It's usually hard for me to get upset about imitation. Most beloved games are built on the achievements of others: Guitar Hero is Guitar Freaks from a different angle, and Guitar Freaks was just Beatmania anyway. Galaxian is Space Invaders with more colors. Usually, even the most obviously "inspired" games have their own personality and feel. But not Konami's Zac and Ombra: Amusement Park of Illusion for DS, which I can only describe as the product of some depressingly corporate thinking. Basically, Konami decided to make Professor Layton, but for people who aren't smart enough to solve puzzles.
Allow me to summarize Zac and Ombra, in case you missed the announcement of the Japanese release: it's Professor Layton, with minigames in it instead of puzzles. Just about every aspect of the Layton experience is here, from the (quite nicely) animated cutscenes in the style of Studio Ghibli, to the pseudo-European look, to finding hidden games by tapping around environments. You play as a magician named Zac, who works to clean up the mischief created by a bunch of aliens called "Ombra." The demo introduces Zac with a slot machine-style minigame in which he has to tap a rabbit icon at the right time to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Following this introduction, he heads for a cruise ship, which becomes infested by Ombra right away. He then moves from room to room, looking for Ombra in each area and pulling on them (by dragging with the stylus) to initiate some wacky minigame.
The two Ombra-fighting minigames I played involved holding the stylus to race them around a sink using water currents, then stopping in time with an on-screen prompt, and tapping an Ombra repeatedly with the stylus as it runs around the screen. Impressively, every minigame has multiple difficulty levels, which affect the amount of "Ombra balls" you receive as a reward. Not so impressive: the actual minigames. The three I played (an admittedly small sample) were rudimentary and kind of boring.
If the rest of the game were more interesting, perhaps I could forgive the fact that the minigames were uninspiring, but I don't think so. The minigames are the point of the thing! It doesn't help, though, that they're delivered within the framework of a hamfisted ripoff. I would be perfectly happy for "Professor Layton-style game" to become a new genre like the ones born from Myst or Street Fighter -- but that's not going to happen if all we have are pale, boring imitations. Who knows, though -- maybe the minigames become super engaging after the early portion I played, and the story does more to separate itself from Layton. Maybe.
Konami hasn't said anything about this game, but it included a fact sheet about Zac in its TGS press kit, including an English title. That suggests that there may be a plan for a North American release ... although Konami also included fact sheets for the Love Plus arcade games. Zac and Ombra will be out in Japan on October 28.