Developer: Foundation 9 Entertainment
Release Date: May 22, 2007
There's something about trying to take traditional genres and putting them on the DS; some just plain don't work out so well, while others require massive amounts of retooling. Every so often, though, someone figures out a way to make stylus controls work well for a genre. Age of Empires went turn-based to counterbalance the low resolution, for example. Death Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom manages to do a decent enough job at the conceptual level, but is counterbalanced with sub-par writing, coding issues in the specific, and certain things that just don't fit in with an otherwise polished, thought-out game.
For those who have not played the PSP Death Jr. games, the basic premise is this: Death Jr. (DJ, for short) is the son of Death. He has an apprentice reaper's scythe, and he deals with demons and other nasties to cover for his dad. The result is action-brawling at an exceptionally hilarious level. This DS iteration (the third in the series) starts with a science fair, where Death Jr. inexplicably thinks he can get away with using his dad's scythe as his science fair project. Hey, it worked the last few years, so why not this time? Unfortunately, two Siamese twins have managed to produce a demonically modified rabbit that will only be dangerous if exposed to radiation — and a portable nuclear reactor, which results in opening the gates of hell, mutating the science projects all over the school, and generally making a mess of things. Without his dad's scythe, Death Jr. has to rely on his apprentice scythe and his rather dead friend Pandora to fix things up, save his classmates, etc.
Needless to say, humor is the way of the game, loaded with over-the-top special attacks, weird stage designs (including plenty of subtle references to Earthworm Jim), characters who throw insults, puns, and occasional genuine laughers of lines at each other ("I look dead, DJ!"), and the general silliness that seems to ensue when anything is described as "of Doom" in the video game industry that isn't the actual DOOM series — and even that series isn't entirely serious in nature. This writing is further held up with graphical crafting that makes solid use of the DS hardware to its fullest. SFoD is perhaps not on par with the prettiest of PSP games, but it feels very well-suited to the hardware in a fashion most titles simply don't attain. It uses sprite-assisted polygonal models, in addition to fully crafted backgrounds that subtly shift from room to room to keep things interesting; there is also a general sense of quality that many DS games sorely lack, along with a distinctive lack of straight lines to provide a humorous creepiness to the architecture.
For all the writing and creativity, however, SFoD has some surprising shortcomings in a few areas. The basic control scheme combines the touch-screen and more traditional controls quite effectively; the D-Pad and L button let you move and jump, while the right-side face buttons and touch-screen work pretty much interchangably to do most everything else, like switching between and using weapons, and changing characters to DJ's dead-looking, goth, female friend Pandora, who can grab and throw spirits to produce varied effects and providing the sole way to heal DJ other than intentionally killing him. In general, these controls hold up well, but two or three specific glitches can make things frustratingly over-precise or unintuitive; for example, when grabbing onto a ledge, down drops you off, but up does not pull you up — the jump button does. DJ's scythe controls aren't quite intuitive either; it is easy to hit a target, but it's far more difficult to time strikes to prevent balls of toxic material from hitting you, or use specials without using the touch-screen controls.
The general gameplay is a plain-Jane platformer/brawler, albeit one that does an occasionally glitchy but mostly good job of switching between 2D and 3D, emphasizing platforming in the former and brawling in the latter, a balance that works fairly well in spite of the typically straight swings of DJ's scythe, which limit their effectiveness in a 3D environment. In an attempt to balance this, the enemies DJ faces are very simplistic; you whack them to stop their attacks, and lather, rinse, and repeat to smash them. If you're in trouble, use Pandora to heal DJ, or use one of your alternate weapons and see if it helps. The result is a game that is far too easy in combat, although the basic boss battles are rather interesting. Anyone who's ever played the older Crash Bandicoot titles will feel right at home with the boss fights here, as they also require analysis and recognition of patterns that are simultaneously simple and interesting. To make things more frustrating, regular checkpoints make things easy — until they disappear, that is. You quickly find out that if you get killed, you go back to the start of a room, no matter how ludicrously long it may be, and some of them are really ludicrously long.
The graphics in SFoD have already been discussed, but the sound effects are moderately noteworthy for their effectiveness. DJ's toy pistols sound like toys, his scythe has a nice "shink" when you draw it, and enemies have surprisingly communicative grunts and clangs as they are struck. A demonically possessed toaster actually sounds like what an average person would imagine one would sound like. Voices are limited to grunts and squeaks, leaving any detailed communication to text, which is probably a good thing, given the often limited quality of voice on the DS. The music, unfortunately, doesn't hold up nearly as well, with generic spooky thematics that don't seem to evoke quite the same feeling as the graphics do most of the time; the tunes can also grate on the ears just a little too quickly compared to their length of use.
As a quick aside, the multiplayer games require multiple cards, and at least one of the players must unlock the games. Why oh why can no one take the time to provide single-card play to extend the replay value of these titles?
Overall, Death Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom is a decent game marred by glitches and rushes. Foundation 9 took enough time on the graphics and writing to suit some of the DS' better works, but didn't back things up with the code base to provide for optimum controls, or significant polish in other areas. This limits its charm and makes it feel like a goes-through-the-motions port more than the whole new game in the series that it is. Additional development time would have made this title be of significantly higher quality, and it could have made it one of the better third-party games for the PSP system, but as is, it simply isn't quite worth it. It might be "of Doom," but sometimes that moniker just isn't worth it.