Can a game get by on charm alone?
Like The Sims, like Diablo, like Starcraft, and like World of Warcraft, Spore is one of the few blockbuster games released in the last ten years or so that just doesn’t (and wouldn’t!) feel right on a console gaming system. Spore is so rooted in the customizability of the species of creatures that can be created as to practically beg for a mouse-and-keyboard interface. The simulation portions of the game proper are perfectly suited to this sort of interface as well, to the point that the developers seem to acknowledge that despite the economic windfall of a console port, there would simply be no way to maintain the quality of the PC game by moving it to a console.
The idea behind Spore is simply too good to remain trapped in PC purgatory, though, isn’t it? By not hitting consoles, EA was no doubt aware that there was a tremendous portion of the gaming public that was remaining untapped. As such, the developers behind Spore were tasked to find a way to move Spore to consoles and portables—specifically, by creating an experience suited to them.
Spore Hero is the first console iteration of Spore, and it feels as much like a screen test as it does a final product. It’s the kind of game that tries lots of things but never ends up fleshing them out, instead leaving the player with a number of pleasant tastes but the urge for something meatier. Still, it is truly and utterly charming. The bright colors, the well-designed stock species that populate the game, even the landscape itself is designed in a way to evoke smiles from a player ready and hoping to do just that. The puzzles are designed to be cute; battle amounts to a strange little dance that just happens to involve bodily harm.
There is not a single aspect of Spore Hero that isn’t crying out for its audience’s love. Most of the time, it even works. Despite what is at heart a fairly rote 3D platforming experience, the pure style and sincerity put into this game is nearly enough to push it into elite territory.
Rather than allowing the player to decide right off the bat what their creature is going to look like, the game starts instead with a nub of an avatar . . . a nub with feet, so that walking and exploring is possible. The mission is vaguely Metroid-esque, as the game involves a constant push and pull between the collection of power-ups and the parts of the world that can be explored. What makes this a Spore game, however, is that these power-ups come in the form of body parts. Want to increase your attacking prowess? Find a new set of teeth! Want to swim better? Find some flippers! Need a quick way to the top of a mountain? Find some wings!
On one hand, this is a necessary evil given that it successfully finds a way to meld the most instantly identifiable part of Spore with the mechanic of the best of recent generations’ adventure games. On the other, it also limits that identifiable Spore customization process to a near-crippling degree. The primary draw of Spore in the first place wasn’t simply the fact that you could create a creature, it was that you could create your creature. The creature that you create in Spore Hero is never really your creature because it’s being created in a way that fits neatly within the predetermined confines of the game. As such while there are still variations on themes that can be used to get the player beyond the necessary obstacles, there’s still a limitation to the customization.
That said, the Spore player who plays Spore Hero will necessarily be on the younger side, and often for the younger set, a little bit of guidance in the creation of a given creature is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact for the player who has never actually played the original Spore before, the idea of complete freedom in customization will not have established itself as a necessity on the way to success. Spore Hero then becomes a perfect first step toward the total freedom offered by Spore—much of the criticism of Spore Hero only becomes an issue because Spore appeared first. If the order of play is reversed and Spore Hero becomes the first step, it suddenly doesn’t seem so lacking; it becomes a brilliant first step, an idea that can be expanded upon by Spore proper (and its Creepy and Cute parts pack) for those whose interest had been piqued by Spore Hero.
The adventuring itself becomes something of an afterthought amidst the discussion of the creature customization capabilities, and somewhat deservedly so—the plot and the platforming are both fairly rote, seemingly here only to provide concrete reasons for the exploration. Still, the almost open-world feel of the game and the beauty of its presentation (not to mention the good-natured way in which it’s presented) provide enough motivation to make exploration a fairly engrossing experience.
So to a large degree, Spore Hero does get by on its charm, with an added assist from the assumption that its audience is going to be an audience that hasn’t already been addicted to Spore for the last year or so. The mileage that one gets from Spore Hero depends largely on whether this assumption holds true; still, it’s difficult to deny the pull of a game this polished, a game that, really, just wants to be liked and isn’t afraid to show it.