Pokemon videogames come in two flavors: you've got the hit Game Boy RPG designs, and then you've got everything else. The "spin-offs." Pokemon spin-offs are generally all over the spectrum of gaming quality; you've got the bad (Pokemon Channel, Hey You Pikachu!
), the good (Pokemon Pinball
), and the ridiculously awesome (Pokemon Puzzle League
). Pokemon Dash
fits somewhere in the category of Pokemon Channel
and Hey You, Pikachu
, but even with its initial crumminess as a first generation Nintendo DS title, it's still fully playable if you can manage to accept that the design is based around harsh player limitations.
Pokemon Dash is a racing game designed by Ambrella, a Japanese development team that, coincidentally, brought the voice recognition in Hey You, Pikachu to life on the Nintendo 64. For the team's first Nintendo DS game, it's gone back to the Pokemon franchise for a decidedly original race design that puts to use the dual screens and the system's touch screen to use. For the game, players use the stylus on the screen to guide Pikachu through a course of checkpoints that must be triggered in a specific order before hitting the finish line. The hook is, these checkpoints are rarely organized linearly, forcing players to figure out the best path to take so they can beat the rest of the pack.
Running is performed by constantly moving the stylus in the direction you want Pikachu to run, which admittedly adds a somewhat handy analog control to the game. It's a control mechanism that becomes tiresome in more than the sense that it's exhausting: it just becomes repetitive to constantly rub the stylus in every direction. And though it seems like a faster motion will get Pikachu to move, the electric rat's speed tops out at a casual stylus pace, so the motion just ends up being a directional thing that gets old.
Now, just because Pokemon Dash is an "original" design doesn't necessarily mean that it's a "successful" one, and in fact, much of the challenge comes from restricting the player's functions. The game will call out the direction players need to go in order to hit the next checkpoint, but the only time players are offered an overhead map is when they take to the skies in a balloon to actually look down on the environment. The balloon idea is a primary race mechanic since players need to take to the skies quite frequently in order to get to the next checkpoint in the list, but the designers use it as a mechanic to "blind" racers. On the ground, racers only have a basic radar on the upperscreen. In the air, players get a more detailed map pointing to the next checkpoint, but they'll have to do pattern recognition in order to figure out where it is in location to where players currently are on the racetrack.
Even with the restrictive nature of the gameplay, Pokemon Dash is, at least initially, a very easy game from start to finish. Completing the first round of 25 races won't take more than a couple of tries through. The challenge really comes from starting the next batch of 25, since the computer AI opponents are crazy hard to beat. It's almost unfair, since these computer controlled racers know exactly where to go and race at absolute top speed, and players are left working both screens trying to figure out the right path to take.
The game's called Pokemon Dash, but in reality, Pikachu's the headliner in the game. There's no line-up of Pokemon creatures to control; players can only play as Pikachu and race against a mere handful of other creatures with exactly the same racing skills. Even when playing this wirelessly against other players, the only playable Pokemon in Pokemon Dash is the electric rat. The gameplay's already limiting, thank you, and to restrict players to a single playable creature is almost a kick to the head to Pokemon fans -- especially when seeing other creatures like Meowth, Torchic, and Jigglypuff running through the courses. It's a missed opportunity, too, since the designers could have worked in specific abilities for each contestant to add that much more to the gameplay variety.
Surprisingly, Pokemon Dash is also one of the ugliest games in the current line-up of Nintendo DS games. We'll cut it some slack for being a first generation title for the system, but it's hard to ignore the SNES-like graphic engine driving much of the gameplay. The developers try for an impressive presentation by offering a 3D, interactive Pikachu, a model clearly lifted from the Pokemon E3 demo back in May. But the majority of the game takes place in a Mode 7 environment that really shows off the limitation of creating a game in 2D fashion; backgrounds and sprites get extremely pixelated when up-close or far away, and the character animations are less than fluid in their run cycles.