I’ve never been a big fan of real-world fighting games, preferring to stick with Street Fighter, Soul Calibur and Smash Bros. for my fighting fix. When I got the chance to review this year’s WW Smackdown vs. Raw games for the Wii and DS, I saw it as an opportunity to explore some unfamiliar territory. Wrestling games have been popular since the N64 and PS1 days, and that level of control and graphics is finally available on handhelds. I found a lot to like in the DS game, but there were a few core aspects that kept me from really getting into it.
First, the good: the game might be published by THQ, but development was handled by Tose, a Japanese studio with considerable experience under their belts. They’ve worked on hundreds of games over the years but always keep their involvement secret, preferring not to be credited. Tose’s talent is evident: SvR 09 is a much more substantial game than last year’s, with several modes of play right from the start.
The main game, or Season mode, is surprisingly robust for a wrestling game. Not only can you create a character (to complement the already available roster of wrestlers), but you can explore the wrestling arena. This opens up some light RPG mechanics, allowing you to upgrade your character, buy items from a shop and even start rivalries with the other wrestlers. The initial options for customizing your wrestler are extensive—body, face, hair and color sliders, in addition to move and finishing style editors. There’s a lot in the season mode alone to keep wrestling fans busy.
The other main mode is Exhibition, but it would be unfair to call it a simple free play mode. Here you can choose from any of the available characters as both player and opponent, and then fight in one of the many arenas. You can also choose from several match styles, which range from standard 1 on 1 to escaping a cage match or even smashing a table with your opponent. Multiplayer mode is unfortunately limited in comparison. There’s no Wifi support and you can only play in multi-card mode, so no downloadable play or demos.
For a DS game the graphics are outstanding. I know we’re only dealing with two characters at a time here, but the polycounts are so high that at first glance I might mistake a screenshot of this game for the PS2 or Wii versions. This carries over to the arenas as well, which offer some cool effects and cheering audiences, even if the people are only sprites. Tose clearly understood that they were constructing small spaces that wouldn’t strain resources, so they decked them out with details that are ordinarily extravagant for a DS game.
And yet, all of these superb features are hampered by one big detriment: SvR 09 is kind of a pain to play. Movement is handled by the D-pad, but everything else is touch controlled. Strikes are handled with quick taps, but nearly every other move starts with a grapple and follows from there, so expect to be drawing a lot of circles on your touch screen. After only a few minutes all of the attacks and moves start to blend together, and some of the more basic ones, like the Irish whip, only work half of the time.
I found myself really wanting to enjoy SvR 09. It was like hungrily eyeing a banquet from behind a set of cast iron bars, and occasionally being tossed a cracker. There is a lot of solid content to be had but it would be far more accessible if the attacks were mapped to button combos instead of touch screen scribbles. If you can get past these control issues you’ll find a great portable wrestling game, but even the most die hard wrestling fans will have a hard time adjusting to the stylus controls.
It’s a real shame that WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 has such unorthodox controls. There is a lot of game to be had here, but the stylus controls for the sake of stylus controls make it hard to get to.
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