I'm sure opera, movies and cave paintings are fine forms of entertainment, but can any of them derive fun from such a mundane activity as directing traffic?
After a several weeks of inactivity, the Art Style series has returned to North America's DSiWare shop with Digidrive an abstract puzzle game about directing traffic that can sit alongside Art Style: Boxlife, a wonderful game about folding boxes in a factory, as a suggestion that Art Style games are downloadable because, were they sold in stores, the descriptions on the back of their boxes would scare people away.
This game is a remake of Bit Generations: Digidrive, a 2006 Japan-only Game Boy Advance game from Q Games, the studio known best these days for making the Pixel Junk series on the PS3 and less-well-known for programming the PS3's background ribbon thing. And, yes, their take on directing traffic, virtually, is fantastic.
Loved Terrific Traffic Trope: The gameplay in Digidrive is as solid and simple as it gets. Thank goodness, you know, that game designers consider waiting tables and taxi-driving and other often un-delightful real life activities as subjects for games. Here, being a one-man traffic light is a joy. What you've got is a gradually sped up relentless flow of colour-coded cars approaching the centre of a four-way intersection from four sides. With either the d-pad or the stylus players can direct the cars to one of the three lanes that branch from the road on which they are entering the playing field. Your directive is to park like-coloured cars behind each other, which banks fuel. Doing this well and then cashing in that fuel by letting a siren-blaring emergency vehicle drive into that section of parked cars, provides force to a puck on the bottom of the screen. That's important, because you are hoping to push that puck away from a plunger that is creeping up on it.
Yes, that's weird. And no, that's not how directing traffic works in real life. But it's fun, because of a few smart twists: Going into a high-speed Overdrive mode if you have at least five cars successfully parked in all four lanes helps you bank a lot of cars. Also, a clever but risky technique lets you double your reserves if you sacrifice one of the rows of parked cars. Timid players will never park many cars and keep cashing in to bump that puck forward nudge by nudge. Bold players will bank more and more cars, doubling and re-doubling their reserves, waiting until the last possible minute and than cashing in to ignite a major push of the puck. Hey, trust me, OK?
Abstract Art: The techno soundtrack is good. Better is the iconography of the graphics. A less interesting development team would have used numbers to represent the number of cars successfully being parked at the end of a lane. Q Games uses shapes. Park five cars and you get a triangle. Park a bunch more and that triangle fills up and becomes a square. Repeat until the square becomes a pentagon, then a hexagon (if you haven't messed up by this point and had the puck hit by the plunger), and then the hexagon becomes a circle. I like ammo counters and flashing words too, but I'll take a game that signals success with shapes.
Hated Touch Options: Hated is a strong word, but I found no great advantage from playing the DS version's new touch mode. It allows players not just to direct the game's cars with a tap of the screen but to tap the shapes of banked cars to cash them in, rather than waiting for — or sending out into the roadway — an emergency vehicle. This seemed to make the game simpler without making it better. I preferred the d-pad controls which allow me to play this game even when I'm standing on the subway, holding onto a railing for support with my other hand. Many portable games require you to play while sitting, leaning or standing still. Praise Digidrive for allowing us portable gaming on unsteady platforms, but if you do, don't try those touch controls.
It's hard to express the quality of a puzzle game when just putting it in your hands would prove that the balance and flow here is good. Don't be deterred by the traffic-directing subject matter. In fact, I hope that kind of oddity emboldens you to try this game. It was fantastic on the GBA and makes the transition to DSiWare well.
Art Style Digidrive was developed by Q Games and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo DSiWare downloadable store on November 16. Retails for 500 Nintendo Points ($US5) Played three difficulty levels in single player, tried touch mode, tried two-player Vs mode against the computer and had trouble looking at the traffic in the intersections of Manhattan without wanting to get involved.
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