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GBA Review - 'Atomic Betty'

by Hugh McHarg on Nov. 14, 2005 @ 12:28 a.m. PST

A mission-based game with puzzle-solving elements, Atomic Betty features a three character control scheme that allows players to enjoy all of their favorite characters at once, utilizing their individual skills to save the universe.

Genre: Platformer
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Big Blue Bubble
Release Date: October 25, 2005

No Heroines Left Behind

The ESRB should do a study. Examine the effects of violent games on child development and compare them to the effects of games that are actually meant for kids, but that put them through a coddling, non-challenging, cheap experience. What costs society more, a handful of kids who think they really can grow up and live like Tommy Vercetti, or legions of them who can't add double digits?

Atomic Betty for the Game Boy Advance puts the young Cartoon Network heroine in a 2-D platforming and ultra-light puzzle-solving adventure. Strictly for kids and not possessed of any more sophisticated charm that might appeal to older folk, Atomic Betty lets you take control of Betty and her space-faring chums as you try to stop evil genius Maximus I.Q.'s latest galaxy-conquering plot. With puzzles that are puzzling in name only, unimaginative level designs that offer little thrill of discovery and a remedial difficulty level, the game poses few challenges and gives even fewer rewards.

Bratty Schemes and Ice Queens

Even the smallest superheroes lead double lives. Betty spends ordinary school days foiling the petty plots of her playground rival Penelope. The current intrigue has Penelope conspiring to keep Betty from winning the basketball team's MVP award. Betty's cat Purrsy has complicated things by stealing her homework and scattering it around the school basement. Betty and pals Paloma and Noah have to find the homework and hand it in, or else no MVP award. All the while, Penelope tries to slow them down with kiddy machinations like turning out the lights and turning down the thermostat.

This sets the stage for the old-fashioned platforming action. Paloma and Noah are playable as well, and you need their special abilities to push boxes and slide through crawlspaces as you search for Betty's lost homework. With their help, Betty makes too-quick work out of the earthbound segments of the game.

Only a brief rocket ride away, however, galactic villain Maximus I.Q. has set about achieving curiously diabolical goals like freezing the galaxy to make it easier to transport his stolen goods. Luckily – as fans of the show already know – Betty's more than just an MVP candidate. She's a Galactic Guardian under the command of Admiral DeGill, who dispatches Betty, and cohorts Sparky and X-5, to thwart Maximus' designs on galactic domination. Like her earthling pals, Sparky and X-5 are fully playable, and their special abilities help Betty navigate alien worlds as she makes her way to each level's boss.

And so Atomic Betty's missions alternate between the school basement and the alien lairs of nemeses like Infantor, wielder of giant space rattles, and Iciclia, queen of the ice world. To reach the handful of planets you get to visit between homework assignments, you have to pilot Betty's rocket ship through asteroid fields and space warps, avoiding the big red rocks or blasting them out of your way. These missions manage to be simple and frustrating at the same time, thanks to a poorly implemented perspective that makes it hard to line up your laser shots, and even more difficult to tell exactly when your ship is about to get hit by an asteroid or enemy fire.

The extraterrestrial destinations do provide most of Atomic Betty's fancier platforming setups, with more elevators and air vents and some hapless robot enemies that need smashing. Still, the action comes down to figuring out which character to move to which switch and when, and then jumping onto the moving platform you just activated. Betty's kung fu moves flatten most enemies. Sparky's rolling attack is more useful for getting through spaces that are too small for Betty and X-5 than it is for most combat, especially since it sometimes doesn't leave enemies dead for good.

To be sure, combat is not the point of Atomic Betty. Fighting is just a matter of pounding B until the enemy collapses in a pile. The real goal is to use Betty and Sparky's abilities to clear a path between the somewhat more vulnerable X-5 and the next computer station he needs to hack. This is the one aspect of the game that requires the tiniest bit of planning. You may have to position Betty and X-5 next to an air vent, say, so that she can quickly use her bubblifier power on X-5 and push him onto the vent when Sparky steps onto a distant pressure switch. If they're not in position, and if the switch is guarded by an enemy Sparky can't handle on his own, you risk the entire team's health by fumbling with the bubblifier while Sparky's getting whooped by a robot that's come back to life.

Simple mini-games await X-5 at every computer. Each is built around a basic visual representation of vaguely hacker-ish activities, like using an extendable robot arm to "extract files" and worming your way through holes in a sliding "firewall." These are strictly controller-mastery puzzles rather than the sort of brainteaser that might challenge even the youngest aspiring Angelina Jolie or Jonny Lee Miller. They're easy to beat, but they become a nuisance when you learn that there are only three variations and that they don't get any more difficult as you progress through the game.

The only other novelty to be discovered in Atomic Betty is Betty's batch of special abilities. The moves and tools are amusing in theory – a giant hockey stick to bat ice chunks at Iciclia's monster, for example. The problem is that each ability has precisely one application on each level. That means no having to think about which tool is best to use in any given situation. See a vent, blow a bubble around X-5, and hit the switch. Puzzle solved. As you move from level to level, you don't even get to keep the abilities you earned earlier. You just get a replacement power mapped to the same direction on the control pad.

Of course, having several special powers at a time would require inventively designed levels in which to use them. As it is, the most challenging aspect of Atomic Betty is not figuring out how to approach each goal. It's simply finding your way around, and even that is made extraordinarily easy by the scout cameras X-5 and Noah can use to check out their surroundings. Just launch the camera and fly it around the level, through otherwise solid barriers, to see where every switch is located and reveal every waiting enemy. If the camera doesn't ruin enough surprises for you, blueprints are available to give you a cheater's-eye-view of every level's layout.

Not Waving but Drowning

For Atomic Betty fans, the game's visual presentation does successfully capture the Powerpuff Girls-meets-The Jetsons aesthetic. The design is futuristic by way of the 1950s. Structures are built out of flat geometric shapes, and transparent elevator tubes shuttle Betty and her gang from floor to floor. The characters sport about as much detail as is necessary to distinguish one from another. The standing-around animations are the visual highlight of the game. While you're playing Betty, Noah slings his yo-yo to pass the time, Paloma does a little dance, and X-5 gives a pathetic, mournful wave that seems more like a cry for help than a friendly greeting.

The toytronica soundtrack clips along with a simple go-go groove that wears out its welcome after a couple levels. Otherwise, basic beeps and blips fill out Atomic Betty's audio landscape. That approach does suit the game's retro style, but in the context of the overpowering simplicity, it feels more weakly utilitarian than quaintly appropriate. At the beginning of each space mission, you do get to hear Betty say, "Atomic Betty reporting for duty," though, if that helps.

Education Reform Now!

Trying not to frustrate young players is an understandable design restriction, but trying to deliver gameplay that rewards exploration and problem-solving – even in their most basic forms – seems an equally worthy consideration. For all the elements Atomic Betty packs into its short length – platforming, puzzles, shooting – its consistent lack of clever challenges is the standout feature. Offering zero replayability and little incentive to complete even a first run-through, Atomic Betty has the potential to entertain only those youngest of gamers who are still easily dazzled by controlling familiar characters on a tiny screen. If by some chance Atomic Betty's difficulty level does accurately gauge the brain power of today's tots, the school year is too short indeed.

Score: 5.7/10

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