Release Date: October 23, 2007
As I've done reviews on more and more of these Nicktoons licensed titles for the DS, I'm starting to realize that the developers have really nailed down a particular 2D/3D formula for these games, and while it seems to work pretty well, it's also really, really stale once you notice it.
SpongeBob Atlantis Squarepantis takes the run-and-bop formula of titles like Attack of the Toybots and tosses them strictly into the Spongebob universe. In this title, you'll take control of not only Spongebob, but also his trusty friend Patrick, feisty squirrel Sandy, and his boss, Mr. Krabs. The game gives you the option of switching out these characters by using the touch-screen, but you can only use two at a time. Each level will have a variety of small puzzles or obstacles to overcome, usually needing a particular talent that only one of these characters possesses. In addition to the puzzles, you'll find your typical platforming elements, with jumps, double-jumps, climbing, switches to throw, blocks to push and so on. There are a variety of enemies depending on your location in the game, all of whom are pretty mindless and can be taken out with a simple attack.
The story is something that could have easily been lifted right out of the cartoon. Patrick and SpongeBob stumble upon some lost treasure, which gets them tied up with the lost city of Atlantis in an adventure that ranges from their hometown of Bikini Bottom all the way to Atlantis itself. It's not a particularly engaging affair for older players, but I imagine it will appeal to the kids and fans of the show. It's a shame that we couldn't get a bit more dialogue sound bites out of the show. though, as the entire thing is presented in a series of single-frame cut scenes with blocks of dialogue. I know the DS is more than capable of handling a little bit of video, so a bit more effort in actually presenting the story would have been appreciated here.
Thankfully, while the gameplay is almost directly lifted from other THQ Nicktoons platformers, each of the four playable characters has his or her own style of play, including some special abilities and attacks that end up making all of them useful at one point or another. Patrick serves as your strong guy, and he's able to push heavy blocks and initiate a devastating spin attack to take on groups of enemies. SpongeBob's skill comes from inflating his body, and he can also double-jump, which allows him to cross the deepest trenches in the ocean. Each level is designed to make use of the skills of at least two of your characters. Admittedly, it's a little bit of a pain to figure it out beforehand, since you're only given the option to select characters when you start a level — before you have any idea of what the level will bring. If you've selected the wrong set of characters, then you'll have to start over with an appropriate team. I don't understand why you can't just switch out between all four of them on the fly, but it's definitely an improvement that should be made if they choose to make a sequel.
Visually, SpongeBob Atlantis Squarepantis isn't the most impressive game on the Nintendo DS, but it's definitely serviceable. The colors are nice and bright, and it's easy to pick out little traits in each of the show's main characters. The animations are solid for such small 3D models (most notable is SpongeBob's inflation technique), and while the environment could do with a little more than a plain background and some foreground work, the different locations are easily distinguishable, so there's a definite difference between Atlantis, Bikini Bottom, and the rest.
The music sounds as if it could have been ripped directly from the show, and it probably was. It's not the most original soundtrack out there, but the tunes will be instantly familiar to fans of the series, including the catchy main theme and some other familiar sounds. As I said previously, it's a shame the game couldn't have included some voice work as well, since we've all played SpongeBob titles that do, and that would have helped to immerse you further into the title. I would definitely consider that omission as a slight knock against the title.
Along with your regular single-player experience, two players can locally join in with a little co-op, with the second player taking control of your partner instead of the game AI. This works out pretty well, especially considering how brain-dead the AI tends to be. However, depending on who you're stuck playing as, it might be a bit boring at times. There are large sections in certain stages where the second player is forced to wait for the main character to unlock a path, due to a particular obstacle that the other player can't overcome for some reason. These sections definitely drag down the fun that a second person would have had, since nobody wants to wait around in a game, especially if your partner isn't particularly skilled to begin with.
That's not to say that SpongeBob Atlantis Squarepantis is overly difficult. It's probably too easy for the young audience for which it's intended. Most enemies go down with a single hit, and even if your AI partner isn't all that helpful, you shouldn't find yourself overcome by anything in the game. The puzzles are all simple affairs, and the only real challenge comes in clearing a few of the jumps early on, until you get a hang of the controls. The other challenge comes from babysitting the AI if you're not playing co-op with a friend. I would often have to switch back and forth between characters just to get them to the same location. Often, the AI wouldn't make a jump or move forward, even though it would have been more than capable of doing so, and being forced to do all of the jumping did get old after a while.
The controls are solid and generally aren't really tied to the touch-screen controls, which is probably a blessing for this game style. Everything from movements to attacks is controlled with the d-pad and face buttons. Characters can use the shoulder L and R buttons to pick up other characters to either carry them around, or toss them up or across platforms, thereby allowing them to clear gaps that they normally couldn't. The only real use for the touch-screen in the game is for switching between characters, and using a small slider for the camera that will let you pan a bit to the left or right, to get a better view of upcoming platforms and jumps you'll need to make.
All in all, SpongeBob Atlantis Squarepantis is a decent enough kids' title on the DS, with platforming elements that work well, but it hardly does anything to push the genre forward. The gameplay feels nearly identical to a few other like-minded Nicktoons titles, so don't expect anything particularly fresh out of this one. The AI is nearly useless, and while the co-op feature is nice to have, it isn't always fun for both of the players involved. I'd say you could safely pass on this one, unless you're really dying for a SpongeBob gaming fix at the moment.