IGN Review of Garfield's Nightmare
Licensed games generally hover around the bottom of the DS barrel in terms of quality, and games based off kiddy licenses are usually at the bottom of that. So it's refreshing to find a game, like Garfield's Nightmare, a title based off a kids' license that not only does that license justice, but shows a level of polish and graphical prowess rarely seen even in the best DS games.
Garfield's Nightmare follows the grumpy, obese feline through 16 stages of classic platforming and hop and bop enemy combat. The story goes that Garfield has fallen asleep (what else is new?) and the player must guide him through four extended nightmares, battling ghosts, bats and snowmen on his way to locating the missing pieces of an alarm clock that can wake him back up. It's pretty standard plot for a DS game. What's not so standard are the graphics.
This game is gorgeous. From Garfield's model to the lush castle, lava and snowy environments, the game suffers from none of the typical hard edges and visibly low polycounts that plague most 3D games on the DS. Every object and character in the game has a soft, clay-like shape atypical for such a low poly system, and the textures all have a warm, pastel tone. The DS has always struggled with 3D and the best games have usually resembled something that would have been passable on the N64. This game looks better than that, or at least approaches late generation titles like Conker's Bad Fur Day. In some ways, the 3D here looks better than that of New Super Mario Bros. or Metroid Prime: Hunters. Granted, there's a lot less going on in this game than in those, and most of the environments use the same types of components over and over (stone, snow, and so on). But the care with which each element was crafted has to be seen (and seen in motion) to be appreciated.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the little details, as well. When Garfield passes under a giant spiked ball, he's shadowed for a split second. When a checkpoint is reached, it unleashes a volley of balloons that sail realistically into the air. Giant chains in the foreground tilt their geometry as the camera passes by, just to show the player that none of this is 2D fakery. And when Garfield walks over a wooden bridge, the heat from the lava below cooks through the geometry of every individual plank. It's almost a waste on a license like this, except that Shin'en has perfectly captured the tone of Garfield and remained pretty true to Jim Davis's art style throughout.
The game features all the prerequisite platforming and hop and bop elements. Garfield can jump, butt stomp, duck and crawl, hit switches, and move crates around for platforming. Enemies hover or swing in predictable patterns that allow the player to take them out without too much effort. What's interesting here is that although the game is simple and geared toward a very young audience, there's a slightly more difficult game hidden in here as well. To get from point A to B takes all the skill of a 5-year-old, but along the way there are hidden detours, full of toenail jumps and strict timing more at home in a Castlevania game. These areas pop up less frequently than the standard zones, but they show a great deal of forethought on the part of Shin'en, who must have realized this game would occasionally end up in the hands of a gamer older than their target audience.
Hidden in these separate paths are some cool minigames where Garfield essentially finds a door, wakes up for a minute and has to run around a confined area of John Arbuckle's house, performing a task before time runs out. The average gamer that picks up this game may play through the entire thing never seeing any of these levels, which is good and bad; good because Shin'en has saved something genuinely cool for explorers, bad because in a game that's already pretty short, they're making one of the more enjoyable sections easy to miss.
More puzzling is that these fun little minigames aren't accessible from the title screen. Instead, the player unlocks a touchscreen-specific game after finishing each of the four worlds. I'm sorry to say that these games kind of blow. They're not as polished as the hidden games in terms of graphics or gameplay, and really feel like they were tossed into the game at the last minute in an effort to get more touchscreen gameplay in there. The game didn't need it, and if the full 3D minigames were unlocked instead of these 2D hybrids, the product would have been better for it.
Beyond the minigames, the game has a few other nagging issues. When Garfield begins crawling against a low opening, he sometimes gets stuck on an invisible collision and has to be turned around before he'll squeeze through the passage. There are pretty frequent blind jumps and the developers have solved this by giving players the ability to scroll the screen up or down, but it would have been better to just perfect the camera so this scrolling wasn't necessary.
The 2D far backgrounds, particularly in the first world, are noticeably plain compared to the busy 3D world in front of them. This isn't an issue most of the time, as backgrounds usually only peak in through windows and at the edges of the screen. But with all the hidden areas that can be reached, it's not uncommon to see a lot more of the dull background than the developers must have intended.
Each time Garfield triggers a switch to open a gate or a door, the camera pans from the switch to the gate and back to the switch before the player regains control again. A few of the switches are a great distance from their gate, however, and require the player to sit there watching pointless screen scrolling for a good 10 seconds or so. There's no reason this couldn't have been sped up. Lastly, the cutscenes just don't work. They make use of some Jim Davis-like comic panels to convey Garfield's story, but the game scrolls through these panels achingly slow and the writing's not remotely engaging.
Audio across the game is exemplary, and that's no big surprise considering Shin'en is the developer. When they're not making their own games, Shin'en is one of the most widely-used handheld audio houses around, composing music for several other prominent handheld developers. The tunes here sound great and manage to stay away from the tinny, synthy midi compositions many DS games are plagued with. It feels slightly out of character to have Garfield yelp a cat-like "REOW!" when he gets hit, but I'm not sure that a gravelly voice clip from the late Lorenzo Music would have worked better (although I'm sure I would've enjoyed it more).
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