Since 1969, "Scooby-Doo" has been entertaining audiences the world over. With several spin-off series, reruns in constant rotation, and a few theatrical and direct-to-DVD movies, people young and old can't seem to get enough of the stories involving a group of teenagers and their talking Great Dane as they solve mysteries and meddle in the affairs of nefarious villains. Like any good and memorable property, the founders of Mystery, Inc., have had several video games spanning several console and PC generations. Unlike their TV and movie adventures, though, the games have been anything but memorable and have been regarded as mediocre by both critics and fans alike.
The immense popularity of the characters, particularly Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, haven't stopped developers from trying their hand at making the first good Scooby-Doo game. This time around, that task has been taken up by WB Games, whose parent company owns the rights to the property, and Torus Games, a well-regarded developer in the portable game scene. Scooby-Doo!: First Frights for the Nintendo DS is a game that lingers on the cusp of being good, but there are enough flaws to keep it from moving forward.
The plot of First Frights is fairly thin, but it works well enough. Word gets to the gang that there's going to be a food festival at Keystone Castle. This is enough to send Shaggy and Scooby-Doo into a state of elation, but news of the castle hosting an eating contest seals the deal for them. Unfortunately, Daphne reminds them that the gang has promised to help her cousin with the St. Louis High School musical. Disappointed that they can't immediately go, the duo agrees to help Daphne's cousin. Through the course of four episodes, your job is to help Mystery, Inc., solve the different capers in the area so that they can get to the festival and hopefully win the eating contest.
The game takes an unusual source of inspiration for their gameplay choice: LEGO Star Wars (or LEGO Indiana Jones or LEGO Batman, if you prefer). Every level has you paired up with another member of Mystery, Inc., as you traverse the area picking up Scooby Snacks, which is used as money, and clues to help you figure out who the perpetrator is at the end of each episode. You'll also be engaged in combat against enemies like costumed skeletons, deranged robots and ghostly pirates. Each member of the gang has a way to defend themselves as well as special abilities they use to traverse each area. Scooby uses a sausage string to fight with and can crawl through tight spaces. Shaggy uses his slingshot for defense and can use his yo-yo as a grappling hook to cross large chasms. Velma throws books and can operate complicated switches. Both Fred and Daphne engage in hand-to-hand combat, though Fred uses his strength to move heavy objects and old turn switches while Daphne can shimmy up pipes.
Throughout the game, you can also buy or obtain costumes that give each player different attacks. Fred's football costume, for example, gives him the ability to throw footballs at enemies while Velma's sumo suit lets her squash her enemies flat. The whole system takes the LEGO formula and makes it work well in the environment, especially since the AI is smart enough to not get stuck in places and knows when to attack and when to hit switches. An adventure game involving puzzles and obtaining clues would be more in line with the cartoon, as opposed to just bashing in enemies, but the setup still provides a fun experience.
The big issue with the game stems from its length. On average, completing the 22 levels that make up the four episodes should take the player no more than four hours to complete. There are a few things that will entice you to keep playing, such as dog tags and trophies, but since the costumes are the only thing that actually affect gameplay, that incentive to complete the game and gather everything isn't much of an incentive at all. With only one difficulty level to content with, don't expect to come back to the game once you've completed it unless you love it enough to play it again and again.
The game's multiplayer component is restricted to the story mode co-op, so those expecting any sort of competitive mini-games are out of luck. However, it does sport the same drop-in/drop-out multiplayer that the home console versions do, which is a very welcome feature for DS players who aren't used to having it at all. Multiplayer comes with no lag and works smoothly in both situations, so hosts will never notice when people leave in the middle of the game. Overall, if you have friends who also have this game, you'll have some fun tackling the adventure in co-op.
The controls for the DS version of the game are very similar to the home console versions. Your d-pad moves your character while the B button makes him or her jump. The Y button initiates basic attacks, the A button performs special attacks, and the X button switches control to your partner in that particular level. The only time the touch-screen is ever used is when you have to figure out light pattern puzzles, but since they don't appear very frequently, you'll rarely find yourself using your stylus. The controls are responsive, and since there aren't any complicated button combinations, most players shouldn't have a problem with this category.
The graphics are a blend of both cel-shaded and traditional 3-D styles. Your characters, enemies, and any breakable object are cel-shaded with heavy black lines while the environments and pickups are not. Visually, the blending doesn't clash too badly, though it does make it readily apparent which objects you should and shouldn't pay attention to. Most of the animations are fine, though there are a few that seem a bit off, particularly with Shaggy. His slingshot attack, for example, doesn't see his arm pull back before firing, and his walking animation seems goofier than usual. What really hurts the game graphically is the camera. For most scenes, the camera is pulled so far back that the characters are pretty small. Keeping in mind that this is on a smaller screen to begin with, it is sometimes difficult to make out any important character details, such as which direction you're facing. When characters are closer to the camera, you'll see that there aren't that many details on the heroes. You can make out the clothes due to their colors, but facial features, such as eyes and mouths, are barely noticeable. It's a different story for the enemies, who appear as good up close as they do far away. While it isn't impossible to play the game on the system, the zoomed-out camera makes one advocate getting a DSi XL just so he can see what he's doing.
Sound isn't usually something that gets much attention in a portable game, but this one stands out a bit, both positively and negatively. For the most part, the music isn't too memorable, but it does set the mood for each level quite nicely. It has the bad habit of using only one or two songs per episode, and with only four episodes in the game, you'll likely tune out the score instead of get irritated by it. It shows small bouts of inspiration, though, like the songs sung by the final boss of the first episode. Even the most jaded player will chuckle upon hearing some of the lyrics.
The sound effects are serviceable, just like the musical score. They work well, and nothing sounds out of place, but nothing sounds spectacular, either. The real feat is in the use of voices. With the exception of a few lines seen when picking up lots of Scooby Snacks, just about every cut scene, whether it's CG or in-game, includes voice actors who portrayed the characters in recent animated films, ensuring that the delivery is smooth and correctly fits the situation. Since most games on the DS, especially ones geared toward kids, barely feature any voice at all, having the game assault you with lengthy voice clips at every opportunity is certainly welcome.
Scooby-Doo!: First Frights isn't a very bad game. Emulating the play style of a typical LEGO game wouldn't be the first thought to run through a fan's mind, but it works out well enough to be a fun experience. It also helps that there are plenty of animated and fully voiced cut scenes for younger player to enjoy in between levels. The brevity of the game turns out to be both a blessing and a curse, since it guarantees that the player will only spend a few hours with the game before shelving it, but it saves them from having to strain to see such tiny characters because the camera is pulled back to such an uncomfortable distance. It is definitely recommended as a rental for younger fans, but if you or someone you know has problems with the tiny characters, it would be best to go for the Wii or PS2 versions instead, if those options are available to you.
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