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Joystiq presents

DS Fanboy Review: Napoleon Dynamite

Director Jared Hess has a 100% rate of movies turned into DS games. His latest film, Nacho Libre, was released in June of 2006; a DS game followed in October. Despite the fact that the movie featured the very video-game-friendly subject of wrestling, the game was not a major success, critically or financially.

Nacho Libre
the movie was preceded by Napoleon Dynamite, which was about the very non-video-game-friendly subject of awkward people standing around. Now, three years after the release of the movie, Napoleon Dynamite is joining Nacho Libre on the Nintendo DS. It is something of a victory for developer 7 Studios that the Napoleon Dynamite DS game works as a game at all, despite the handicap of being based on a movie with no action of any kind. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great game. In fact, Napoleon Dynamite is the very definition of a middle-of-the-road game. It isn't completely awful, and it isn't good. It doesn't inspire disgust and it doesn't impress. It's just kind of there.

Whereas the default model for movie licenses was once the 2D platformer, and then the 3D platformer, it is now the minigame collection. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon Dynamite is a set of about 25 minigames based loosely around events in the movie. These minigames, along with static cutscenes, follow the narrative of the movie fairly closely, with an added emphasis on, uh, hunting for Tina the llama. Believe me, I am using the terms "narrative," "emphasis," and "llama" (wait, not the last one) generously. The story exists to get you from minigame to minigame, and is there in only enough quantity to present a plausible motivation for the next event. Many of the cutscenes are only two or three lines long, consisting of a character asking Napoleon if he wants to do something or go somewhere, and Napoleon agreeing and speaking in some of his trademark Napoleon-ese. Heck yes I do! The abbreviated, boiled-down nature of the story makes one thing very clear: Napoleon is an irredeemably horrible person who is rude to everybody for no reason.

While the narrative content of the game may be lacking, the visual presentation is revelatory. Inspired by the tape-collage/pencil-drawing aesthetic found throughout the movie and its marketing material, the game is entirely presented as if on paper. The backgrounds are all rendered as patterned paper taped together; sprites are made to look like scraps of paper with drawings on them. The effect is striking, making the whole game look intentionally amateurish, and at the same time, avant-garde. Rarely do developers dare to deliberately make their games look more chaotic and messy. We should all be embarrassed that a licensed minigame collection has one of the most brilliantly original graphical styles of any game released in 2007. The style has a terrible side effect, however, when it comes to the characters: the large, digitized heads on small, animated bodies reminds me of the THQ Wayne's World game every time I see it, and I do not care to be reminded of the Wayne's World game.

Unfortunately, the "cut and paste" technique applies not only to the appearance, but also the design of the minigames. Many of the experiences found in Napoleon Dynamite will be exceedingly familiar. The dodge ball game is a two-on-two match viewed from the side, in which players can execute super throws by dashing before throwing. This is actually one of the better games in the collection, because it allows you to think about how awesome Super Dodge Ball is, much like the developers were at the time. The best game in the collection is Uncle Rico's Football Toss, which is a simplified version of the Flash game Nanaca Crash. It's a pretty good game, but only because Nanaca Crash is so great. Nanaca Crash is also free and infinitely more charming.

The games that aren't direct ripoffs range in quality from okay to offensive. There's a generic shmup, a Missile Command-esque thing about protecting Nessie, a barebones dancing game with terrible music (this game is actually repeated four times, once in each game selection screen), and an archery game that is a blight on the gaming hobby and should be forgotten immediately. And you have to play every single one of these games to continue. The games are in small groups, and you must complete all the games in the group to unlock the next group. That means that you're stuck playing the worst games over and over again until you can finally endure the whole awful thing. Of course, the games of any quality are way too short, and the most irritating games (like the utterly abysmal Ninja Fight, a 2D brawler with busted controls) go on forever. At least they had the decency to put the archery thing at the end, so you could get through most of the game before being subjected to it.

The controls require a bit of explanation. Some games require the touch screen, some games require the buttons, and some allow both options. Unfortunately, the games that allow the player to use either control option are clearly designed with one control method in mind and nearly unplayable with the other. Sometimes it's obvious -- why the hell would you use the touch screen to play the Super Dodge Ball clone? -- and sometimes it's not, as in Toy Drag, in which you are simply unable to move your character quickly enough with the D-pad to avoid obstacles. Generally, if a game seems totally broken, it's because you're using the wrong control method.

The few fun games don't make up for the many uninteresting ones that you're forced to play, and can be found elsewhere in more full-featured and enjoyable forms. And for fans of the movie: I don't believe that seeing the movie tied into generic minigames would be a thrill at all. You don't really feel like you're feeding casserole to Tina; you're playing a little one-on-one shooting game with Napoleon- and Tina- shaped characters. The game's minimal story is presented in the least interesting way possible. For fans, Napoleon Dynamite the game is probably about as exciting as Napoleon Dynamite the DVD menu.

I am a little sad to say that the game was so dull, because the visuals were incredibly fresh and inspired, and I wanted to suggest that everyone experience them. But, as decently put together as the game is, and as wide a variety of gameplay as the minigames contain, Napoleon Dynamite is just not that much fun. Even if you find a few favorites among the minigames, you'll find them too brief for much replayability.

Final score: 5/10

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