Reviewed: March 12, 2006
Released: February 3, 2006
Honestly, I approach video games based on popular TV shows, movies, or comic books with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, many a time in my youth I got excited by a game based on movies I liked, like Batman (based on the 1989 Tim Burton film) or Home Alone, only to find that it is actually a cheap knockoff hastily slapped together to cash in on a pop culture fad. License games often fall into the obscurity of mall bargain bins, but they cost developers relatively little to make and often draw in a few suckers based on the momentum of their cultural namesakes.
However, some of my favorite games have also been based on a movie or cartoon license. I loved the depth of Goonies II for the NES, as well as the interesting twist on classic platforming presented by Duck Tales for the NES. I lost many hours of sleep in college playing 007: Goldeneye, one of the best multiplayer games of the 64-bit era. Even Willow, a now-obscure movie from the 1980s, had a decent action RPG based on it.
So when I was tasked to review Nicktoons Unite! for the Nintendo DS, suffice it to say that I was dubious of the prospect that the game would be any good. Imagine my surprise when I found that, while this game will not join the pantheon of great games, it does at least provide some challenging gameplay and made a commendable attempt to use the DS 3-D hardware.
Through some contrived circumstances, the mad Professor Calamitous has enlisted the help of three other cartoon bad guys from different Nicktoon universes to drain the universes of power and conquer the world. Jimmy Neutron, the boy “genius,” learns of the Professor’s nefarious plans and develops his own quantum hyper-dimensional travel device to create his own team of unlikely superheroes to fight the evil crime syndicate. And really, if you could tap into any dimension you wanted to find superheroes, you would pick Spongebob Squarepants and Billy from the Fairly OddParents, right? OK, so they’re not the Justice League; however, each character (Jimmy, SpongeBob, Billy, and Danny Phantom) has his own unique abilities, and you must figure out which characters special movement abilities and attacks are ideal for a given situation.
You can only have one player moving at a time, but you can easily substitute one character for another by dragging the new character’s picture to the center of the touch screen. This can be done seamlessly, so that it will not distract much in the middle of a fight. Each character has different movement abilities: Jimmy Neutron has a jet pack that can provide an extended jump or even lift him off the ground; Billy is the fastest member of the crew; Danny Phantom can wall jump a la Prince of Persia and walk through some walls; and Spongebob Squarepants can hover in a giant bubble or, er, parachute with his underpants.
In addition, each character has different weapons, and different super special moves that can only be performed after picking up special items and performing the right movements on the touch screen. These are a bit tricky to pull off at key moments and feel like a forced way to incorporate the DS touch screen into gameplay.
For the most part, Nicktoons Unite! is like every other 3-D platformer before it. The controls are clunkier than the really good examples of the genre, such as Super Mario 64 (also available for the Nintendo DS), and jumps are sometimes frustrating to time correctly. However, the camera control is pretty solid, so at least there are no problems being unable to see enemies or pitfalls when needed.
One thing that can be said for the gameplay in Nicktoons Unite is that it is quite challenging in places, especially for a game created for a young audience. Too many games nowadays hold your hand through seemingly never-ending tutorials, providing almost no opportunity to try to solve difficult puzzles or find solutions to problems. Nicktoons provides a short tutorial level, but then leaves players on their own to figure out which person to use in each puzzling situation. It’s kind of refreshing to see a game that doesn’t dumb itself down, especially for children, whose entertainment too often treats them like they can’t think for themselves.
For a game that didn’t have to try too hard, Nicktoons Unite is commendably good looking for the DS. The cel-shaded 3-D models for both the characters and their enemies look crisp, colorful, and well done. Some of the texture-mapping for walls and objects in the game world look a little rough and pixilated, but because it’s on the DS and not a more technologically powerful system like the PSP or a console, a little pixilation is understandable and forgivable. When most DS platformers are still playing with 2D, Game Boy Advance style graphics, it is nice to see another game besides Super Mario which makes use of the DS’ 3-D capabilities.
You’d be better off playing this game with the sound turned down. What little music there is can get repetitive and boring, and sound effects are virtually non-existent. You barely even get an “ow” when a character is hit by an enemy or falls and loses health. Good sound and music can really make a game pleasant, but bad music can make playing a game miserable.
At the time I write this review, Nicktoons Unite retails for $29.99. Given the fact that the game is short and something of a generic platformer, the game would be a decent value at $19.99, but is probably not worth $30 unless you have kids who are avid fans of Nickelodeon (or it is one of your guilty pleasures).
It would be nice if more license games put at least as much effort into making a good-looking, challenging presentation as Nicktoons Unite does. However, the good graphics and challenge do not make up for a corny story, generic game mechanics, and obnoxious music. If you’re hungry for 3-D platforming on the DS, you should check out Super Mario DS. If you have tapped that out and still clamor for more, then you can pick this game up to hold you over.