To ask aficionados of the format, pinball needs no improvements. It’s you against the scoreboard, with naught but two flippers as your defense against gravity, your most hated enemy. You can contest the scores of others, but your greatest competitor is yourself. An army of bumpers, tracks, and hazards serve to both help and hinder the player, as they increase both the score and the unpredictability of the path of one all-too-miniscule sphere. It’s a beautiful game, really, in its purest form.
The problem is, translating that purity to something that you play with a gamepad is a dicey proposition. High scores are less attractive, because “king of the living room” isn’t quite the motivation that “king of the arcade” is. Not only that, but pushing the buttons of a gamepad is a far less visceral experience than pushing the flipper buttons and actually causing the mechanical action of the flippers’ flips.
Given these particular limitations, those developers of pinball games for systems that people can actually own are faced with the challenge of adding something to the pinball experience, something that will keep the console players coming back. Usually, this extra something takes the form of bonus stages (even the original Nintendo Entertainment System’s Pinball had one of these, featuring Mario wearing a glorified Breakout bumper) or collectable goals (perhaps the greatest home pinball experience of all time, the Game Boy Color’s Pokemon Pinball, made you collect ‘em all in style).
Flipper Critters, for its part, takes the pinball-game-as-quest route, itself a premise pioneered by Jaleco’s Pinball Quest for the NES, and some would say perfected by the GameCube’s imaginative take on the subgenre, Odama, which combined the pinball play with some old-fashioned tactical warfare. In this case, we are presented with some very cute animatronic stuffed animal-looking things, inhabitants of a very colorful world in which everyone seems to get along, more or less. Ultimately, the tiger and the monkey go on an adventure to find a cure for the common cold, which their friend the red bull has tragically come down with. They take an awfully roundabout way to find that cure, taking them to all manner of colorful locales, which are mostly different from each other in the choice and density of primary colors used.
Seriously, this is a colorful game. On the one hand, the visuals seem impressive, in that there are is, bright color leaking out of every corner, three-dimensional characters and environments (a relative rarity on the DS), and some fairly smooth transitions from playing field to playing field. On the other hand, it’s so colorful as to be downright confusing an awful lot of the time, and the characters look as though their heads might pop off at any time when they’re “talking”, which, of course, would be very traumatic to the young audience that the game is directed toward.
Here’s a prime example of the game’s dialogue.
It is in that audience that Flipper Critters actually finds the most problematic of its issues—there is no way a child of the age that Flipper Critters is courting will be able to play this game and progress any further than the second or third screen. For one, that gap between the flippers seems HUGE sometimes. Second, it is rarely, rarely clear exactly what you’re supposed to do to progress in the game. Third, in an effort to take advantage of the unique capabilities that the DS provides, the developers have seen fit to incorporate touchscreen actions.
Think about this for a minute. You’re controlling the left flippers with the left hand. You’re controlling right flippers with the right hand. And then you control the touchscreen actions with…your toes?
Occasionally, the mechanic works just fine, in those cases where the touchscreen business is far enough from the flipper that it doesn’t feel like you’re randomly fumbling around for the controls. In other cases, though, you lose track of what hand is going where, and before you know it you’re down a ball. You’d better hope you saved your game, which, thankfully, is always an option.
As such, Flipper Critters is a decent premise, and an occasionally fun experience, housed in a unique, crazy-bright shell. The problem is, kids will be frustrated by it, and pinball fanatics will be put off by the premise, the cutesy-ness, and the odd physics engine that makes gameplay an unpredictable and often sloppy experience. It’s a game that suffers from an excess of ambition marred by a severe limitation in the developers’ abilities to see that ambition turned into a worthy, playable product. If you’re desperate for a different sort of pinball game and you want it on your Nintendo DS, well, maybe Flipper Critters will win you over. Its admittedly attractive bargain price won’t hurt.
Or, you could dig out that old copy of Pokemon Pinball. That’d work too.