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SPOTLIGHT THIS MONTH

The Dragon Ball Z anime has found its way into an absurd number of video game iterations… including a ridiculous six games in the Budokai series on PS2. As you can guess, DBZ has been on franchise burnout for a while now. But a new gen means a new stab at reinventing a fan-favorite, sweetened with the promise that the horsepower of 2008 can provide. Burst Limit, coming June 10 to PS3 and 360, is the latest bout of what Cartoon Network used to call the greatest action cartoon ever made… but is it still just your father’s DBZ?

The demo version of Burst Limit has now arrived on both systems, and like Goku on Raditz, I took it for a spin.

I played the PS3 demo. It weighs in at a svelte 475mb. In this trial edition, you get two single player levels: chapter 1 (Goku vs. Raditz) and chapter 4 (Yamcha vs. four Saibamen). There are no options, so you can’t turn off subtitles (boo!) or remap any of your buttons. In fact, the button map screen is hilariously uncluttered. For example, O is “Ki Blast.” That’s it. If you need further text explaining what a Ki Blast is, then this probably isn’t the game for you.

Like every single DBZ game before it, DBZ promises to take gamers through the majority of the anime’s various storylines. The demo’s splash screen showcases villains Frieza and Cell, which, if memory serves, is about halfway through the series’ 270+ episodes. At this point, you have to wonder who exactly is the intended audience for these games. For a time, DBZ was big business on Cartoon Network, but it has been on benchwarmer status as newer shows rise to prominence. So you don’t have a gigantic kid appeal at the moment. In 2009, Dragon Ball will arrive in theaters as a big budget American live-action movie… but I can guaran-effin-tee you that we’ll see 2009 games based on “The Movie” instead of teh anime. And as far as the hardcore fans go, how many times can they plow through the exact same story with the exact same characters with only marginal improvements? It’s like Madden with spiky hair and more grunting.

For its part, Burst Limit seems to be a return to fighting game basics, eschewing the exploration and mini-RPG elements of the recent Budokai Tenkaichi series. In the first stage available in the demo, you play series icon Goku as he squares off against Raditz in the minutes before Piccolo gets his stupid beam cannon ready. I’m already a fan, so this all makes sense to me.

All four face buttons and all four shoulder buttons are used, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what for. I mashed. Pausing the game lets you browse a list of the combo attacks, some of which are truly hilarious… for example, left+OOOOOOO. Yes, that’s seven Os. DBZ fans – who ought to be expecting this by now – will note the inclusion of all the show-accurate character attacks, like Yamcha’s Wolf Fang Fist and Goku’s famous Kamehameha.

(Which, incidentally, figures heavily into the game’s advertising campaign.)
I’m far from a fighting game master, so I can’t say if Burst Limit has any kind of deep, tactical experience. I can tell you that there’s counters, grabs, clearing moves, distance attacks and blocks. There’s also a nifty power struggle bit where you have to repeatedly slam all four Dual Shock 3 face buttons to shove an energy attack back against your opponent. Maybe that’s the Burst Limit itself? I don’t really know.

What’s important is that I had fun playing it. Certainly more fun than I had trying to suss out the awful Wii-waggle controls of Budokai Tenkaichi 2. The control seems very tight. After a few rounds, I figured out enough combos to feel like I was at least partially in control of the onscreen antics.

Perhaps in an attempt to raise Burst Limit above being a simple fighting game, each battle contains a long list of hidden cutscenes and bonus goals (like “beat opponent in under 90 seconds”). I don’t know what triggers the movies to start, but presumably you meet some predetermined condition that causes the fight to jump into a brief clip of Raditz verbally berating Goku or whatever. Rather than being simply disconnected movies, when you get back to the fray, you’ll note some gameplay tweak now in effect… like “Ki Charges Faster.” In single-player mode, this will no doubt help the game mimic the show’s storyline. I wouldn’t expect the interruption in multiplayer mode! What I find interesting about the concept is that this effectively adds a collectible element to a fighting game. I played each stage several times and never found all the hidden movies. But now I want to.

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As a modern generation title, Burst Limit makes short work of the graphics of its predecessors. It looks great! One of the nice things about DBZ as a fighting game is that it looks so different from the hyper-realistic blood-n-guts titles that dominate the genre. Burst Limit is bright and colorful. The character models are sharp and true. Excellent motion blur techniques capture the insane speed of the anime. (Seriously, half the time these guys are teleporting.)

My initial concern for Burst Limit is that it won’t do enough to justify yet another romp through the setpieces of the Dragon Ball Z franchise. It feels like it could fall prey to the common next-gen reboot problem where the developers take away 75% of the last-gen features but upgrade the graphics to the ceiling. Like when Crash Bandicoot debuted on the PS2 without all of his fun. Plus, I’m very worried that it will be immediately outmoded when Burst Limit 2 is announced six months from now. Nevertheless, it’s a strong-but-small demo and I’m looking forward to the full game.

PS: Because I’m a sucker for these sorts of things, I should mention that GameStop has some kind of crazy exclusive Special Edition thing going on. You get either a DVD of DBZ Episodes 1-7 (with your 360 edition) or the Blu-ray version of Dead Zone, the first DBZ animated feature (on PS3, naturally). Either option is free when you pre-order the $60 game. You also get a t-shirt!

My Pokemon Ranch was met by the gaming world with the usual range of internet responses: from dismissive shrugs all the way to frothing rage. Since it’s Pokemon, since it’s Nintendo, since it’s on the Wii, and since it looks like an N64 game, My Pokemon Ranch has already been under-reviewed, poorly-explained, and instantly reviled. In the interest of Pokequality, I wanted to spend a week with this $10 WiiWare download and offer up a more thorough examination of the game… something a little more involved than “Pokemon Ranch? More like Pokemon Crap!”

Part of the problem with the perception of My Pokemon Ranch comes from the previous generation’s Pokemon “tool”, the GameCube’s Pokemon Box. Pokemon Box was a limited release non-game, designed specifically for hardcore Pokefans who wanted additional storage space for the critters they collected in the Game Boy Advance series of Pokemon games. Although the overall package was attractive – the game, an exclusive memory card, and a GameCube/GBA link cable, all for only $20 – Pokemon Box was exactly what it said it was. A box. You could transfer pokemon from your GBA games to the Box memory card. That’s about it.

So does My Pokemon Ranch deliver worthwhile content, or is it just another Box? I’m not even going to make you click through to find out: the answer is yes.
Let’s start with the graphics, because everybody else already has. Yes, things look a little… sparse?

The apologist response is to point out that this is an attempt to present the various pocket monsters in the graphically-simplified Mii style. But more importantly, the Pokemon franchise currently contains almost 500 different critters, all of whom needed brand new 3D models for Ranch. The entire game is 123 blocks, a size that is already at the upper end of Virtual Console games. (For comparison’s sake, Starfox 64 is a 134 block VC file.) Now add to that pokemon varieties with multiple forms… like the 28 Unown, the species with different color schemes and markings, and the slight differences between males and females of the same type… which are all represented in My Pokemon Ranch. That’s a pokeTON of characters that all need to be presented accurately or risk fanboy entitlement outrage.

Remember, we’re talking the system that seized the world’s mindshare largely on the strength of Wii Sports bowling, where most of the Miis don’t even have legs. Complaints about graphical fidelity on a downloadable Pokemon title seem a little unwelcome.

When you first enter Ranch, you meet Hayley… the ranch’s owner. Hayley’s goal in life is to run a truly spectacular ranch, and naturally she wants your help. Your ranch – which takes on the name of your Wii; remember naming your Wii back when you first set it up? – will start out small and grow every day that you add pokemon to it. Every time the ranch expands, Hayley gleefully explains that you can now top it off with more critters and more Miis. Yes, Miis. You and your friends and family can also walk around the ranch, interacting with the pokemon.

Hayley starts things off with six of her pokemon, and if you own Pokemon Diamond or Pearl for your DS, you’re immediately invited to import your own hand-raised monsters via Wii-DS WiFi. Pokemaniacs take note: pokemon shifted from your DS game can easily be moved back, so there’s little risk of losing your darlings. Additionally, if a pokemon was holding an item when you deposited it in the ranch, it will still have it when you bring it back to your DS. You can even transfer an unhatched pokemon egg to the ranch, although I am not yet sure what that does.

Once Hayley knows you have a DS game, she will post WANTED signs for certain types. She selects her wanted types by peeking at your DS game’s pokedex and finding monsters you do not yet own. The wanted board then gives you hints on how to find these elusive pokemon, creating a very helpful support program for catching ‘em all. When you find one of the wanted critters and drop it off at the ranch (don’t take too long; you only have ten days), Hayley will then offer to trade one of her pokemon for the one she asked for. However, though she will add new pokemon to the ranch every day, including some rare types, she will not trade absolutely everything away. That’s according to most online rumor sites. She’s kind of a tease that way. Gimme that Dusknoir!

Once you have plenty of pokemon roaming the ranch grounds, the game devolves into a spectator sport. The characters, pokemon and Miis alike, wander the fenced enclosure, randomly interacting with each other. They’ll go for piggyback rides, perform simple attack animations, carry your Mii through the air, even display Animal Crossing-esque visualized emotions (such as little purple storm clouds to illustrate depression). With the camera on the default Auto Mode, you’ll see strange onscreen text messages related to the random antics like “Is JOE interested in PIKACHU?” or “ZUBAT is taking a stroll.” You can select a character for the camera to follow by navigating a list with the d-pad. After a few days you unlock Free Mode, which lets you control the camera’s position, pan and zoom.

Although you can’t directly control anyone, you can swing the Remote to create a tornado swirl or bouncing earthquake. After Free Mode is enabled, you can do the Remote pinch (A + B) to move characters around the ranch, a la the Mii Channel. Eventually you start getting toy boxes, which contain various gizmos for your pals. One day we received a Parade Drum, which a nearby Mii will bolt towards and start a group march. My three-year-old son loves the drum so much that he only wants HIS Mii to use it. Should Hayley or any other Mii start using it, he demands we pinch the drum away from them.

My Pokemon Ranch offers a photography mode that is the best yet on Wii. We’ve already seen games that allow you to save screenshots to the Wii Message Board for mailing to your Wii Friends (Metroid Prime 3, Mario Galaxy, Pokemon Snap), and we’ve seen at least one game that lets you save screens to an SD card for backup (Smash Brawl). Ranch combines both into a feature that should really be system-level. You can snap up to 20 photos of your pokemon and Miis cavorting away, and then save them to either your Wii Message Board or your SD card. Unlike Brawl, the photos put to the SD card show up as normal JPGs, so there’s no need to convert them. Ranch pics even directly import into photo management programs like iPhoto. All of the screenshots in this article are straight from my personal Pokemon Ranch!

MPR has some curious connectivity features that are poorly documented. They are all opt-in, which I suppose is to protect kids from penis-face Miis. One choice allows you to share ranch info with friends, but I have yet to see that in action even though I have at least one Wii Friend with Pokemon Ranch. The other choice is to allow Guests, which I think lets other Miis visit you and invite you to travel to their Ranches. So far, I’ve only seen a few NPC characters (like Bobbie, who took me to her ranch filled with nothing but Bidoofs), not any “real” Miis. There is an amusing effort to make the NPC Miis resemble their favorite pokemon, as seen here with Tanner and his ranch full of Tauros.

In a week, I’ve developed a level 10 ranch with a capacity of 200 pokemon and 15 Miis. And yes, Ranch has me into Pokemon Pearl addiction again, which I have not seriously played in a year. I just want Hayley to be proud of me, all right?

Speaking as a dedicated Pokefreak, the DS interactivity justifies the price… which, after Pokemon Box, was the main question I wanted answered that nobody online seemed to confront. It’s another layer of value for your Diamond/Pearl game. I like the challenge of fulfilling Hayley’s Wanted list, and her hints mean less time clicking through strategy guides. I also hope to abuse her generosity and score some good trades. The constant cycle of what-will-she-bring-tomorrow has already engendered an Animal Crossing level interest where I need to boot the game every day in anticipation of seeing some rares. The Mii integration and the screenshot ability are the other two legs holding up the package.

And I’ll be honest. I think the super-deformed pokemon are incredibly cute.

It should go without saying that My Pokemon Ranch is for Pokemon fans. Got that? I mean, if you didn’t like Crash Bandicoot 1 or 2, you probably didn’t give #3 a go. So if you’re not already presold on Pokemon, you might as well ignore this li’l WiiWare. MPR tries to provide value for players who do not own Pokemon Pearl or Diamond by allowing you to interact solely with Hayley’s pokemon collection (and in fact, it might be a nice stopgap for young gamers who want to be in on the Pokemon scene but whose parents balk at the underpinnings of the core series)… but the game is best enjoyed by those who do own the DS games.

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