The idea of making an on-rails light-gun shooting game for the home consoles isn't an odd idea. Even with TVs lacking the components that made light-gun games work on CRT units, the Nintendo Wii and the Sony PlayStation 3 (via the upcoming Move controller) are some good light-gun substitutes.
Doing the same type of shooter for a handheld console, however, is still an offbeat idea. Such a game on the PSP seems to be an exercise in frustration since moving a cursor with either the d-pad or analog nub is still much slower than the pointing nature a gun affords. The Nintendo DS gives you the advantage of quick movements via touch-screen, but the skill of aiming is replaced in favor of speed tapping.
Despite the limitation, the DS has been home to a few on-rails light-gun shooters like Touch the Dead, a game that wasn't half bad. It would stand to reason that the new game from 7 Raven Studios and Storm City Games, Monkey Madness: Island Escape, chose the DS as the platform for their shooter because of the system's ease of programming and the controller interface. Unfortunately, the control scheme kills the title's potential for being a simple but fun shooter.
In Monkey Madness: Island Escape, two explorers are taking a plane ride looking for adventure when they fly near an uncharted island. Suddenly, the plane engine explodes, forcing them to crash land on that island. While both passengers are safe, they don't seem to be alone as they are soon visited by the island's hostile animal population. Playing as one of the survivors, your mission is to get rid of as many of the hostile animals as possible with your slingshot or coconut gun and fight your way to freedom.
As indicated earlier, this is an on-rails shooter similar to what you see in light-gun games. You'll automatically travel from one section to another, trying to dispatch any of the simians and other creatures before they have a chance to hit you. The locations will vary, but the monkeys will always pose the biggest threat since they often hurl melons and other fruit to deplete your health. You can defend yourself by shooting the fruit, which will often reward you with tokens, which you'll also need to shoot to retrieve. Bananas yield extra lives and replenish any health that may have been lost during combat, and the coconut gun provides you with much stronger ammunition than your default slingshot. There are 10 different levels spread across two sections of the island.
The game features four different modes of play, each one only slightly different from the last. Story mode lets you choose between either adventurer to go through the 10 given levels, though there is no discernible difference in gameplay between the male and female adventurers. Survival mode gives you one life and no health pick-ups, challenging you to go as far as you can before expiring. Time Attack mode lets you choose between any of the available levels, and you must try to complete each one in the fastest time possible. Finally, versus mode, which requires two cartridges to play, has you and a friend going through the available levels together; the winner is determined by who has the highest score at the end of the level.
Monkey Madness: Island Escape is a fairly competent shooting game, but there are a few issues. For starters, all of the shooting takes place in sections. Once you clear out a section, you don't have to worry about enemies appearing on the way to the next shooting section. About half of the enemies are also non-hostile, making them shooting gallery pieces instead of threats. It can be argued, though, that this is balanced out by the fact that the monkeys take several shots before going down.
As for the environments, there's no incentive for discovery in each level since nothing is interactive. It's more in line with older shooters than new ones, as shooting items in the environment don't reveal anything: no bonus score items, no power-ups and no alternate paths. Unless it's moving or is attacking you, there is no reason to shoot anything else. Finally, the health system is nicely represented by bananas. As health depletes, an animation shows a monkey punching the tree to deplete bananas from the bunch. The effect is a nice touch, but if you suddenly get assaulted by monkeys and can't react fast enough, the effect becomes a setback since the game will insist on playing all of the necessary animation frames to deplete the banana bunch before giving you a chance to continue the game.
The controls become a major sticking point, and they're a big reason for the title not being any fun. When the player hears that this is an on-rails light-gun shooter for a portable console, the initial thought is that the user will be tapping on the screen to rid the environment of monkeys. Instead, the user is forced to drag the stylus around to control an aiming reticle before hitting any of the system's face buttons to fire a shot.
Making matters worse is the fact that the system doesn't immediately recognize the position of the stylus on the screen as the position of the reticle. Placing the stylus from the left side of the screen to the right without dragging it doesn't bring the reticle immediately to that spot. Instead, the game treats the touch-screen like a large trackpad since all of the action takes place on the top screen instead of the bottom. The scrolling for the reticle is also slow, making combat a bit painful at times since you can't move the reticle fast enough to dispatch all of the enemies on-screen without taking on some damage. Making the change from a reticle-based shooting mechanic to a touch-screen-based one would have gone a long way in making this tile both playable and enjoyable despite the game's brevity.
There have been more graphically impressive titles already released on the DS, but that doesn't mean that this is the bottom of the barrel. The environments might not be extremely detailed, but they are very colorful and look fairly good considering the system hardware. The overall frame rate is rather smooth with no hitches, mainly due to the fact that there are no hints of any special effects being used in the game. The animations for the enemies are nice and fluid, and the modeling is also good, though the illusion is broken once you see that there are no reactions from the faces to either being shot or falling over when defeated. It could all be better, but for a budget DS title, it isn't too bad.
The sound is fairly decent considering the budget this game seems to have had. The music is light and bouncy, much like any kids' game nowadays. Even during the nighttime levels, the music doesn't seem to promote any feelings of dread or unpleasant surprises. The sound effects aren't too bad, either. Enemy hits sound satisfying enough, though there is no differentiation between shots taken from the slingshot or the coconut gun. Though there are no voices in the game, there is the high-pitched shriek of the monkeys as they attack the player and get hit by projectiles. The sound is initially nice to have, but considering that it is used quite often and never fluctuates in sound or volume, it does get rather annoying rather quickly.
Monkey Madness: Island Escape could have been a decent shooter for kids. The levels are challenging, and while the game could have looked and sounded better, what you have here isn't as gut-wrenching as one would think. The unintuitive control scheme, however, completely kills any fun that could have been wrung from the game, as it seems to play against the system's control strength and turns it into a weakness instead. There might not be many shooters on the system like it, but that doesn't mean that you should buy the title, no matter how cheap it gets or how big of a fan you may be of the genre.
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