In just a few days from this writing, Pixar will be unleashing its next big feature film to theaters. Like THQ's previous Pixar-related DS title Finding Nemo, the Nintendo DS version of Cars isn't a recreation of the film, or even the same game as the console renditions -- it's a collection of touch-screen mini-challenges featuring the characters from the film. On a technical level, Cars for the DS is a quality product, but in terms of gameplay presentation it's a bit of a mess, and overall it misses some key opportunities to extend the gameplay beyond an hour diversion.
Mini-games in Cars are all over the gauge, from clever and fun to downright unimaginative, but at least the needle does tend to tip heavier to the "good" side. Some of the best include a tire-stacking challenge where players have to flick the stylus upwards to fling the ring of rubber to land flush with the rest of the tires - the timing and momentum based control makes it a pretty tough challenge. There's also a touch-screen version of that traffic-sliding puzzle you can buy at that Brain Games store in the mall. You know the one: North/South facing cars can be slid up and down, East/West cars can be shoved right and left - and you'll have to maneuver the traffic jam to get one car from one end to the other. Another fun little mini-game requires players to bounce a car's hydraulics to go airborne and pull off tricks in mid-air for a string of points.
For every few good ones, there's a bad one thrown in. One is a simple remake of the old Atari 2600 Grand Prix design where players change lanes avoiding traffic using nothing but the touch screen - it's simple and tedious, and not a very good choice as one of the first games to wean players into the DS production. Then there's a game that uses the touch-screen unnecessarily and, quite possibly, dangerously: it's a Track & Field-style challenge where players have to rapidly tap the left and right side of the touch screen as quickly as possible to get their truck up to speed before launching up into the stratosphere. Why the designers require mashing on the screen instead of buttons to do this job is a little mental, and I'm sure we'll have kids cracking the lower display when pounding down on it with the stylus in this mode.
But the worst of the bunch is the mode that ties everything together: the race between Lightning McQueen and Chick Hicks. This mode is so ridiculously wonky that it's almost a chore to get any fun out of it. It's not even a real race, more a simple "weave through traffic" mode that requires players to fight with a computer-controlled opponent that sticks to your bumper throughout the entire challenge to cause damage through your vehicle. There's no distancing yourself from your opponent through skillful driving, he will always be a car's length or two away at all time - and when you hit the pitstop, so does he
just to keep him in the same lap as you. This mode is awful and is a missed opportunity to really push a good racing game within the variety-filled scattering of mini-games. The only multiplayer option in Cars is in this racing mode, but because it requires two cartridges to play we didn't have the opportunity to give it a whirl. But if single player is any indication, we're not missing much here.
The sheer variety of mini-games in Cars is definitely one of the positives of the Cars experience. But the team fails to extend these mini-game challenges outside of the game's level progression - the only real reason to play through them is to unlock the next batch. After you complete a game successfully you're certainly welcome to go back and play them to your heart's content, but without any incentive there's no real reason to - there's no table to record the best scores, which eliminates the motivation to keep playing. Also, forcing players to work their way through some of the early levels just to get to where they need to is a real drag - take, for example, the hydraulics jumping competition. Each level has a set score to reach in a specific amount of time, but the early levels have a quota set so low that it can easily be accomplished in a tenth the required time - the level ends, the score's reset, and then it's off to another ridiculously low quota. How about an endless score mode, guys?
The development team is at least technically capable - Cars, visually, looks great on the Nintendo DS. Most of the challenges utilize smooth, detailed 3D on both screens at the same time, utilizing the established Pixar style throughout. The car models animate just as fluidly and with as much personality as the film versions do, which is really impressive to see on a less capable (and usually less funded) system like the Nintendo DS. Shame the game falls into that "not enough cart space/budget for voice acting" handheld stereotype - apart from the occasional "yeee-haw!" from Mater the tow truck, these vehicles are mute.
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