||Chu Chu Rocket
Gerbils were never this fun. - Review By BenT
Chu Chu Rocket is a bit of a milestone for Sega, as it marks the beginning of the latest phase in their network strategy: online play. Yep, Chu Chu Rocket lets you get it on with people from across the globe, so you're no longer limited to repeatedly stomping your autistic brother Ernie.
As you might imagine, for their first online (DC) game, Sega played it safe by choosing a relatively lag-friendly genre, the puzzle game. Chu Chu Rocket's goal is simple. Direct lemming-like mice, via arrows, into your waiting rocket, all the while avoiding pits and roving cats. If you're in single player puzzle mode, you simply have to rescue 100% of the mice, using what arrows you're given for that stage. Place your arrows, press a button, and the mice will run the course - hopefully into your waiting rocket, and not the gaping maws of a cat. The competitive modes are similar, except that here the mice spawn from certain points, are always in motion, and you have unlimited arrows (up to three at a time). But, while you still have to direct mice to your rocket, you must also try to send the nefarious cats into your opponents' crafts (lowering their score by a whopping 1/3) whilst simultaneously keeping the cats away from your rocket. Whew. The highest score after three minutes takes the match, and two matches wins the game.
Sounds simple, right? Well.. you might think so, until you actually see the game in motion, with dozens of mice and cats scurrying around at speeds upwards of 90 mph. Utter chaos ensues, and it was jarring enough to make a certain PDC editor run away like a coward after just a single game. Wuss.
The keys to any good puzzle game are simplicity and replay value/addictiveness, and Chu Chu Rocket has the latter in spades. It's no pushover; once you get into the harder levels of puzzle mode, the layouts are as tough and fiendish as they come. Unless you're a traffic directing idiot savant, it'll be a while before you're able to crack all 75+ levels of puzzle mode. The competitive modes are just as good, but for another reason: frantic fun. It's hard to believe that placing arrows can get this manic, but it does indeed. An evenly matched four player battle will elicit more shouts, howls and cursing than just about any other Dreamcast game I can think of.
Hmm.. two mice, one cat, and one arrow. Where can you place it to send the mice to safety?
The graphics are delightful. The 2D art is done in a weird style that is equal parts 1950's sci-fi and Japanese insanity. This carries over well into the actual game, which is overhead perspective 3D. Some may moan about the in-game graphics being somewhat sparse and retro, but this was likely entirely necessary. The amount of movement that occurs simultaneously onscreen can border on incredible, especially during such events as Mouse Mania or Speed Up (explained below). Despite this, the game maintains its constant 60 frames per second, never once slowing down and disrupting gameplay.
The sounds are very appropriate. Power-ups are announced, as you might expect, by an almost supernaturally cute female voice, and the various tunes are peppy and upbeat. All in all it's the perfect soundscape for this cat and mouse madness. And yes, I did just say "peppy" in a review.
The built-in editing features are surprisingly comprehensive. Very nice.
Another great feature is the built-in level editor. You can create your own single player puzzles, which is not too new. But, and here's the cool part, you can then upload them to a server for mass consumption. And of course, you can also download other people's creations, meaning there's a potentially endless flow of new challenges to conquer. This is the same life-extending formula that's worked so long for computer games like Doom and Quake, so it's wonderful to see the concept finally materialize on consoles. Hopefully more games will include such features in the future.
Finally, with Chu Chu Rocket, the price is right. Casual puzzle fans like myself often chaff at having to pay $50 for a mere puzzle game, so Chu Chu's low MSRP of $30 is quite refreshing. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more value-priced games in offbeat genres such as this. It would definitely encourage people to be more liberal with their game-buying dollars, and diversify some otherwise action-heavy libraries.
The main problem with Chu Chu Rocket becomes apparent when you're playing it online: lag. Yes, the three letter dirty word of online gaming has struck again, and it's not pretty. While the game doesn't bother to reveal your ping time to a server (an issue in itself), there is usually about a two second lag between pressing a button and your arrow appearing. As you might imagine, this is quite disconcerting, in such a fast-paced game. I was rather put off after my first online game, but as I slowly got used to it, it wasn't too hard to adjust. Still, the game is not nearly as precise when you're playing online, making it highly preferable to have your opponents present in the same room.
The four player action gets crazy at times.
Another annoying aspect of the online experience is the server browsing interface. There are eight US servers and two Japanese ones to choose from, but your server choice is fairly irrelevant since you can't see what your ping is to each one. In addition, at this point in time, only the first US server seems to have any decent amount of people on it, which pretty much eliminates choosing where you play. One good aspect of using only one server, though, is that it's not too hard to track down your friends. This is a good thing, really, since there is not even a "find a player" option! In short, the online interface could use a lot of work. Hopefully Sega's next online foray will have a more mature browsing interface.
Yet another online foible involves configuring your net settings. In theory it's simple - put in your ISP username, password, phone number, a (fake) email, and you're set. In theory. I've seen reports of people who can't get the game to connect at all, get dropped immediately, can't get past the password screen, and so on. A personal friend of mine (who's quite good with computers) had the connection problem, and after three days still hasn't been able to resolve it. He's never had a problem with the Dreamcast web browser, but now is going to have to try another ISP just to see if Chu Chu works. Gamers really shouldn't have to go to such lengths just to get some online action.
It takes a bit less than a minute to get online, and you get little etiquette tips while you wait.
Moving on to gameplay, the game is pretty balanced, with one major exception. Certain mice have a question mark above their head, and getting these in your rocket will activate a random mode. Examples include Mouse Mania, where an endless deluge of mice pour from the spawn points for 15 seconds, Everybody Move, which swaps the places of everyone's rockets, and Mouse Monopoly, where all the mice fly to one lucky player for a short period. While these add an interesting twist to the gameplay, they also serve to unbalance it. It's entirely possible for one player to get a Mouse Monopoly at the end of a close match, allowing them to win by a landslide, skill be damned. Not cool. There should definitely be an option, perhaps a "tournament mode", to disable these bonuses.
Finally, a minor bit. You can move your cursor with either the digital d-pad or the analog stick, but the stick moves it around about 1.3x more quickly. This should make the stick the preferred control method for the game, but I had a lot of trouble due to the stick's lack of precision. I usually have to use the slower d-pad just so I'm not overshooting my intended destination all the time. This is really just a niggle, as it's more from my lack of skillz than a problem with the game. Still, I would have appreciated an option that allowed the d-pad to move around just as fast as the analog stick.
The Final Word
Chu Chu rocks, no doubt about it. The core gameplay idea is ingenious, and Sonic Team has done a great job of exploiting most of the possibilities. While the networking side of things is a little immature and the power-ups are unbalanced, it's a great start for the fledgling online console scene. It's safe to say that Chu Chu Rocket is the puzzle game equivalent of Soul Calibur, a franticly good time for two to four players. Add in the fact that it's only $30 and puzzle fans have an essential purchase. Rock.
Developer: Sonic Team
Highs: Amazing puzzle action, cool look, online play, great price, level editing.
Lows: Online lag, somewhat unbalanced at times.
Other: 1-4 players, VMU Compatible (Main save takes 3 blocks, one user-made puzzle takes 3 blocks), Arcade Stick Compatible, Keyboard Compatible, VGA Box Compatible.
(out of a possible 10)
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