[22 February 2011]
Reggie Fils-Aime is not scared of Angry Birds. Games like Plants vs. Zombies are what have him worried.
When Plants vs. Zombies was released on the iPhone/iPad App Store in February 2010, it cost $3.00. When it arrived on the Nintendo DS in January 2011, it cost $19.99. There is no appreciable difference between the two versions—as a matter of fact, an argument could be made that the iPhone version is better. The price difference is entirely a matter of format, and the fact is that a 20 dollar game on the DS looks like just about the same sort of bargain as a three dollar game on the iPhone. Sooner or later, people are going to figure this out. Fils-Aime is right to be worried.
That the Nintendo DS edition of Plants vs. Zombies remains Plants vs. Zombies is both its greatest strength and most glaring weakness. As of the writing of this review, Plants vs. Zombies has been available on PCs for almost two years, it’s been on iOS for a year, and it’s been a downloadable Xbox game for five months. There is almost nothing new to be found on the DS edition, no true reason (unless, somehow, you’re a mini-game completist) to own it over the others. In terms of visuals, it’s probably the worst of the bunch—while the zombies that pass by behind the top screen’s progress bar are cute and well-drawn, they’re window dressing covering up the lo-fi visuals of the bottom screen. Granted, the graphics on the playable portion of the screen are about as good as they could be given the resolution limits of the DS, but there’s a noticeable downgrade from any of the other versions.
And remember: This is the most expensive version.
As hinted at previously, though, the idea that the DS edition of Plants vs. Zombies is merely a faithful and well implemented port works in its favor. The tower defense genre wasn’t exactly a “hardcore” pursuit before Plants vs. Zombies arrived—its most celebrated member to that point was the free, flash-based Desktop Tower Defense, after all—but Plants vs. Zombies pulled off the nifty little trick of making tower defense even more casual (this is the sort of thing that PopCap tends to manage almost effortlessly). What makes a typical tower defense exercise a true challenge is the pathfinding aspect of the game—not only do you have to overpower the oncoming horde with ammunition, but you also have to force them to take the longest route possible to whatever it is that you’re trying to defend. Plants vs. Zombies removes this aspect of the game entirely, replacing it with a tremendous number of choices of defending plants that can be used to stop a horde of enemies that only knows how to travel in straight lines.
Instead of a single funnel spot that the player has to divert all around the board, the zombies can be tackled line by line, as they appear, as long as you’ve got enough sunlight (the game’s currency) to do something about the type of zombie that’s just shown up. The end result is a matter of hoarding resources followed by overwhelming the enemy with firepower . . . neither of which are new conceits, but both are made more manageable by the approach.
Hardcore strategy fans will be put off by the softened difficulty that the Plants vs. Zombies approach offers; a much larger group of people will find it welcoming. The colorful visuals and quirky, kid friendly take on the undead will draw more people in, making for a game that the whole family can play (which the DS version encourages by offering download play—a smart inclusion that actually helps the perceived value of the game).
But again, none of this is new.
What is new? There’s a mini-game that actually shows up in the story mode as well, in which you have to yell at your plants to wake them up, taking advantage of the DS microphone (don’t worry, quiet types, blowing into the microphone works fine as well). There’s a minigame that asks you to hit “home runs” with basketballs, knocking them past the zombie “pitcher”. There’s a minigame in which you use the stylus to dodge the wrenches thrown by the “Zomboss” as you try to machine gun (er, “gatling pea”) him down to the ground. And there’s a minigame in which you’re given a set number of bomb plants with which you need to destroy all the oncoming zombies. Perhaps most appealing is the opportunity to be the zombies in the download play versus mode, though experienced players may find that playing as the zombies is truly preferable to the plants, particularly when playing the mode that forces the player to use whatever plant shows up on the conveyor belt.
Is that enough for someone who’s already played and loved another version of Plants vs. Zombies? Not likely. This version of Plants vs. Zombies is for an audience that hasn’t played the game, despite the exclusive bonuses, and that crowd will be just fine with it. It’s a very good game, and the people who haven’t played it and do buy it will probably enjoy it. If you have any other version, however, just skip it. You’ll spend most of your play time wondering why you paid so much for something you got far cheaper somewhere else.