The latest Nintendo-published downloadable game for the DS may be one of the worst-named Nintendo games of all time. It's also another proof that top Nintendo-affiliated developers could school a lot of iPhone game creators.
Link 'N Launch is a DSiWare game from Intelligent Systems, the development studio behind such Nintendo-published greats as Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, and the Paper Mario series. For their second DSiWare game, IS has made a variation on the pipe-linking game Pipemania, a clever offering of linked puzzles that all involve connecting paths of pipes between fuel sources and and a rocketship, each "level" of this puzzle game resulting in the rocket being fired only as far and as on course as the player's pipe-arranging enables it.
Tough-To-Describe Strategic Sci-Fi Puzzle Gameplay: The game's main missions require that a rocketship be shot for a set distance through space, toward a planet far away. Satellite dishes need to be delivered, or something. To get the rocket there, the player must solve puzzle challenges along the way, each completed challenge serving to boost the rocket further along. The challenges involve connecting puffs of space fuel on the DS' lower screen to any or all of the rocket's three boosters that are rendered right at the top of that screen (the top screen shows the rest of the rocket and hints about the best path to send the rocket on next) .
In the playing field are square pieces, each of them displaying a straight, curved or branching piece of pipe. With the deft swipes of a DS stylus, these pieces need to be twisted, flipped and moved in order to connect fuel to rocket. Once the connection is made, the fuel flows and the rocket launches a few astronomical units of length further toward the destination planet. As the rocket slows to a stop after its latest push, the player has to arrange a new set of pipes to push the rocket forward again. As the rocket journeys further into black space, the challenges get tougher. The pieces available and the paths that need to be made to join fuel and rocket are increasingly complex. The whole endeavor toughens as the player must focus on which of the three boosters they are are igniting, where they are pointing the rocket as a result, whether they are going off course, flying into a comet's path, or running out of time before the mission fails. Better players will snag power-ups that extend the clock or allow the rocket to be upgraded. Best players will arrange the longest possible paths of pipe, which, for some reason, cause the rocket to get the biggest boost.
Stellar Art Design: There are two wonderful things to look at in Link 'N Launch. First is the upgradable rocketship which looks so much like something Captian Olimar from Pikmin games would fly that I've decided this game is a stealth Pikmin spin-off. Upgrading one's rocketship via collected power-ups provides both a boost in the ship's flight performance but a wonderful punchy transformation of dumpy vessel into sleeker ship, each upgrade creating a more fantastic and fun craft. What looked like a flying potato is now a mighty carrot, of sorts. The other visual stand-out is the fuel that flows through the pipe paths the player arranges. Once a path links fuel source to one or more of the rocket's three boosters a pink goo flows through the pipes. That probably seems like nothing special when described here, but it offers the same satisfaction that Yosemite Sam appeared to have in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons when he got to watch the fuse he lit travel a winding path of gunpowder toward the barrel in which he was sure Bugs was hiding. I hope, though, that you can plan your paths better than Sam usually did.
The Game's Terrible Name: Typed out, Link 'N Launch looks like the name of a Zelda game that shouldn't exist. Maybe Launch is Link's 'lil pal! The two guys hang out when Link is not rescuing Princess Zelda and this game is about their fun adventures? Or maybe the person who doesn't get that bad impression merely hears me saying the name of the game to them. Do they think I just said Lincoln Launch? Are they wondering if this game is about one of America's great presidents doing something or other? Worse, maybe they actually hear the correct words: Link 'N Launch. And, unless they've been dying to link things and then launch things, I bet they're hoping I change the topic. The name of this game is a liability for anyone who wants to, with good reason, make the game sound like something interesting and worth trying. In a downloadable games market where a game's name may be its only selling point, having a bad one is unfortunate.
Link 'N Launch, despite its name, is impressive. At first, the game seems like just another twist on the same genre that was used for the pipe-connecting hacking system in the original Bioshock. But just 10 minutes with the game already reveals that there is a design thickness here of a layered and captivating puzzle game. This is a puzzle game in which how you play the board you're on has much to do with whether you have a decent chance to do well on the next one. And while it suffers some from the problem of the original Lumines, that it can sometimes take too long to get tough enough for players who've played it regularly for a week, it's novel for a long enough time to earn a recommendation.
There's a depth and cleverness in Link 'N Launch that is rare among the smallish games offered for download on portable devices these days. This is true for several of the Nintendo-published DSiWare games. Based on that trend, perhaps some of the best Japanese game makers, those whom seem more spiritually tied to the simpler times of simpler hardware and more tightly-crafted game design, can establish a lead role in the development of tightly-made, downloadable games. I just hope that they try to name them better.
Link 'N Launch was developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo as a download-only game for the Nintendo DSi on February 8. Retails for $5.00 USD. I cleared the game's 10 increasingly-challenging and lengthy fly-toward-the-planet missions, finished a dozen of the 100 standalone bonus puzzle challenges, unlocked one extra mode and heard the game's single piece of music again and again and again. I think I'm still hearing it now.
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