Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cratermaze (Doraemon Meikyuu Daisakusen)

Hudson Soft / NEC (US)
1990 (JPN: 1989)

Because I had fond memories of the handheld games I'd played in the days prior to the release of the NES, and because Super Mario Land was pretty neat, I made the mistake of purchasing a Gameboy when I was a kid. Of course, pickings were slim when it came time to acquire some games for the system--so slim that one title I actually considered was Boomer's Adventure in Asmik World. Digging holes for goofy creatures to stumble into didn't seem like it would be much fun, but I found Asmik World's main character--a crudely drawn, funny-looking, pink dinosaur thing--oddly amusing. Thankfully, manliness and common sense eventually prevailed, and I bought Nemesis instead. Upon trying Boomer's game a short time later, I realized I'd chosen wisely.

The reason I've told you this decidedly uninteresting story is that when Cratermaze came out, it seemed an awful lot like Asmik World to me, except with a Bomberman clone for a main character instead of an endearing dinosaur thing. This time, I wasn't interested. I viewed the game as a typical NEC stateside release, a largely unnecessary title that didn't seem to do anything at all to show what the system was really capable of. At a time when the Turbo was seeing so few releases and the system seemed to be fighting for credibility (due to the "it's not 16-bit" revelation), NEC delivered this unimpressive, piddly little "puzzler." That seemed like a dumb move on their part, and I ignored the game for many years.

Look, this isn't going to be some sort of Cinderella story about how Cratermaze blew me away once I finally bought it, but it isn't a terrible game. In fact, as far as "waddle around and bury things alive" games go, I reckon it's actually pretty good. It boasts very nice music, presents opening and closing "cinematics," features a number of different level themes, lets you obtain freeze guns and yo-yos and other helpful weapons and items, tosses in things like teleporters and springs to make the action a bit trickier and more enjoyable (leaping over walls is a lot of fun for some reason), and even throws in a couple of bosses.

All of that being said, there was only so much the designers could do with a concept that was more suitable for a Gameboy title than a Turbo product. Cratermaze plays at a surprisingly fast pace; but at a length of sixty boards, it feels very long and repetitive, and it's extremely easy, especially when played on its default difficulty setting. Frankly, it seems like it was meant to be played in its Expert mode, as that's the way to see all the enemy types and meet foes who are actually aggressive. Once you've adjusted the difficulty, the game still won't feel very challenging, but it will certainly be a little more enjoyable, and at least it won't seem like something designed for babies. However, Expert mode has to be unlocked via a complete playthrough, and not everyone will feel compelled to give the game another go after finishing one sixty-stage quest.

While it's common knowledge at this point, I feel obligated to mention that the PC Engine version of the game, Doraemon Meikyuu Daisakusen, features Doraemon as its main character (of course) rather than the Bomberman wannabe. This means that you can expect differences in the opening, closing, and "reunion" scenes, along with different in-game icons, not to mention a different final boss. The music was also changed up; Cratermaze's soundtrack is actually superior, but DMD's is okay.

I prefer the US version because of its music, but the game in either form ends up being fairly enjoyable and a bit of a pleasant surprise. Of course, I must note that as far as overhead "action-puzzle" things go, Bomberman '93 is a higher-quality title, with tougher gameplay, more bosses, and even better music. Actually, Batman makes for a better object of comparison as far as pacing and action style go, and it, too, is superior to Crater (and, of course, has better music, as its tunes are incredible). But hey, if you'd like something along the Batman lines, this is a cheap, enjoyable option.

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