Bakugan: Defenders of the Core

Every battle is Godzilla vs. Mothra for modern preteens, complete with the sudden appearance of two behemoth robot-things that send scores of tiny people scurrying for cover.

Publisher: Activision
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PS3, Wii, DS, PSP
Price: $39.99
Players: 1-2
Game Title: Bakugan: Defenders of the Core
Developer: Now Production
Release Date: 2010-11-02

On one level, it seems shocking that the first Bakugan game released for home consoles did not allow any sort of control over the Bakugan themselves. The Bakugan are the selling point of the TV series, as the giant sentient robot things that make the boys go “OOOOOOH” and “AHHHHHH”, the payoff for putting up with story exposition that mostly consists of adolescents wandering from place to place and yelling at each other. However, it does still seem understandable -- in creating a video game that more or less simulated the act of playing the popular tabletop Bakugan game, the developers ensured that the game's audience would a) know how to play it and b) probably enjoy it.

Still, there's the nagging sense that the video game should have been about allowing the player to do something that can't be done in other arenas. This is the approach of Bakugan: Defenders of the Core, the first Bakugan game to actually feel like a video game rather than a collection of things that you can do elsewhere.

At least initially, controlling the Bakugan is kind of awesome. Every battle is Godzilla vs. Mothra for modern preteens, complete with the sudden appearance of two behemoths that send scores of tiny people scurrying for cover. Battles feature flying, combo attacks, fire breathing, swords, and everything else you've ever seen a Bakugan use in a fight. At the end of the battle, you get graded on the amount of damage you took, the highest combo you managed to execute, and the amount of property damage you did throughout the battle (though how unfortunate that less property damage amounts to a better grade). And throughout the battle, you actually manage to forget the drama filled lives of the "people" who actually sent the Bakugan to war on their behalf.

It's neat. For a lot of the kids playing it, "neat" will be enough.

As the adventure drags on, however, the sameness of the combat throughout starts to become apparent, which is kind of a shock. Some of these Bakugan are lumbering giants, some of them speedy wisps of creatures -- granted, giant speedy robot-like wisps -- and the rest are all manner of creatures in between. There are Bakugan based around water and fire and wind and darkness, each with their own attacks and strengths and weaknesses. And when you're controlling them in the middle of a fight, they all feel pretty much the same. Some of their bullets go farther or shorter, some of their attacks are quicker or slower, but as far as the feel, it's basically the same. The speed at which they move, the responsiveness of their attacks, and the way that they fit into the environment, well, it may as well be a sprite switch.

Again, in the world of games for children, the visual counts for a lot, and the visuals most certainly change from Bakugan to Bakugan. In fact, the visuals are probably what impress the most about these fights, as the quick zooms and confusing perspective changes actually manage to recreate the stomach-turning hyperactivity of their television counterparts quite well. Still, kids are smart, and a change in visuals isn't going to be enough to convince them that they're not just doing the same thing over and over again.

Of course, there's something else here to combat that problem: Half of Defenders of the Core is an exercise in stealth.

The player will at the beginning of the game create a human character that happens to be the only good guy who can still battle, for reasons explained in the game. In order to do so, however, that human must sneak his way from hotspot to hotspot to destroy crystals planted throughout the game world. In order to get to these hotspots, the player must use a variety of means to slip around guards and traps, slowly progressing to various game-world landmarks to get to the good stuff.

The stealth here doesn't really involve sightlines so much as it involves avoiding brightly colored ovals that represent the view of the guard or trap that the player is trying to avoid. Usually, progression is about picking your spot and making a run for it. Sometimes, cloaking abilities or infrared goggles are used. It's a fairly entertaining diversion, and it opens the door for the collectible games that fit so well into achievement/trophy systems, but it mostly feels like filler, a time-consuming roadblock to the fast action. This is not even to mention the odd dissonance the player feels when standing not ten feet from a guard who is actually facing the player in broad daylight, and slipping by unnoticed because the "sight cone" was avoided.

It's unfortunate that a game like Bakugan: Defenders of the Core might well be many young players' first foray into the world of stealth adventure gaming, a style that games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Thief, Splinter Cell, and even Metal Gear Solid do so well. What you're doing in this game feels less like "stealth" and more like Frogger.

Maybe expecting more than a licensed product cash-in was too much to ask. Perhaps we should come up with a new scale for games that are conceived entirely as a way to get fans of a franchise popular on one medium to shell out some green for the same franchise on another medium. As far as cash-ins go, Defenders of the Core does its job somewhat admirably. It's not irrevocably broken, and it's bound to give bored Bakugan fans a few hours of fun. Unfortunately, PopMatters does not yet operate on such a scale.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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