Reviewed: December 20, 2006
Released: November 14, 2006
What’s it like playing Xiaolin Showdown, the game based on the WB cartoon of the same name? Drink a dozen cups of double-caffeinated coffee then set your hair on fire and sumo wrestle with some lobotomized howler monkeys. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a LITTLE, but if you’re looking for the kind of frantic over-stimulation I just evoked with that scene, play this game. Like the cartoon, it is a runaway train of color-drenched animated mania; a shining example of why Ritalin exists. And like all cartoons, too much of it is bad for your brain.
“Xiaolin Showdown” is a little bit of everything: a fighting game, a story-based adventure, a puzzler and a host of mini-games all rolled into one. I detect influences as diverse as Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and even the action/RPG hybrids like the “X-Men Legends” series, to say nothing of the obvious homage to cheesy kung fu films.
Here’s the scoop: a mystical force that has maintained the balance between good and evil for thousands of years is about to be thrown outta whack thanks to evil boy genius Jack Spicer and his villainous cohorts. Jack wants to acquire every Shen Gong Wu – objects of magical power – in the world and tip the scales in favor of the bad guys.
Determined to stop him are four Xiaolin warriors-in-training who employ their own Shen Gong Wu and an arsenal of fancy fightin’ moves in the war against chaos: Omi, Kimiko, Raimundo, and Clay, each a master of a particular element like wind or fire. You can choose to take control of any of the four, allowing the computer to control the rest since the quartet always fight side-by-side (you will eventually get to play as Jack and his immortal ally Chase Young, too). Each character has his or her own fighting style, special moves and magic powers, and will advance in level as they kick butt, becoming stronger and earning better Shen Gong Wu abilities.
The Adventure mode of “Xiaolin Showdown” will take you through the game’s story, though I use the word “story” in the loosest sense possible. What it really is is a progression through different fixed areas in which you smack around lots of henchmen and collect power-ups, interrupted frequently by Jack, who hovers just out of reach and gloats. The levels are really just arenas for the fighting, no real moving around or transitioning from room to room. The action consists primarily of trashing Jack’s robots, which present practically no challenge whatsoever but are nonetheless fun to destroy because there are so many ways to do it: kicking, punching, throws, combos and lots of special moves like tornado blasts, fireballs, lighting, and so on. When all four Xiaolin warriors are fighting at once the screen comes alive with splashy effects and big explosions, the action happening so fast and the screen becoming so crowded that it’s hard to follow everything at once.
Trash enough robots and you’ll retrieve an ancient scroll and accumulate points and coins toward power upgrades and better abilities. On to the next arena…trash robots…get scroll…and repeat. Problem is, that’s just about all there is to it, at least in terms of the “story” mode. The levels do become more challenging as newer and more powerful robots and other types of underlings are thrown at you, but that just makes the fighting more entertaining – you’re really never threatened with death or defeat in this game. Unfortunately every level is pretty much the same, resulting in the onset of tedium after a couple hours. This is bad. In fact, it’s the mood-killer for this particular game.
There are some amusing other modes of play that do help to break up the eventual monotony that creeps in. “Showdown” mode is a series of mini-games in which you compete against the computer’s three other players in classic schoolyard-style games like tag, capture the flag, and king of the hill. Showdowns occur during normal gameplay when a new Shen Gong Wu item appears. Regardless of who grabs it first (you or any of the computer’s players), you’re immediately warped to a showdown level to compete for the item. Sometimes the object of the showdown may be as simple as playing “keep away” with the other players, but it makes for a fun aside and – coolest of all – you can use your special moves and Shen Gong Wu abilities during the showdown. If you win you get the Shen Gong Wu item.
Bonus “Yin Yang Yo-Yo” levels also appear from time to time. For this you need to scramble over a series of platforms, collecting loot and smashing jars to snatch special items. The goal in this one is actually to fight your friends, or at least to prevent them from getting the goodies. It’s good to keep your eyes peeled for the floating Yin Yang symbols that warp you to this challenge since it’s the best way to win coins.
The Shen Gong Wu system itself is fun, though it is underutilized. Players can earn or buy 30 different Shen Gong Wu items, each one offering a different battle ability. Players can equip three at a time and use them repeatedly, but you can’t use the same Shen Gong Wu items as one of your allies, so if both you and the burly behemoth Clay want to use the “Monkey Staff” (which, incidentally, turns you into a monkey, making you jump higher and run faster) you gotta settle it outside.
There are a few mechanical snags in “Xiaolin Showdown”. The targeting system is atrocious. The R3 stick is used to toggle between potential targets and focus your attacks, but it’s maddeningly sensitive and frequently locks onto your allies instead of Jack’s robots. The red light above your chosen target is difficult to distinguish amongst the dozens of other effects lighting up the board, and the lock often fails to hold if the target moves off-screen for too long a time, forcing you to look around again for something to hit. Despite that, any character that DOES attack a target is committed to the attack, since the attack combos are automatic – once you begin an attack, nothing can stop you or change your direction, even if your target lock fails and your enemy moves behind you or starts attacking an ally.
Friendly fire is a hazard also. Any Xiaolin warrior can bash on his buddies just as he/she would on the robots, and the Shen Gong Wu abilities can be turned against the people who are supposed to be watching your back. This gets annoying pretty fast because so many of the character’s powers are area-of-effect attacks that hurt everybody within a certain radius. Consequently, you’ll spend almost as much time on your back as you will on your feet as the fights degenerate into free-for-alls where everyone tries to smash everyone else. It amounts to a waste of time and not much else.
I’ve already mentioned the dazzling array of color “Xiaolin Showdown” offers. The game is eye-catching if nothing else. Between the Shen Gong Wu effects, the magic powers, special moves, and the endless explosions, the fights are always fun to look at. The same exaggerated artwork that makes the cartoon stand out is present here as well; all super-deformed bodies and ridiculously over-the-top costumes and environments. The fighters all have funny, unique little movements and poses, especially Omi, who looks like the demented love child of Mr. Myagi and the Smiley Face logo.
What’s interesting is that a quick glance at the visuals might make you think this was an anime title, but the artwork is actually very unique from the Japanese “manga” style. Really, it looks more like the other, newer WB cartoons than anything else.
The level designs are a bit of a letdown in the sense that they’re so small and generally un-ambitious, but there is good use of obstacles, platforms, and loads of throw-able, breakable objects to work around. I’ve not seen any slowdown or processor lag despite the sheer number of foes, allies and effects on screen, although I have seen some choppiness during the mini-games and when transitioning between the fights and cutscenes.
One thing I will never understand about kid’s cartoon these days is why the voice actors all speak like they’re talking to a room full of deaf foreigners, as if SPEAKING VERY LOUDLY AND DELIBERATELY will somehow get the point across better. “Xiaolin Showdown” is no exception in this department: the voices come straight from Patronizing Over-Acting 101, although the pain is lessened somewhat since there are only 2 major voices, Jack Spicer and the Xiaolin warrior’s pet dragon, who pops in to explain very obvious things in a very cutesy voice: “Whoa! Another scroll piece just appeared! You better get to it before Jack does!” On the plus side, the dragon does speak directly to the camera, which is an amusing detail.
For lack of much music (a low, Asian-themed soundtrack of pipes and gongs is just about all) the effects dominate, and they do well. All the attack combos and Shen Gong Wu powers have their own sound, as do the robots and their numerous attacks. I especially liked the sounds of successful strikes and combos – very Bruce Lee “whhaaaaackk!!!”-style. Clearly the punches and kicks were inspired by the very best of martial arts films, which, despite cheesy dubbing, had some of the most bone-jarring impact effects ever. In this “Xiaolin Showdown” is right on the money.
With 6 playable characters, 18 levels and at least a dozen fun mini-games, there is enough to get a couple weeks worth of new stuff from “Xiaolin Showdown”…as long as you don’t mind the rather repetitious Adventure mode, which is only tolerably entertaining thanks to all the bonus levels and new Shen Gong Wu powers you can potentially acquire. The best thing this title has going for it is the 4 player mode. With the PS2 multi-tap, you and three friends can take control of the whole Xiaolin school and wreck the baddies – or each other – as much as you want. Going solo with the computer is nowhere near as fun.
Fans of the cartoon or just about any itchy, jerky pre-teen would probably take to the simplistic gameplay and frenetic action with ease, but this is definitely NOT a gem for gamers looking for depth, or even for a particularly good fighting game. The challenge is very low and advancement is practically automatic, at least until the fifth or sixth level when things get a little harder. It comes down to this: it’s a cartoon brought to life. If your natural inclination is not to watch the cartoon, then you probably wouldn’t play this game.
I haven’t kept up with my cartoons – or cartoon games – over the years, but I don’t ever recall them being as weirdly bi-polar as “Xiaolin Showdown”. It’s is a blast to look at, but the gameplay flails all over the spectrum from fun to outright boring. The game makers would’ve done well to toss some variety into the Adventure mode, altering objectives or designing some cool boss fights. The to-do list of scrapping Jack’s robots and collecting the scroll pieces every single level becomes impossibly dull after a while. This is really too bad because, as I said in the intro, this is a crazy game in most respects and the Showdown modes are a lot of good, easy fun.
I love the martial arts genre and I’m usually very receptive to any tribute/homage to it, even if it’s a cartoon. That’s why I wanted “Xiaolin Showdown” to be better than it turned out, but a lack of imagination in terms of game mechanics doomed it to the rental bin and not the permanent collection.