Release Date: November 15, 2005
Few things can compare with the excitement of going to a casino with a wad of cash in one hand and a rabbit's foot in the other. The lights, the sounds, the drinks and the smoky environment (OK, maybe not that last one) all combine to form an adrenaline-pumping experience. Actually coming out richer than when you started is a difficult proposition, but if you do, you'll feel like a high roller and might even consider giving up your day job to become a fulltime gambler. Thanks to the recent success of poker as a pastime, game developers have jumped aboard the bandwagon and started releasing casino games on various platforms.
The Nintendo DS seems like the perfect platform to bring a casino-style game to, and in fact, Nintendo's handheld is definitely well-suited for it. So it would seem natural that SEGA would see fit to release SEGA Casino on the Nintendo DS. Featuring a total of nine casino games (11 if you count the two other versions of video poker as separate games), most fans of gambling will be able to find their favorite games of chance upon which to blow virtual dollars. There are three different modes of play: free play, casino, and multiplayer. Free play lets you just play the game you want to play without worrying about your gains or losses, but casino mode is where the meat of the game lies.
In casino mode, you start out with a cool grand in your pocket and attempt to turn that into progressively higher amounts. If you run out of money, it's game over, and you have to start again with a thousand bucks. The incentive of casino mode is to unlock the games that aren't available at the beginning by building up your bankroll. By winning more money at each game, you can unlock the "high roller" tables, where you can bet and win more money. Just like real life, winning a lot of money can be quite difficult, which makes it hard to unlock the better tables and new games. You can spend quite a bit of time working to unlock everything there is to unlock, but in the end, the high roller tables are the same as the others, just with higher amounts. The games themselves don't change.
The easiest way to make the money is to play the skill-based games like Texas Hold 'Em. The artificial intelligence of the computer controller players is not up to snuff, which makes it easy to know when they have a great hand or a bad hand. They bet when they have something, and they rarely fold away a hand as long as you don't bet really big. This makes it extremely easy to keep them in the game and bet when you know you're going to have the best hand, thereby allowing you to quickly rack up high-dollar amounts. While the lack of difficulty is disappointing, it does make it easier to compete in chance-based games like roulette and actually unlock the other games and high roller tables.
While the poker games are too easy, chance games like keno and roulette are really random and difficult, just like real life. You might get a run of a certain number popping up, or you might get lucky with five reds in a row. There is no pattern (which is good), and if you like taking your chance or want to practice strategy before your big trip to Vegas, SEGA Casino offers a good opportunity to do so with these chance games. Of course, there's a reason they call them games of chance, and when you aren't winning any actual real money, it's not as exciting. You're not losing real money either (other than what you spend on this game), so that's good.
Graphically, SEGA Casino is colorful and bright, with very few elements of a real casino, unfortunately. There are some static screens of casino scenes on a few buttons, or flashing lights on the menu, but once you get into the games, it's usually a top-down view of the green felt. The various playing surfaces are well detailed, and the cards are easy to read, which is nice, because it would have been downright unacceptable if they weren't. The only really special graphical touches present in SEGA Casino are the 3D roulette wheel, which spins and looks pretty cool, and the 3D keno hopper with the numbers bouncing around inside. Aside from those two things, you never see another virtual person or catch a glimpse of a virtual cocktail waitress with a virtual drink in hand.
Another area in which SEGA Casino excels is the use of the touch-screen capabilities of the Nintendo DS. Every game can be played with the stylus, bets can be placed, cards can be chosen, and every aspect of the interface is easily navigated using the stylus only. For the non-stylus lovers out there, the d-pad and buttons work just fine, but the stylus is the way to go with this title. This does add a bit of that casino feel to the game, since you get to "handle" the chips and cards in a way. Unfortunately, the menus and playing surfaces are just so sparse that it sometimes feels like you're sitting at your desk playing solitaire on an old Windows 3.1 machine.
Of course, the sound in SEGA Casino does little to impart the excitement of a real casino to the player either. Some repetitive music plays throughout and sounds like something out of a really cheesy '70s movie that features guys in leisure suits. Sound effects are pretty sparse as well, consisting of the occasional card shuffle or flip and the sound of chips tumbling onto the table with a win or bet. The sound is distinctly average, with absolutely no ambient casino sounds or anything that imparts the slightest bit of excitement to the experience.
Multiplayer is a pleasant surprise though, and adds considerable value to an otherwise bland title. Up to five players can play off of one cartridge, and although the only games available for multiplay are blackjack and the two poker variants, it can still be a lot of fun. If you have friends with the game, you can use your own bank and bet your virtual dollars against theirs. This mode is certainly worth the price of admission if you like playing poker with your friends but have little patience for doing the shuffling and chip counting yourself. Just have everyone over, tell them to bring their Nintendo DSes, sit around the card table, and have poker night without the mess.
SEGA Casino is an average entry in the DS lineup. The game extends its life by making you play and gain lots of money to unlock everything it has to offer. The graphics and sounds are too simplistic, and the lack of a casino atmosphere is readily apparent. The only real saving grace of this title is the multiplayer mode, but even that is lacking in that you can't play roulette or other games of pure chance with your friends. With some more polish and atmosphere, SEGA Casino could have been a great game, but as it stands, it's just average.