Release Date: June 27, 2006
Sometimes, it's fun to bring video games back to their roots: campy plots, clever use of strange licenses, and American companies managing to get a fair amount of "only in Japan" feel. Then again, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: The Genie and the Amp is based on a television show that's based on a very popular Japanese band ….
If you don't know about Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, don't be surprised, as it is rather under-the-radar compared to some of the other current big licenses out there. The short explanation is that the real-life band Puffy AmiYumi (just Puffy in Japan – legal issues) is converted into a cartoon form, experiencing some often-trippy adventures. Ami plays for a cute style, while Yumi is decidedly more punk-ish. The show is right out of camp classic TV, but with more fourth-wall breaking, a decidedly unique animation style, and regular appearances by the actual band members, who don't voice their characters, but do perform much of the music.
Now, here's the good news: This title is easily as fun as the good portable iterations of Naruto. The Genie and the Amp is not necessarily great by any means, but it captures the feel of the show, looks reasonably good, and can actually be somewhat fun to play, even if you don't know much about the show. The plot, as I said above, is exceptionally campy. Kaz, the duo's manager, locks Ami and Yumi in the recording studio, insisting that they can't leave until they've finished their next album, and dropping off a bunch of pawn shop instruments as "inspiration."
Conveniently, that old guitar amp holds Gene the Genie, who happens to be a fan and takes them to Mei Pie, a legendary and ancient guitar master, who only agrees to help them because Gene owes him 15 yen. (The jerk!) With that, Ami and Yumi are off through random time periods, beating up kittens, frogs, and trees – among other things – to find musical inspiration, using their guitars as weapons. They also use lawn gnomes in sushi. (Needless to say, the plot requires a significant amount of suspension of disbelief.)
If you're not turned off by the weird plot, which is told in classic image-and-scrolling-text cut scenes, the gameplay can appeal to some of you. It's been a long time since good old-school brawlers have been seen, and while this game won't go down alongside Streets of Rage, it's certainly more fun and easy to pick up than, say, State of Emergency. You typically play simply using the d-pad to move up, down, back and fourth. The stages aren't true 3D, but you do get some rotations along the on-rails track, which sometimes branches off. The L button is used to jump, and either the guitar strings on the touch-screen or ABXY buttons can be used to attack; while the game is technically combo-based, button-mashing will typically do the trick. Tapping two buttons at once (or holding down the stylus and crossing two strings, then releasing) performs a special attack, and pulling the stylus across all four strings yields a very powerful desperation move, which is limited in number. The R button lets you switch between Ami and Yumi; Yumi's more powerful but Ami's faster, and they have separate life bars. Controls are typically smooth enough, but nowhere near the perfection of a truly great fighting game.
The graphics in The Genie and the Amp are neatly passable; they're not pushing the DS' limits, but the simplistic cel-shading and highly stylized, partially destructible level designs manage to be unique even when exploring the generic environments, and all of the pure sprites look straight out of the show, without exception. The models even react a little to the environment, wincing or looking like they're screaming, and breaking out into a bit of break dancing when you play a tune before facing a boss. The sound, however, is lacking; from repetitive guitar noises to the passable and unmemorable music, you have to wonder why a title about a show about a band has to have so low a sound quality.
One issue, however, is that the featured mini-games tend to be more annoying and unnecessary than fun. The vending machine touch-screen controls also are rather unnecessary, and you normally don't even need to use the touch-screen in this game. Gameplay-wise, the only difference between using the face buttons and the touch-screen is that it's easier to perform the desperation attacks, which require strumming all four strings. Use of the touch-screen also yields some repetitive guitar sounds, but a rhythm brawler this is not. This non-use of the screen seems to significantly ignore the system's potential, thereby making the game little better than, say, a GBA brawler.
There's also, of course, the fact that The Genie and the Amp is a brawler. You've basically played the same game under the name Streets of Rage, although it never had the surprisingly funny quips and bits that this game has. As an example:
"We're going someplace from which no one has ever returned!"
"You mean ... We're going to Kaz's room?"
"Even worse! We're going to Slovakia!"
The game offers a fair share of hidden content, some relevant to play and some decidedly not so. Each level includes a crane game you can play, which lets you view creature models; the crane game costs yen, which are scattered throughout the levels. The vending machines let you go to your modified tour bus to switch your character's clothes and guitars and purchase various unlockables. The clothing change is purely cosmetic, but the guitars affect your combat moves just a bit, in addition to changing the emitted touch-screen sounds. For each level, one of the girls typically gets a costume, while the other gets a guitar.
There are also unlockable mini-games throughout, although I wish you the best of luck in comprehending some of them. Multiplayer support is available as a two-player duet mode, but requires that both players have a cartridge. This makes things much easier on many levels, and even takes advantage of the microphone for a particular special screen-clearing attack: Both players need to hold down the R button and shout "Hi!" I don't know anyone else who owns or will own this title, so I can't offer judgment on how well it works in practice.
It seems like almost every television show is getting a licensed game these days, but at least some companies are giving the results some quality. Don't come into Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi: The Genie and the Amp expecting too much, and you'll be satisfied with what you get – a fun, short brawling romp that is reasonably well-suited to portable play. Fans of the show probably already have the game, and those who haven't should go for it because the title has the same humor and style as the show, with decent gameplay to boot. Brawler fans shouldn't miss a reasonably good implementation of the genre if they can handle the cuteness. Anyone else won't find this offering especially interesting, since it wasn't made to attract new fans to the show and/or genre.
* [Editor's note: Slovakia experienced a period of international isolation from 1993-1998.]