feel underwhelmed. Whenever the Big N fails to please its base, one might wonder how the seemingly impervious Nintendo could fail to deliver on expectations. However, like all that is human, the house Miyamoto built is not without its blemishes. When "mistake" and "Nintendo" are mentioned in the same sentence, those who aren't hurling bricks at the heretic are known to immediately think of the Virtual Boy. Nonetheless, Nintendo has had its fair share of publishing misfires involving some of its biggest licenses.

Often, the company will allow its intellectual properties to be used in games developed by second or even third parties. Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Metroid have all had titles outsourced. Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, Nintendo tends to insist on quality development. They will publish these games themselves in part to assure the consumer that the title is worthy of its featured IP (otherwise, things can get ugly). Nintendo is a business, however, and businesses need to make money. And what's one of the quickest ways to turn a profit? That's right: slap a well-known franchise onto a subpar piece of shovelware. The exemplar piece can be found in Pokémon Dash, a disastrous "scratch-your-DS-into-submission" racer.

00:00:14 - PIKACHU!!! As the game starts, an ENORMOUS Pikachu slowly materializes from the bottom of the screen as if to say "OH HAI I UPGRADED YOUR DS." Actually, it turns out to be the real and reasonably sized Pikachu riding in a hot air balloon. What a trickster!

00:00:20 - The logo appears and I'm ready to start the game. So, I press start. Nothing happens. I tap the screen. Still nothing. Hey, maybe I accidentally hit select instead of start. I press start. Nothing. Pikachu, who is perched on the lower screen, is discreetly pointing at his cheeks in a weird manner. I guess he wants me to tap his cheeks to start? Hmm ... okay. I try to tap his cheek, but he quickly turns the other one. Someone's been paying attention in Sunday School! What an incredibly annoying way to start a game. Finally, I catch the little bugger's right cheek and the game starts.

00:00:37 - A tutorial phase begins and instructs me to "get to the goal using the sliding action!" On the touch screen is a top-down view of Pikachu. Directions appear: "Slide on the bottom screen and move Pikachu! Sliding is the action when you touch the bottom screen." Is that a sentence? As additional details about the race are revealed, I can't help but feel that this presentation has a definite un-Nintendo like quality to it. Perhaps knowing that it was outsourced creates a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, but the delivery is undeniably lacking. The design is bland, the text is unappealing, and the tutorial feels thrown together.

00:01:01 - The course begins. The entire object of the game is to swipe furiously at the touch screen in the direction Pikachu needs to go. Seriously, Nintendo? It looks like my DS has a horrible rash and has begged me to scratch it. This is one of those "you'd be embarrassed to play in public" sort of games.

00:01:40 - The second course is entitled "Obstacles", but is really more about terrain. Trees and sand slow you down. Whoopee. As I pass a check point, a note appears warning me to stay away from the ocean or else I'll drown! Yet, the arrows are pointing me directly towards the dark blue waters. Has Pikachu grown sentient, realized that his name is being sullied by mediocre development, and is now asking me to drown him to end his misery?

00:02:44 - In the next course, I'm informed about having to use balloons to cross a body of water. The item is deployed and ... WOAH! Pikachu soars high up into the sky. A tiny shadow indicates where I will land once I descend. Ditching the balloons, Pikachu plummets towards the ground. This is kind of fun, in a Pilotwings' sky-diving sort of way. Still, it's a bit dated for a 2005 release. Additionally, it's highly likely that this is the most fun I'll be having in Pokémon Dash.

00:05:18 - "Congratulations! You've cleared all the practice courses. Now, challenge the Grand Prix!" Oh, challenge I will! "You can come back to practice again." Ahh ... don't wait up for me.

00:05:34 - "The smell and color of the greens. This is the start." Geez, I sure hope somebody didn't get paid to write that. So, I'm racing against 5 others now, and the courses are a bit longer. Stagnant gameplay remains. Again, I furiously swipe at the screen as if there's gold buried inside my DS lite.

00:07:10 - Perhaps the biggest flaw with this game is that there's no real track to follow. That's not to say that I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of an open-ended racing title with multiple paths. Rather, the simple goal of going from checkpoint to checkpoint is often complicated by the birds-eye view in the game. The top screen presents "radar" that has little to no information about the course itself. As stated above, the arrows that point you towards the next checkpoint are nearly useless without any idea of the upcoming hazards or structure of the course. Many critics argue that certain franchises and gameplay types work better in 2D. With racing, 3D is almost always superior. Having the ability to look ahead would remedy most of the issues with Pokémon Dash (excluding the broken wrists). I quit.

This appears to be the major issue with Pokémon Dash, and shovelware in general: lack of care for the user. That's not to say that the developers of Ambrella were literally having thoughts along the lines of "the people who play our game are stupid idiots!" A better theory is that perhaps from spending so much time developing the game, they lost sight of what its like to play the game. As the computer-controlled racers make their way directly to the next checkpoint while safely avoiding hazards and dead ends, Pikachu lurks around aimlessly, desperately trying to fit in with the pack. One might say that lots of games require patience and perseverance. Trial-and-error is perfectly fine, but it needs to be backed up by fun gameplay. In Pokémon Dash, once you do learn how to maneuver the course, there's no sense in re-doing it. Scratching in the correct direction to the next check point nearly guarantees a first place finish. Mario Kart DS allows a wide variety of outcomes by random acquiring of items. Pokémon Dash seems content to say "just figure out the correct path and YOU WIN."

There it is: shovelware approved by one of, if not, the best video game company that ever existed. Instead of focusing on the negative, however, I'd encourage developers to look at this Nintendo-approved shovelware as a sign of hope. If the same company gives the "okay" to both Pokémon Dash and Super Mario Bros., then perhaps the next big revolution to the gaming world will come out of your humble studio. What's to be learned from Pokémon Dash is that even the best make mistakes. Hopefully Nintendo learned from theirs.

In gaming, the term shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit. Bury the Shovelware takes a closer look at these titles, typically those that inhabit the lower end of metascores. It attempts to: 1) find out where and how the developer went wrong 2) identify common traits present in most shovelware 3) measure how long the game can be suffered.

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