- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Mechanic Master (for DS from Midway, $29.99), a player saves Earth as he builds contraptions. Through the barest of plots in this puzzle game, it’s up to a junior inventor to thwart an invasion of purple, blob-shaped aliens with fangs and rescue humans.

To solve the conundrums in the quickest time possible, he needs the wits of MacGyver to manipulate the Rube Goldberg-style collection of items at his disposal.

Equal to the slim story is the simplest of presentations for each puzzle. The DS screen typically offers a few pesky aliens, a couple of captives and a group of objects that are ready for the player to add items and make them come to life.

The puzzles can be as simple as moving a tennis ball to the right place to drop on an air canister and blow a bad guy off of a ramp to controlling the direction of a sweeping robot that drops a weight on an alien.

As players progress, the machine setups get more complicated and can involve connecting belts to gears, lighting flames of enemy spacecraft, manipulating steel balls with magnets and cutting lines with scissors.

The bottom touch screen is the player’s workshop as he grabs items from an inventory and moves them into position. Once everything is in place, click the green arrow and the machine turns on, revealing the inventor’s work.

If the aliens have not been eliminated from the area, the player can continue to tweak his work to get the desired result.

An underutilized top screen displays a small version of the full layout of the contraption being built and not much else. I would have loved a more elaborate animation of the scene in motion, complete with dispatching the aliens.

A second level of puzzles requires drawing on the DS screen and creating shapes and lines, with the help of items, to get rid of the aliens. Especially cool is drawing circles to teleport pieces around the screen. To add to the challenge, a power meter dictates the number and complexity of the shapes that can be drawn.

More than 100 levels are available, and the player can create his own puzzles with 120 slots to develop more working contraptions. These can be traded with friends who also own the game using the DS’ wireless mode.

Learning time: The honing of logic, decision-making and problem-solving skills makes the game a perfect choice for the creative youngster intrigued by puzzles. Clever parents also can tie in some lessons on the physical sciences as well as talk about the legend of cartoonist Rube Goldberg and his wacky machines.

Age range: Most tweens and teens will get a kick out of the variety of conundrums that get pretty challenging, but younger players may get easily frustrated. Although I loved the brain exercises, defeating the aliens and freeing humans will not be enough action to inspire more seasoned gamers.

Final advice: Mechanic Master is not the prettiest or most innovative puzzler out there, but it provides a satisfying casual gaming experience.

Game Bytes

The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon (for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Activision, $39.99) - An impressive list of celebrity voices helps celebrate the 10th anniversary of a gaming legend who returns to entertainment consoles in an epic third-person adventure.

In the latest saga of the purple dragon, a solo gamer or pair of players can cooperatively control Spyro and his former female enemy Cynder as they struggle to save their world from the Dark Master.

The game stars the vocals of Elijah Wood as Spyro, Gary Oldman as his mentor Ignitus, Christine Ricci as Cynder and Mark Hamill as Mr. Master.

The good news is the dragons can fly and developers really worked on offering a variety of game mechanics tapping into God of War contextual battles and activities while and giving teammates plenty of interactive moments.

Each hero has a quartet of slick powers (from Spyro’s fire breathing to Cynder’s control of fear) and each can select from a variety of upgrades as they accumulate blue gems. Also, the lands they peruse are colorful and vast, loaded with Master’s minions and crystal clusters that can restore health and give elemental powers.

The not so good news is youngsters will get frustrated with the difficulty. Also, the cooperative mode has the dragons tied together (at first literally and then with more subtlety). The tethered teamwork especially is an exercise in aggravating chaos as two players try to maneuver and struggle through platform-style obstacle courses.

I am a fan of the dragon, and an intense opening boss battle with a “Lord of the Rings” Balrog-type enemy gave me hope for a rousing adventure in the making. Unfortunately, I could not get past the sputtering onscreen slowdowns that occurred during even the most minor of skirmishes and the unpolished designs mired in last generation graphics. Alas, Spyro has seen better days.

mSpectrobes: Beyond the Portals (Disney Interactive Studios, for DS, $29.99) - Planetary patrol officers Rallen and Jeena return to save the universe from the evil Krawl and give youngsters the chance to discover, dig and train another Pokedex’s worth of creatures.

Once again, the game is of a “try to please everyone” design, mashing numerous genres such as virtual pets, third-person battles, role-playing, puzzle solving and even collecting real trading cards (four are included to use on the DS screen) into the mechanics.

In the sci-fi saga, the player can control both heroes and manage resources as they explore the galaxy, but will spend the majority of his time excavating, evolving and assembling an army of Spectrobes to fight the Krawl. Of course, the DS touch screen is perfect for digging up the little fellows as the stylus becomes tools such as a drill or vacuum.

Action also extends well beyond the single-player adventure with DS’ local multiplayer and Wi-Fi options, allowing gamers to trade and sell creatures (using the fictional Gura currency), battle, import Spectrobes from the first game and use a Disney online community.

Much like a blockbuster sequel, Beyond the Portals delivers a familiar and even better experience that will completely mesmerize children with its interactivity and enormous vision.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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