Chu Chu Rocket: Cheeping out
Yeah, okay, so mice don’t ordinarily cheep. But the little squeaky noises they make in Chu Chu Rocket are pretty close, and more to the point they’re pretty appropriate for what Sega have done with this [£2.99] iThing release of their decade-old cat-and-mouse classic.
Originally a 1999 freebie given away to Dreamcast owners in an ill-fated attempt to make them use the console’s weedy dial-up modem for online battles (which met with a distinctly limp response), CCR really came into its own in the guise of handheld game, when it morphed into a fantastic puzzler on the Gameboy Advance a year later. If anything Chu Chu Rocket is a game that’s even more perfectly suited to the iOS machines than it was to Nintendo’s mini-monster, so the mystery is why this new version is so much worse than the GBA one.
It’s a mystery that’s easily solved, though. What people realised fairly quickly in 1999 was that Chu Chu Rocket’s “main” game – the multiplayer battle mode – was a bit average. It was too fast, too confusing and too random to be very much fun, and while the mayhem was briefly amusing players never felt sufficiently in control. But what the GBA version revealed was that CCR contained the heart of a brilliant puzzle game. Freed from the constraints of an action game, working out where to place a limited number of fixed-direction arrows was a great mental challenge that fitted all the criteria of a great puzzler – incredibly simple rules, very few elements, easy to grasp immediately yet with so many possible permutations of those few elements that a single level could have you stumped all day.
Having had this epiphany, the GBA version delivered puzzle fun in truckloads. With a rich vein of user-created levels designed by players of the Dreamcast game to choose from, GBA Chu Chu cherry-picked the best and crammed over 2500 of them into its tiny little 4MB cartridge – enough to last most people a lifetime. Nowadays, of course, games don’t need expensive ROM chips and don’t have to worry about their size. So quite why we get a pathetically anaemic 100 puzzle levels in an iOS version of Chu Chu Rocket that’s three times the size of the GBA game, then, is anyone’s guess.
In most other respects, Chu Chu iPod is much the same as its portable parent. You get the Battle mode, offering every-man-for-himself and team games, with any mix you like of local humans (in case you ever find yourself in a room with several other, um, iPlayers all with a copy of the game and in a mood for some mouse-wrangling) and CPU opponents (of four selectable types). There’s no online multiplayer, which is a bit rubbish but not really much of a loss because, as already noted, the battle game isn’t much fun anyway.
Then there’s the closely-related Challenge mode, with 25 “action puzzle” stages where the clock IS ticking and you have to achieve a set task, eg rescue 100 mice in 30 seconds. In all the challenges you can place any arrows you like, but can only have three in play at a time. These stages are, to be honest, hateful. They’re basically one-player versions of the battle game, and by the time you’ve worked out what’s going on half your time is up. Like the battle game they’re too fast, too confusing and too random, leaving you no option but miserable trial-and-error until you discover the right strategy.
And that just leaves the puzzles. They come in groups of 25, and so far I’ve only unlocked the first two sets, the first of which is identical to the Normal set in the GBA game. (I’d bet good money the second set is too, but I can’t be bothered playing through the first 25 on the GBA to find out, and I’ve only got Sega’s word that there are more to come after that.) So if you’ve already played the GBA version, you’re not even getting anything new for your money. What’s more, the level and character editor present on both GBA and Dreamcast has been removed, so you also can’t fall back on on the player community to fill the void.
I’m absolutely massively disappointed in Chu Chu iPod, a game I’d been looking forward to immensely. The actual execution of what’s there is beautiful, with a perfect swipe-and-tap control system, and it looks great on the bigger screen. But Sega’s penny-pinching approach – I can only guess it’s to enable them to sell us extra puzzle packs later, but there’s no visible mechanism for DLC present – has ruined it, slashing 95% of the content out of the game for no good reason. (The puzzles already existed, it’s not as if they had to do anything but transfer them over.) I went through the first 25 puzzles in half an hour, and I’m too dispirited to even bother with the rest. Fuck you, Sega.