[11 January 2012]
There’s no denying that Nintendo has been a driving force in the video game industry for decades. Their consoles and first party franchises helped raise a whole generation of gamers. While they are sometimes criticized for releasing titles that are thematically, if not mechanically, identical to games that they’ve released before, as well as for their stodgy approach to concepts championed by their competitors (most notably online gaming), they’ve also demonstrated amazing feats of creative vision with respect to both hardware and software.
In recent history, the company has made a habit of producing hardware that has initially been met with either confusion or incredulity while eventually proving to both sell incredibly well and to spawn features imitated by the competition. Nintendo rarely makes poor business decisions. That’s why it’s so salient that they recently announced their first annual loss in 30 years.
Portable gaming has long been a cash cow for Nintendo, who have sat atop the heap of that market for many years. With smartphones becoming ever more able to offer rich gaming experiences at a fraction of the price of physically distributed titles for dedicated gaming machines, Nintendo’s handheld gaming empire is facing its first legitimate competition in some time. Nintendo’s virtual console service and eShop are an effort to compete on similar ground with the quickly emerging smartphone market, but the company has quite a bit of room for improvement with respect to the overall quality of titles available in their digital marketplace.
Despite the fact that sales of the 3DS outpaced those of the DS in its first year, there’s little doubt that the system has seen a dearth of quality physical titles since its release. It seems clear that Nintendo’s uncharacteristic, and drastic, decision to cut the price of the 3DS by over 30% a mere five months after its release is the single most direct cause for this increase in system sales.
One of the things that Nintendo has that simply can’t be duplicated are its core properties. A fantastically constructed platform game that can be digitally distributed to your phone for a few dollars is still not a Mario title. It can’t tap into the same sense of nostalgia that those characters bring with them, and in many ways, this notion is Nintendo’s ace in the hole. Among the most successful of the properties that are uniquely Nintendo is the Pokémon series, arguably that which saved them during the days of the N64.
For every insidiously addictive, surprisingly deep core Pokémon game that comes out, it seems like series fans are subjected to at least a few that wrap other, well-worn genres in Pokémon trappings. This is something that fans of the series have come to expect, and people that aren’t interested in these side games simply ignore them, waiting for the inevitable new main franchise entries. Clearly these side games are intended to appeal to those for whom the characters of the Pokémon universe and the overall Pokémon aesthetic are so inviting that they’ll be taken in almost any context.
For what it is, Pokémon Rumble Blast functions well. It’s technically adept, with a streamlined battle interface. The characterizations of the classic Pokémon cast as toy versions of themselves is fairly charming, and it legitimately does look great. It isn’t hard to see younger Pokémon fans for whom the strategic elements of Pokémon Black or White presented a stiff challenge having a ball with this more action-oriented experience. Essentially, Rumble Blast provides the Pokémon version of a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.
Pokémon Rumble Blast’s simplicity is both a blessing and a curse, in that while there aren’t really any battle tactics to speak of, there also isn’t any of the incessant grinding or intrusive random encounters to disrupt the flow of the game. The characters have single button attacks that can be mashed to your heart’s content, as opposed to directing a Pokémon to let loose a specified attack. Unfortunately, the same “less is more” approach seems to have also been applied to the game’s environments which are recycled ad nauseum. Mechanically too, the game is extraordinarily repetitive, though to be fair that could be said of both Pokémon and hack-and-slash titles in general.
Its position as a mindless, cute, but somewhat enjoyable title would be completely understandable if the game were marketed as a modestly priced, downloadable title from the Nintendo eShop. Rumble Blast is the sequel to the 2009 WiiWare title Pokémon Rumble, which retailed for 1500 Nintendo Points, or $15.00. At $39.99 however, the going rate for AAA 3DS releases, Rumble Blast is a far less attractive proposition. The issue with Pokémon Rumble Blast might well be one of timing. While the release of the classic The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time as well as the recently released and largely well received Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 have made the system much more appealing, in the context of the points raised at the beginning of this review, the 3DS could almost certainly use the boost provided by a new entry to the core Pokémon series. But since Pokémon Black and White came out in March of 2011, such a release wouldn’t really make any sense. As long as you are aware of the kind of experience that Pokémon Rumble Blast offers going in and are not expecting a full-on Pokémon game, Rumble Blast might well be enjoyed by younger players or older Pokémon fanatics. Beyond that, however, the appeal of this title is limited.