- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2008

A legendary land-management simulation returns to Nintendo’s hand-held system in(Electronic Arts for DS, $29.99).

The SimCity franchise has been around in various formats for 20 years, with this latest version crossing slightly into Sid Meier’s Civilization turf. However, rather than concentrating on the militaristic aspects of a society, the player controls the pure building of a city while maintaining a level of social, cultural and economic development to please its inhabitants.

The game requires a player to assume the role of a city planner/manager as he uses resources, drags elements onto a landscape and builds up residential, commercial and agri-industrial zones.

His effort begins at the dawn of civilization and extends to the micromanaging of a congested metropolis through to the modern age, loosely wrapped around historical time periods.

The tasks become increasingly more complicated as the resources evolve (beginning with simple placing huts around hunting grounds) and immediately more time-consuming as he decides to follow either the European Renaissance or Open Asia Age paths.

Buildings and services such as a fire department, garbage dumps and prisons are placed on a three-dimensional grid on the lower DS screen while the top screen shows a 3-D view of the actual landscape.

The second level of management comes in balancing revenue and expenses as the planner watches a budget sheet, raises or lowers taxes, and maintains a comfortable life for his citizens by adding more amenities.

Success translates into more humans staying in your city and being content. Both benchmarks (increases in population numbers and a 100 percent approval rating) lead to entering a new time period.

Citizens are monitored via meter and by getting a side-scrolling view of them (click on a person to read his thoughts).

An extra level of aggravation can be found when a natural disaster or riot wipes out pieces of the community. Fires, earthquakes and tornadoes cause major damage.

Unfortunately, the fun falls flat due to bland graphics, waiting for populations to populate and one of the slowest save options in the history of mankind.

The DS touch screen allows for clunky movement around the burgeoning city as the player drags the stylus over the screen. It also acts as an easy way to click and build items and to micromanage a PDA’s worth of statistical resources.

Learning time: A selection of cartoony, omniscient observers slightly explain the socioeconomic dilemmas facing a human-run habitat during each historical period, justifying the title as almost educational.

As far as the game mechanics, it certainly takes an organized mind to handle the minutia while the action will hone decision-making and accounting skills. Better yet, the simulation includes “green” elements in the building process so youngsters can monitor pollution levels.

One element that would have firmly placed the title in the role of a teaching tool, is an encyclopedia to cover background on the game’s famous landmarks, such as the Tower of Babel, or important periods of mankind, including the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

Age range:Althoughdesigned for children 7 years old and older, it might be a tough sell for the youngest of that age group. The lack of action and incredible amount of waiting for a city to grow is akin to watching paint drying. I would recommend it for tweens already familiar with the SimCity franchise.

Final advice:SimCity Creator works as a travel companion for an extended car ride. However, it has neither the charm nor strategic elements of Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution, a much better empire-building DS title.

Game Bytes

• Wario Land: Shake It (for Wii, Nintendo, $49.99)- Mario’s evil doppelganger teaches youngsters the fine art of the “shake down” in this homage to a classic, side-scrolling franchise. A gantlet of obstacle courses and blobby minions challenge a single player as he controls the greedy Wario on a mission to beat the Shake King, rescue Queen Merelda and, most importantly, find the legendary Bottomless Coin Sack.

The fun factor is high thanks to trying to complete roughly 25 levels spread over five continents. Every time Wario completes a level and rescues a citizen of the Yuretopia, he must rush back to its beginning in a timed challenge.

The Wiimote is held sideways like a standard controller for normal Wario movement, including jumping, squeezing down pipes and unleashing a devastating butt stomp to break floors and daze opponents.

The Wiimote can be shaken to have Wario punch the ground (very Hulk-like), stunning enemies and quaking the environment. Most important, he can grab sacks to shake and collect coins (spent at Captain Syrup’s pirate shop) or shake foes to knock health-restoring garlic out of them.

As an update to the 2-D genre of retro gaming, it excels with animated scenes, colorful graphics and a Disney-esque style of hand-drawn scenery.

Action even includes using vehicles such as a submarine (a homage to the early shooter genres) and a Unibucket (basically a unicycle), or gadgets such as the Max Fastosity Dasherator.

Wario’s latest offers a bit of interactive fun for everyone and is an instant kids’ classic combining the best of traditional and Wii-fueled video gaming.

• NHL 09 (Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, $59.99) - Another year, another upgrade to the premier, award-winning virtual hockey franchise will leave hard-core and casual sports gamers exhausted by its depth, ferocity and realism. It will take approximately 30 seconds of hands-on action before knowing this game is something special.

The ubiquitous Be A Pro area, new to this title, but a standard in most other sports simulations, is the first place a player stops. It personalizes his experience as he quickly walks through a battery of features to create his own rookie and try to work his way from the AHL to NHL.

The total offensive and defensive control of a player is spectacular this year, down to puck pushes, flip dumps (clear the puck down the ice) and big-time animated checking, with enough control of the stick that it feels like a martial arts weapon.

Now, add a broadcast-quality presentation, an immersive Dynasty and 16-team World Tournament mode, a fine selection of online multiplayer options, a great alternative-rock soundtrack and even a way to customize trading cards by capturing the best moments of the your superstar.

I’ll admit that some of the controls are daunting, but the results are worth the learning curve, especially in the two-to-four-player cooperative action.

After being a casual fan for years, I recently attended my first professional hockey game, and EA’s latest effort made me feel as if I never left the arena. As Wayne Campbell might say, “NHL 09 shoots and it scores.”

• 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 [email protected]

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