Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Amaze Entertainment
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Some formulas for games just work, and those formulas get copied endlessly. For proof, take a look at iNiS' Osu! Takate! Ouendan! — or, for U.S. players who don't import many games, Elite Beat Agents. For licensed game fans (i.e., kids), that would be known as Happy Feet for the DS. And now, for classic cartoon fans and/or kids, Looney Tunes: Cartoon Conductor for the DS takes the same formula, twists it around, and slaps a very different yet surprisingly familiar take on what seems to have become the ultimate rhythm game on the DS. (I'm sorry, Guitar Hero: On Tour, but a hand-cramping four-button layout just doesn't use the DS well enough to count.) The end result is not precisely amazing or miraculous, but Cartoon Conductor produces a fun and worthy challenge.
"Looney Tunes" is remembered for a lot of things, but I'm willing to bet that if you think of a classic Tex Avery cartoon, one thing you won't pay attention to is the music, other than the classic and instantly recognizable opening and closing cues. However, the classical pieces that served as the background actually represent a significant part of the cultural heritage that is contained in the adventures of Bugs Bunny and the rest, and it is this that forms the basis for the player's interactions. Oh, and there's a story behind it, too.
See, a classic shtick of "Looney Tunes" was that the characters were essentially actors; mistakes they "made" were recorded, they regularly talked about having a life outside of the cartoon, and there were are least a few cases of poking fun at the orchestra. With this as the basis, they've decided that they need to record a bunch of their classic creations all over again before anyone notices the original tapes were destroyed by the Tasmanian Devil. Fortunately, since cartoon characters don't usually age, they can use their entire original troupe ... well, except the orchestra. You, the player, come in as the newly hired conductor, and your job is to keep the music on time while the characters strut their stuff. You'll be shown the ropes by Bugs before you get into the actual gameplay.
Most of the time, you'll be tapping the stylus on the first note of a chain for anywhere from one to eight circles or squares, and then simply drag it along to the remaining notes. Note that this is not like the Elite Beat Agents formula, even though it uses very similar graphics and the same timing cue. You are not allowed to tap it, just as a fine conductor's motions are smooth and flowing, but still match the intended timing. You are allowed to go through most of a song without lifting the stylus even once. The only exception to this is the seemingly arbitrarily selected Tap Note sections, which are most accurately described as Beatmania on the touch-screen. The notes go down to a line, and you tap the note when it hits the line.
Really, that's about all there is to it, since Cartoon Conductor eschews the hold-notes and spin-top segments (replaced by Tap Notes) of the other titles that follow this formula. The result is that a simple formula that doesn't really feel like dancing or playing an instrument turns into a surprisingly accurate, interpretational, and rather manic rendition of how you would actually conduct a real orchestra.
Cartoon Conductor's presentation ends up being both its critical strength and its greatest weakness. Unlike Elite Beat Agents, the touch-screen is intentionally left blank; other than the notes, your life meter, and a combo count, the entire screen is two sheets of faded music. Things only get fancy on the other half of the DS, although Amaze didn't end up putting entire cartoons on the top screen, miraculous and distracting though that may have been. Instead, characters are in 3-D, which matches up with the original style in a competent, if imperfect fashion, and only a few highlights are used from each animation during pauses in play. If you bother to glance at the top screen during play, you'll see looping bits of animations, such as characters running after one another. While this is admittedly highly disappointing from a nostalgia standpoint, the results emphasize the gameplay fairly well.
Sound-wise, Cartoon Conductor holds up far better than any DS game would have a right to. The classical pieces manage to avoid the DS' trademark tinny sound, and while they're fairly obvious MIDI-like recordings, they're very good ones — unless you're screwing up, in which case the notes lose their tuning in a realistically painful fashion until you fix the error. Voices are not the most regular thing during play, just as they were not the centerpiece of the original animations, but the voice actors all sound authentic to the originals and manage to draw genuine laughs. By nature, a music game is dependent on its sound, and here, Amaze Entertainment has capitalized on this strength very effectively indeed.
Unfortunately, the title's ultimate weakness is bound to show up for anyone who plays it for more than a day or two. It is a very short game, with only 12 cartoons. You get four difficulty levels, and six of the songs get variously styled "remix" versions, but even then, just like every other DS rhythm game, only the replay value will bring repeat visits. Even accounting for the catchy and addictive music, Cartoon Conductor simply will not last that long. It's further weakened by the feeling that it's meant to emphasize nostalgia, preventing the young kids who seem to be the target audience from getting the fullest joy out of its minibiographies, voice tests, and authentic-feeling interface.
Looney Tunes: Cartoon Conductor is a twist on the formula of the Ouendan series, but it ultimately falls into many of the same holes as its inspiration. The Looney Tunes license is well used, but it narrows the game's audience in an unintuitive direction. Fans of the Ouendan series or nostalgic gamers looking for a decent Looney Tunes game will get a kick out of Cartoon Conductor, but they shouldn't expect the experience to last very long at all. Amaze Entertainment did what it set out to do, but they could have done a fair bit more to give the title some staying power. It's worth picking up if you're in the mentioned target audiences.