Nintendo isn't known for doing off-the-wall games. Yes, its latest home and portable consoles can be considered strange by some since they don't follow the norm, but its software has always followed the tried-and-true mechanics and themes it's relied on for decades. The strangest route was taken with the WarioWare series of titles, and even then, it was only considered strange because no one had thought of a microgame before. Slightly on the flipside of that, Tokyo Crash Mobs is a game with some traditional mechanics but a very odd presentation.
The core puzzle mechanics will be familiar to some genre fans. The game is split into three different puzzle types. Rolling stages have you set in one immobile spot as puzzle pieces march down a track. Your job is to roll other puzzle pieces to create a match of at least three of one color, making those pieces disappear and preventing the pieces from reaching the end. This will be instantly familiar to those who played the Nintendo DS games Magnetica, Puzz Loop (Mitchell's arcade game that preceded PopCap's title), Zuma or any of the various clones. The Throwing stages have the same match-three mentality but play out mechanically differently. The line of puzzle pieces doesn't move, and you can throw your puzzle pieces to another part of that line, skipping anything directly in front of it, but your objective is to get to a certain position in the line before time runs out. The third puzzle type is more of a boss fight, since it only appears occasionally, as you use both throwing and rolling mechanics to eliminate the puzzle pieces that are set up in an arc.
What makes the whole thing feel quirky is the presentation. The backdrop seems normal enough, as you're almost always playing in the streets of Tokyo, but everything else is represented by people. You play the role of one of two girls, each one taking care of either the rolling or throwing mechanic. The puzzle pieces are actually scenesters dressed in brightly colored outfits while the pieces that usually cannot be matched are represented by black-clad ninjas. In essence, you're using people as projectiles to clear a line of similar people instead of non-sentient objects. Between levels, you're treated to cut scenes that feature a voiceless narrative and tons of surreal imagery and nonsensical actions. From the constant pressing of buttons that send a girl into the void of space to scenesters writing in the ground to ninjas giving menacing glares, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything that makes a lick of sense, but you'll be fascinated enough to eagerly await the next scene.
The change from marbles or spheres to human beings gives Tokyo Crash Mobs a chance to add some gameplay mechanics that significantly alter the gameplay. For Rolling stages, this means the ability for the scenesters to jump by your command or on their own, causing you to access other people in the line or completely miss your target, respectively. There's also the ability for the scenesters to speed up the line until they reach the danger zone, quickly accelerating things from a calm state to a panicked one. For Throwing stages, objects like flower pots and lampposts can block a spot, though a flower pot can be broken if you throw a scenester at it. Some scenesters can also call in others to cut in line while some stages have groups of scenesters change their lines at set time intervals. The boss fights, meanwhile, have brightly colored ninjas that try to hit you and giant smoke bombs that you need to avoid.
Not every change is meant to be used offensively against you, though. In every stage, you're given the option to pick up a power-up. Large, explosive balls can be detonated to take out a section of scenesters. Barriers can be set up to stop the scenester line from moving, and umbrellas can be used to temporarily make certain scenesters susceptible to different colors. Then you have the UFO, which abducts all of the scenesters on-screen that are wearing a randomly selected color.
The changes have a positive effect on the gameplay by adding some challenge; you have to really think about which moves you'll have to make and plan ahead. Learning to make a line of scenesters purposefully jump to get the group behind it requires some skill. Anticipating the timing so as not to mess up a toss will take practice, and finding the right moment to use power-ups requires a serious amount of thought. Although the game is still casual, it gives veterans a hard time since winning a particularly difficult stage requires more than sheer luck.
Whether or not you can cope with the aesthetics, there are some gameplay issues that mar the experience. The ability to swap out colors — something of a staple in the genre — is completely absent here, and it takes so much time to throw away a scenester just to advance to the next color. There are also moments in the throwing stages when you wish you could scroll beyond what's visible on-screen because you want to throw a scenester somewhere useful and line cuts happen off-screen without your knowledge. The cursor is a big help in figuring out where a scenester will go, but there are times when it fails to give you the correct placement, and he'll land a little before or after the intended spot. Finally, the story mode is quite short, clocking in at 21 short levels. The game supplements this with a higher difficulty level that is unlocked after you finish it, and there are several challenge levels, but if you're hunting for those cut scenes, you'll have seen everything in a very short time.
The controls match the aesthetics in that they are more interesting than practical. For most levels, you use the touch-screen, sliding the stylus across the surface to move the cursor on the upper screen. Letting the stylus go releases the scenester, and if you target and release the stylus on yourself, it activates the current power-up. The system works well enough, and while it would have been nice to be able to do a screen swap like Magnetica or use the analog stick like Zuma, speed and precision are the issues here. As mentioned earlier, it never feels like your character can roll or throw a scenester fast enough, and the sensitivity of the touch-screen sometimes gives you a last-minute nudge, resulting in incorrect placement instead of a match.
What works better, oddly enough, are the controls for the boss stages, where you can use the face buttons to throw or roll scenester ninjas. This setup gives more precision to the player, as there's never a time when you feel that you got a bad match due to poor aim. The faults of the control schemes aren't bad enough that you'll loathe the title, but you will sometimes curse it for not obeying you.
From a presentation standpoint, Tokyo Crash Mobs is done well. There's not much to the sound effects beyond hearing your player cheer after getting a combo or hearing the scenesters scream after getting matched, but the music is standard puzzle fare. Somewhat calm and relaxing most of the time, it picks up the tempo when you are in danger of losing. Graphically, the game has a clean look despite the use of photographic elements. The environments look nice enough, and even though the scenesters don't sport the best animations, they're colored brightly and clean enough that there is no color confusion. It may not be the best presentation for the system, but when you consider that you're playing a puzzle game, it works better than expected.
Nintendo has tried to downplay the reliance on 3-D for its system for some time, and this game shows off that line of thinking perfectly. The stereoscopic 3-D is used just about everywhere from the cut scenes to the main menu to the game screen, and it makes things pop a bit more. Post-game menus look a bit fuller if you achieve a gold medal and see the torrent of confetti. The stages also "pop" since the people appear completely separate from the backgrounds, but unlike some of Nintendo's earlier titles, the 3-D doesn't provide an advantage when compared to playing the game in 2-D.
In the end, Tokyo Crash Mobs is a good puzzle game that is both helped and hurt by its oddball presentation. On the one hand, the use of people and the off-the-wall cut scenes bookending each level give you some motivation to progress even if the rewards are strange. On the other hand, the presentation can make it difficult to figure out where your person is going to land, potentially ruining a scenario and making you lose the match. Still, the gameplay is solid enough and the presentation unique enough that you'll remain committed to playing just one more match after losing for the umpteenth time. Given Tokyo Crash Mob's $5.99 price tag, puzzle fans on the 3DS will find some enjoyment as they satisfy their match-three itch with this title.
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