Meteos: Disney Magic

Azmol Meah

Gone are the quirky, dancing aliens of the original Meteos, replaced here by Buzz Lightyear, Simba and Jack Sparrow.

Publisher: Disney Interactive
Genres: Puzzle
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: Meteos: Disney Magic
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Q
US release date: 2007-02-27
Developer website

Now this is tricky. The original Meteos was a standout title for early DS adopters, a genuinely innovative and original puzzle game in a genre that has refused to take even the smallest baby-steps along the evolution line since the days of Tetris. For DS loyalists, it represented a justification of the dual-screen and a glimmer of hope for the then-struggling system that was being choked to death by the then-mighty PSP. Whether these factors affected sales of Meteos remains unknown; however, someone at Q Entertainment (or whoever holds the license for Meteos) felt the need to play it safe this time around, renting Meteos out to one of the biggest money spinners in entertainment history, Disney.

No one can ignore the charms of Mickey and co., and for the 12 and under set, that undoubtedly rings true for me -- unfortunately, though, a pretty large subset of gamers is quite a bit older than that, and sadly, the Disney magic doesn't sparkle anymore. Gone are the quirky, dancing aliens of the original Meteos, replaced here by Buzz Lightyear, Simba and Jack Sparrow -- in fact, most of the biggest Disney names from their vast vault of characters make an appearance. The price, though, is a hefty one: Meteos: Disney Magic has no soul.

Its personality has been bled dry; everything that charmed and endeared it to us two years ago has been washed away. The silly, yet strangely captivating plot of a power hungry, all-conquering alien race destroying the smaller defenseless planets around it has been substituted with an intriguing tale of who made a mess in the book room. The subtle sound effects that corresponded to their backgrounds and music, crucial to the immersion of the Meteos world have faded away. In their place is a soundalike score that only further reinforces the artificial feel that Disney Magic taunts you with. What's left is still a bright and cheerful world, yet one that feels phony and forced. The ties linking you and your DS have been severed, worse when one considers just how crucial a role immersion plays in aiding how addictive a game is in the puzzle genre.

And this is the hard bit: Despite the corporate sell out, Meteos: Disney Magic, is still a solid game and in some respects better than its older sibling. The stylus is used to stroke and flick the colored blocks back up the screen (no D-pad option this time around) and it still feels as intuitive and natural as it did two years ago. Chaining together three or more of the same colored blocks together remains as satisfying and compelling as before, and the rush of clearing the screen entirely of blocks is yet to be rivaled in any other puzzle game.

Despite being more of an add-on rather than a full blown sequel, Meteos: Disney Magic does include some refinements. For one, the DS is held vertically, à la Brain Training. This subtle alteration makes holding the DS more comfortable and allows for the biggest improvement in the game, the horizontal slide. Many scoffed at the difficulty of the original and Q Entertainment's naïve omission of the aforementioned slide. Not only does the shorter base and taller playfield suit Meteos better, but it also makes the horizontal slide a necessity, rather than a gimmick. Just as essential a part of good strategy as the vertical slide, it makes playing Meteos more challenging and adds some depth to how you tackle each level.

Seasoned fans may cry foul, however, as should you be brave enough to tackle the expert mode, the horizontal slide is deactivated; that is, of course, if you can reach the expert mode. Cut off for most of the game, it takes some serious playtime to unlock, and rather than feeling rewarding, it feels somewhat cheap, nothing more than an excuse to lengthen the game further. In terms of pace, everything moves at the breakneck speed that we've become accustomed to, yet it feels more balanced, as you're slowly eased into the rhythm of the game without ever being overwhelmed.

A welcome complexity is the special ability feature, triggered by clearing enough blocks; after enough time, a bar fills up granting the use of a bonus move. The most useful is the nitro boost, which sends everything back into the air, regardless of the gravitational ranking of the block (gravity determines which blocks rocket back in the air and which ones gently float back down). Often a lifesaver, the point at which the ability is called upon requires much thought as clearing the screen only makes the blocks fall faster and deducts from your final score. The final adjustment is the pink progress bar, nestled snugly against the special meter. Measuring how much remains to be done in the level, it removes the random nature of the first title, where games would end abruptly or last too long leaving you wondering whether it was your own skill or just plain luck that pulled you through.

Disappointingly, the dual screen aspect goes underutilized. While the original had a planet you targeted on the upper screen, a goal if you will, Q Entertainment failed to build upon that. Instead, we're greeted with generic animations that react to your performance. Struggle and Woody and friends panic, succeed and they jump for joy. The problem is that with such focus on the touchscreen, it's near impossible (not to mention pointless) to even pass a glance at the top screen. You can unlock these animations along with numerous other bonuses, but I would have preferred decent use of the second screen as an element of play much more.

Foolishly, there is no online option, an odd decision considering that wi-fi functionality is becoming the norm nowadays. Game sharing is allowed with only one cartridge, however, so that's some consolation.

Meteos: Disney Magic is likely to divide fans; as a game it has made significant enhancements over its older sibling and it is still probably the best puzzler available. But the nagging feeling of hotshot execs in fancy suits and shiny shoes stamping their authority over a title that only ever really needed a decent marketing campaign makes me worry for the future of more esoteric titles. The creativity, imagination and idiosyncratic nature that made Meteos such a charmer before has been sucked dry, what's left is a solid, yet cruelly lifeless game.

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