Sometimes, a game generates so much negative feedback that it taints everything touched by that franchise; very few older gamers would want to buy anything with the name Deadly Towers on it, for instance, or Hydlide. 50 Cent's licensed title, Bulletproof, was so bad that fans of the rapper avoided the album of the same name due to the sheer association with the abysmal game. Even reviewers have this mindset, so imagine how I felt when I was assigned Chicken Little: Ace in Action. Those of you who have been reading the site for a while may remember my rather barbed review of the original Chicken Little for the Game Boy Advance, which reminded one of why licensed titles are viewed with such disdain in the current market, even opposed to the doubly saturated NES days.
Thankfully, even five minutes with Ace in Action shows that it's leaps and bounds better than its GBA forefather. Truly an example of how a licensed game should work, Ace in Action throws out the somewhat forgettable and wildly annoying plot of the movie Chicken Little and instead focuses on the movie-within-the-movie, featuring the Hollywood action hero equivalents of the protagonist Chicken Little and his schoolyard friends as they combat playground-bully-turned-evil-space-pirate Foxy Loxy and her sidekick Goosey Loosey. Once again in a thankful move, the names of the characters from the franchise turn out to be the most painful thing in the game.
Upon starting up Ace in Action, you're greeted with ... text boxes. Sadly, due to the limitations of DS carts, voice-acting is nearly nonexistent. It's truly a shame, as nothing could truly make the game better than the dulcet tones of Adam West doing what he does best and sounding like a bumbling, semi-aware hero. However, get through the introductory sequence and the obligatory tutorial stage, and perhaps something might seem a bit off, especially if you're a more seasoned gamer.
See, Ace in Action seems a spiritual successor to an older game, one that would be the last choice for a licensed game: Smash TV's more violent pseudo-sequel, Total Carnage. Thankfully, Ace in Action doesn't have the buckets of pixelated blood that the 1991 Midway arcade game boasted – this is a Disney game, after all. What it does have, however, is similarly winding levels, filled with power-ups and score-boosters alike. What it also has is the same nauseating, slowdown-inducing waves upon waves of enemies coming from every possible direction.
The game actually has three modes through its primary story, each led by a different character. On foot, Ace grabs his blaster and sets out to bust alien heads, whereas Runt the pig (or, in his Hollywood form, warthog) wheels around in a massive ironclad tank. Finally, the game will occasionally divert to a vertical space shooter, with Abby the ugly (or rather, somewhat Jessica Rabbit-esque) duckling steering the ship.
Runt's vehicular combat and Ace's land warfare are practically indistinguishable, and Abby's levels have very sparse differences. Both Ace and Runt have a default weapon with unlimited ammunition, and they can collect power-ups to stockpile ammunition for four additional weapons, all essentially identical in use and ultimately useless. Abby, on the other hand, selects between two weapons – an air-to-air laser designed to shoot down enemy ships, and an air-to-ground missile to remove enemy installations. All of these weapons are toggled by hitting a button on the touch-screen, a practice proved by Nanostray to be an exercise in frustration. Luckily, there's an enemy radar on the bottom screen, so looking from one screen to another doesn't lead to potential death if it needs to be done.
All three characters have a defensive shield and a dodging maneuver as well. The shield is universal between characters, simply blocking shots, but Ace's dodge is an escaping roll, whereas Runt merely plows in the specified direction, crushing anything in his path beneath his treads. Abby, ever the opportunist, does a barrel roll (all you Internet kiddies, please stop giggling in the back; don't think I can't hear you) and absorbs incoming projectiles as health. All three dodge maneuvers eat up shield energy as well, so it becomes a lesson in caution as to when to use them.
On the ground, Ace is fleeter of foot than Runt, a little less sturdy, and can lob grenades a short distance. Instead of grenades, Runt has a somewhat inappropriate lock-on mechanism. While the concept of selecting multiple enemies and blasting them all at once seems like an obvious idea, the controls are clunky and require Runt to come to a complete stop. In a game where being on the move is necessary to survival, this not only breaks up the otherwise frantic flow, but can actually be counterproductive, since Runt can (and often will) take several hits while setting up the move. Both characters control identically, with the directional pad controlling movement and the face buttons working as a secondary d-pad which dictates the direction in which your character fires. Abby's stages, on the other hand, play quite like a space shooter. She can only fire in one direction – upward – so much of her game becomes more focused on mobility and visual perception.
Power-ups are plentiful in all stages, ranging from limited invincibility to doubling your firing rate. In addition, pretty much all enemies leave behind small aliens when they're destroyed; these aliens serve a double purpose, both refilling your shield energy and serving as a form of currency to buy permanent upgrades between stages. These upgrades are simple, consisting of items to lessen the damage you take, increase the amount of damage you dish out, and speed up how quickly you deal that damage.
The controls do need a slight bit of work, especially in later stages where the action gets hairier. Unlike the 64-direction joysticks of arcade machines or the nearly limitless aiming of the touch-screen in Monster House, the characters in Ace in Action can only shoot in the eight cardinal compass directions, meaning there will be many occurrences of having to move so that your line of fire hits an enemy. Luckily, this isn't an issue through most of the game, but it makes the harder segments that much more difficult.
Visually, Ace in Action does well enough, considering what it's given. The DS isn't the most powerful 3D-rendering device on the market, even amongst handhelds, but all of the models work well in their setting, being a little bit on the pointy side but completely inoffensive. Sound, on the other hand, is a hit-or-miss ordeal. Through the DS' speakers, the music is a pain to listen to, and the sound effects are nothing about which to write home. However, plug in a pair of headphones and the music filters through just fine, a pleasant mix of upbeat during the main game and frantic during the boss fights.
Oh, did I not mention the bosses? Much like Chicken Little before it, Ace in Action features rather large, surprisingly well-animated boss monsters, and just like Chicken Little before it, these bosses can be a downright bear with which to deal. Thankfully, in a game such as this, one is prepared for such difficulty, instead of it blindsiding you like in the earlier title.
The original Chicken Little handheld games had enough difficulty to push away the younger audience, but they also played and controlled childishly enough to push away the older gamers who may have enjoyed the movie. Instead of trying to capture both audiences this time, Buena Vista took a smarter approach with Ace in Action; the game is a little more mature in tone and could easily be snatched up by the 10-to-15 demographic.
It may not be too great of a choice for the younger fans of the original movie on which the game is based; not only does it have quite unrelenting difficulty later on, but the rampant violence, although cartoony, may be a turn-off to parents wanting to keep such things away from their children. However, if you're buying a game for yourself, or for a kid who's a little older, go ahead and give Chicken Little: Ace in Action a try. It may not be the best game in existence, but it certainly puts in way more effort than most licensed titles.
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