Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment
Publisher: Konami of America
Release Date: September 27, 2005
Frogger first hit arcades twenty-five years ago, and was an instant hit. Frogger was a simple game; navigate the frog through traffic, across logs and turtles’ backs, and eventually into the goal. Its simple nature endeared it to gamers previously hooked on Pac-Man, and several console versions soon followed. After a console-only sequel (Frogger II: Threeedeep! ), the series disappeared for well over a decade, assumed to have been put to rest. Come on! We all know what happens to successful gaming franchises. Sure, they may be down, but it takes a colossal failure to keep them out for good.
In 1997, a 3D Frogger was released for the PlayStation and was quickly slammed by most major publications. Despite terrible controls and uninspired gameplay, the game sold well enough to become a Greatest Hit and spawn a sequel, Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge. Since then, we have seen a silent onslaught of Frogger titles. Apparently, nine unique Frogger games have been released in the last five years. I worked in gaming retail during much of that time and never noticed a run on Frogger titles. Still, somebody must be buying these games.
The latest edition of the series is Frogger: Helmet Chaos for the PlayStation Portable. Frogger has moved far beyond simply crossing the street; now he navigates through orchards, jungles, factories, and mines. Though the game is now a 3D platformer of sorts, many aspects of the series carry over from the original: Frogger still (mostly) moves panel by panel, and the game is played from an overhead view. However, the old mechanics are not especially conducive to 3D gaming, which leads to frustrating situations and having to replay levels several times.
Frogger: Helmet Chaos actually features a decent storyline, which typically comes into play between levels. Frogger and his pal Lumpy had plans to spend the day fishing, but Frogger is unable to find his friend. When Lumpy is eventually found, he is unresponsive and is wearing a metal helmet. After some investigating, Frogger finds out that the evil Dr. Wani is trying to put the helmets on everyone to control their minds. Naturally, being an adventurous amphibian, Frogger sets out to foil Wani’s plans and set everything right in the swamp. It may not be heady stuff, but this is a game targeted at younger children.
The storyline is presented via hand-drawn cinematic sequences displayed between the stages. It is essentially a narrated slide-show, complete with voice acting and subtitles. You must click the x button to advance the subtitles; otherwise the voice acting will go on unchecked. I cannot fathom why Konami could not tie the two aspects together. Either have the subtitles pop up automatically as the voice acting continues, or having the voice acting only come up when the player advances the scene. It seems a bit sloppy to me. The voice acting is fine, though it can be overly eccentric at times; again, children would probably be amused by it.
Like in the old-school Frogger, the object of Helmet Chaos is to get from point A to point B. The in-between is what has been changed dramatically over the last twenty-five years. The d-pad is used to move Frogger one panel at a time; holding down any direction will not cause him to move any further. Thus, if you need to move twenty panels, you will press the d-pad twenty times. As someone who grew up with modern platforming classics like Super Mario 64, it is extremely frustrating to not feel totally in control of your character.
Helmet Chaos has a strong focus on precision: you will hop around enemies, over obstacles, and in areas surrounded by water. Touch any of those, and you will lose a portion of your life. Lose all of your life, and it is back to the start for Frogger. The left and right shoulder buttons are used to change the direction Frogger is facing, which makes the title feel more like a strategy game at times. You will need to master those controls in order to complete the levels. Early on, you will likely lose many lives by making a quick jump in the wrong direction.
Frogger has some additional moves via the handheld’s face buttons. The x button moves Frogger two panels instead of one, while the triangle button allows Frogger to jump vertically. The square button whips his tongue in the direction that you are facing, which can be used to grab items or reach distant places. Additionally, tapping the vertical jump button twice will cause Frogger to do a ground stomp, reminiscent of Super Mario 64. Frogger can also swing on some well-placed poles by pressing triangle, followed by square; use this to reach far-away panels.
Frogger: Helmet Chaos looks quite good for a handheld title. Frogger is well-animated, and the environments are bright, colorful, and detailed. The aforementioned story sequences may be a bit dull, but I certainly did not expect CG animation from a lower-tier release. While the in-game visuals are sharp, I couldn’t help but think that the gameplay needed a bit more work. Helmet Chaos is a surprisingly difficult game; one that requires quite a bit of strategy and puzzle solving. Unfortunately, the controls are so precise and unfamiliar that I could not avoid making regular mistakes, even deep into the game.
How unforgiving is the game? On multiple occasions, I spent an hour playing through a level that should be completed in ten minutes. Each time, I would get slightly further, and then have to restart from the beginning. If this was a console game, I would have whipped my controller across the room several times. Luckily, I have enough common sense to not whip my PSP against the concrete. There are not enough power-ups in the game to justify having to restart a level after taking a few hits or making a handful of mistakes. While there are a total of thirty stages, you will not need to complete all of them to beat the game. Branching paths shave several levels off and give you a reason to play through the game again (should you want to).
Expectedly, this classic redux feature several bonuses. Several mini-games can be unlocked via collected coins from the story mode, and all can be played with up to three other players (with or without their own copy of the game). Most notable is a visually updated version of the arcade classic. The gameplay is the same as ever, though you will have to flip your PSP system sideways to play. Using the d-pad (now located under the screen) is a bit odd, but the game still presents a great way to kill time.
Frogger: Helmet Chaos is not a bad game by any stretch, nor is it particularly good. It seems like yet another licensed re-hash that attempts to re-imagine a gaming classic. Ultimately, the mash-up of old mechanics and new gameplay creates an experience that is more often frustrating than fun. A game like Daxter is a better choice for platform action on the PSP.