Buy 'SHAMAN KING: Master of Spirits 2': GBA
Much like the Himalayas, the deadly slopes of playable licensed games have been a dream goal for many a third-party publisher. A choice few, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (and its sequel) and Spiderman 2, have made it to the top of the mountain, finding success and fun in their formulas, and achieving digital greatness. Other games die on the trip; titles like Superman 64 and the infamous Atari 2600 "hit" E.T. are remembered as the creators of nightmares and broken dreams. Then there are the games that are happy getting part of the way up, saying "Hey, I did better than most," and going back home for a cup of Sanka. These are games like Capcom's Gundam licenses, the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series, and Shaman King: Master of Spirits 2.
Shaman King, as a franchise, has a less-than-spectacular fan base in America. Having never been as popular as similar Japanese shows such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z, that gap was widened even further by the very poorly received dub work that was given to it by 4Kids. As such, the show has been seen as the black sheep of the Shonen Jump manga, and the various GameBoy Advance titles have been all but overlooked. In the case of the Pokemon-like Legacy of the Spirits, that may well be a good thing, but the more action-oriented Master of Spirits games are certainly more playable than their licensed status may suggest.
Working in as a side-story to the storyline of the anime and manga, in Master of Spirits 2, the tournament held every 500 years to choose a new Shaman King has been postponed because the King of Spirits has gone startlingly silent. Everyone suspects foul play from the obligatory long-haired villain, Zeke, who has every right to be mad that people at the villain school keep teasing him because of his name. It's not that it's misplaced suspicion or anything; at the beginning of the game, Zeke appears to all but say, "Hey, guess what, I'm being evil," leaving the protagonist, Yoh, to venture forth and right wrongs and all that other hero stuff.
Now, I can't fault Konami for finding an idea that they think works and running with it, but from the beginning of the game, I found myself wondering if I'd been given the wrong title and wasn't playing some sort of demo version of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. The games aren't 100% identical, but they're close enough to draw raised eyebrows from those naysayers who believe Konami's squad can only make one type of game. Unlike Aria of Sorrow, you navigate between levels with the help of a world map, one which brings to mind games like Final Fantasy Tactics or, more appropriately, Castlevania III. Each large dot on the map dumps you into an action stage, where you're left to run, jump, and slash your way through three or four screens, or where you fight one of the game's bosses, typically one of the other shamans from the show.
The platforming isn't the only thing this game takes from Aria's book; as you advance through the game, you collect spirits in much the same way. You start with a single spirit – Yoh's guardian/samurai friend Amidamaru – and from there, expand your library of spirits by defeating monsters, taking them from bosses (who inevitably have just the spirit you need to advance in the game) or at times finding them strewn around like discarded Lego blocks, waiting to be scooped up. Spirits do pretty much everything that isn't in your "run, jump, slash" repertoire, from damaging enemies to pushing boxes around. However, any "active use" souls require furyoku to use, which is Shaman King's equivalent of Mana or MP.
Control is fairly responsive. Yoh typically goes where you tell him, although he skids to a stop as opposed to stopping on a dime like most platform heroes, causing a few issues with jumping. Likewise, the sound is "okay," consisting mostly of tunes from the 4Kids version of the anime, as fed through the GBA's speaker. There is a smattering of voice clips, as well, though they tend to come out grainy and unclear. (Of biggest offense in this case is Amidamaru's ultimate move, "Into the Antiquity," whereupon Yoh shout-mumbles out what seems to be half of a Dickens novel.)
Those who played the first Master of Spirits will find the graphics remain almost distressingly unchanged. There have been a few upgrades to the way the health and furyoku bars look, and the graphics have been touched up slightly, but it's more than obvious that the sprites are identical, right down to last year's particular artifices. Those who haven't played Master of Spirits will find the graphics in general to be of a lesser quality than a Castlevania or Metroid game; the backgrounds are sharp, and the sprites would be too, if they didn't show a visible level of pixelization. Spirit effects are fairly unimpressive as well, although they do what needs to be done in order to not impede with gameplay.
Not everything in the game is refined, however. The levels as a whole are intensely repetitive, particularly when it comes to enemy selection. One of the comments in my reviewers' notes goes as follows: I don't remember this many skeletons in the anime. What does Yoh have against skeletons? You will fight approximately 80 bajillion skeletons in Master of Spirits 2, of only a handful of varieties. There's one that poisons you, one that freezes you, and so forth, and there's even a smattering of little skeleton puppies to slaughter. Of course, there also exists the Generic Japanese Demon, some bats, and the occasional dinosaur made of Lego blocks. No, I don't know, either.
In addition, if you've played Master of Spirits, you're not going to find anything new here. The game is almost completely identical to its predecessor, save for new areas and a new major villain. The bosses, enemies, spirits, and such are exactly the same as before, albeit thrown at you in a different order. Regardless, it's worth a rental anyway, as everything that was enjoyable about the first game is still here, along with a few slight tweaks to controls and layout.
So does Shaman King: Master of Spirits 2 crest the proverbial Mt. Everest into the land of "great game?" No. This was definitely one of the titles that turned around for a hot cup of joe instead of trying the impossible. It's certainly got its share of flaws, but if you have $20 and a few hours to blow, you likely won't be disappointed by Master of Spirits. If you've already played every GBA Castlevania title to death, however, there's absolutely nothing here that you haven't seen in some quantity before. If you're a fan of the show or manga, then you're probably already on your way to the store to get this, so I don't see how I'm stopping you.
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