Game Factory is making consistent improvements with its licensed titles, and their DS adaptation of the TV show Pet Alien just might be their most enjoyable offering yet. While other licensed games rely too heavily on their source material for success, Pet Alien DS starts with a solid foundation and builds from there. The result is an accessible yet addictive game that will also appeal to fans of its parent show.
Pet Alien’s owes its successful formula to many different factors. Its “parentage” is its most obvious advantage—Shin’en developed the game, and the German studio is known for its quality work. Shin’en has a mastery of the DS’s graphical capabilities that few developers can match, as demonstrated with the beautiful shoot-em-up Nanostray. They’re also no slouch in the design department; most of their games have simple, solid gameplay mechanics that are easily learned, but Shin’en is notorious for cranking up the difficulty in their games. Pet Alien benefits in both regards—it is attractive and well built.
The game itself is a simple map-based puzzler. There really isn’t much story, besides the fact that the alien characters from the show and their friend Tommy have been captured by robots and imprisoned on an orbiting spaceship. This simple plot lends itself well to the casual nature of the game; a player doesn’t have to be a fan of the show to enjoy the gameplay. Meanwhile, kids who do watch the show will be happy to see that all five pet aliens—Dinko, Gumpers, Swanky, Scruffy and Flip—are playable characters and well recreated by Shin’en’s talented digital artists. The lack of licensing clutter and exposition lets the gameplay shine, the area where Pet Alien really excels.
The game consists of 80 levels based around a few basic principles: find keys to open doors, avoid enemy robots and other hazards, and collect all the green crystals to open the exit portal. These simple mechanics might seem rudimentary, but Shin’en has done a great job in constructing challenging puzzles using them. The brain-teasing mazes and traps share many similarities to another complicated game built on a simple idea: Chip’s Challenge.
Originally a launch title for the Atari Lynx handheld, Chip’s Challenge was a tile-based puzzle/adventure that was deceptive in its difficulty and complexity. Later ported to the PC and included in various Windows entertainment packs, it has gathered a cult following of fans on the internet, who compete for high scores and patiently wait for a sequel. While playing Pet Alien, I couldn’t help but feel that this new game drew inspiration from Chip’s. I spent many hours crunching out the puzzles in that obscure old classic, and the clever design in Pet Alien struck a chord of nostalgia with me.
There are important differences, though. First of all, Pet Alien is fully rendered in 3D. It is still played from a top-down perspective with some limited camera control, but everything is polygonal, including the characters. Solving the puzzles does not require various items as Chip’s Challenge did—rather, all five aliens must be used strategically to overcome obstacles. The aliens’ different abilities, activated with an easy press of the A button, all apply to different puzzle elements.
Gumpers is the only one strong enough to smash glass blocks and weak walls, but he is slow and too big to fit into smaller spaces. Dinko can speed along moving floors, which sometimes prevent access to important locations or objects. Swanky can pull and push blocks, which is useful for blocking lasers or holding down switches, although he can’t push them past red and yellow barriers on the floor. Flip can hover for about two seconds, which lets him float past mines and moving floors. Scruffy is the smallest of the aliens and can slip through tight spaces, and his long sticky tongue can hit switches or retrieve out-of-reach objects, even past the level boundaries.
Usually a level will have small transformation pads in strategic places. These let one alien change into another. Some of these pads let the player change into any one of the five aliens, while others only transform them into a single character. These levels encourage the use of two or more aliens to accomplish numerous tasks, and sometimes all five are needed in a form of tag-teamwork to reach the exit.
The similarities to Chip’s Challenge kept popping up as I was playing. Instead of microchips, the crystals were the main collectible; there were still multicolored keys and doors; the enemies patrolled in set paths and could be redirected, and the tactics for avoiding/outwitting them were almost the same. Still, Pet Alien felt more accessible than Chip’s Challenge. The old puzzler had a sort of brutal logic to it, and it was often possible (and likely) that the player would accidentally destroy their chances of beating a level, and thus have to retry. The traps, often self-inflicted, had a sense of cruelty and a few of them were just plain underhanded. Most levels also had a strict time limit, which Pet Alien lacks. Chip’s Challenge was a hearty feast for puzzle fiends, but casual players could get fed up with the steep learning curve.
After playing through all 80 levels of Shin’en’s game, I feel that almost anyone could enjoy Pet Alien, whereas Chip’s took determination, brainpower and serious patience to conquer. Pet Alien has tricky puzzles, but the average person could figure them out after a couple tries. The levels are overall smaller, simpler and don’t have as much puzzle variation, but in the end are more enjoyable and less frustrating for the average player. Five boss fights, which end each individual set of regular levels, served to add a more traditional video game feel to Pet Alien, and broke up the pure puzzle-based gameplay nicely.
The colorful graphics and lighthearted world design make the game appropriate for any age, and Shin’en has added several nice touches. Their flare for visual perfection is quite apparent, as each level contains small details that only serve to make the game prettier. The levels themselves have a mainly uniform graphical scheme, but the pleasant art design keeps them crisp and easy on the eyes. All five of the aliens are well modeled, textured and animated; they even have short “idle” motions they perform when the player leaves them standing. Most of the sound work is simplistic, and the music tends to repeat a bit much, but otherwise the audio is satisfactory.
Beating all five of the main game’s bosses unlocks a series of minigames. These range from a Simon type game played with bodily noises, to a game where players use the stylus to make Scruffy eat crystals with his stretchy tongue. These games are arcade style and thus have no real ending, just a high score, and while they aren’t terribly imaginative they are good for taking short breaks from the main game. One of them required me to blow into the microphone to slow a character down, and I always appreciate clever use of the DS’s myriad features.
Once the main game is completed a time attack mode becomes available. This adds a specific time limit to each of the 80 main puzzle levels, and the limit is rather harsh. I was only able to beat the first few levels, and completing the whole game in this mode will take extra skill and dedicated memorization of the level patterns. For players who really get into the game, this extra mode is a hefty challenge and a welcome addition.
While some of Game Factory’s licensed games have been hit or miss, the care and time put into Pet Alien make it a surprising and memorable experience. It may borrow from Chip’s Challenge, but this design choice actually made me enjoy the game more. After all, there’s no shame in imitating the classics. I’d readily suggest Pet Alien as a mind-challenging game to keep the kids busy, but adults might find themselves hooked as well. For a period of several days, I had an almost compulsive yearning to tackle that next level. The combination of inspired design, talented developers and smart use of license make Pet Alien DS a pick-up-and-play affair that most anyone can enjoy.