For many, this may be the first time of hearing the name Stafi. Over in the land of the rising sun the name is held in high regard, with several Stafi games out for the GBA/DS. Alas, all four of the Stafi games have never gone to retail outside of Japan, a huge shame. So without further delay I seek to educate you on this under sea adventure, full of many puzzles, pitfalls and enemies (or is it anemones?).
To best describe Stafi one needs to think of a cross between Super Princess Peach and New Super Mario Bros, then add in the cuteness of Kirby for extra measures. Imagine if you could squeeze out the best elements of the three aforementioned games and smush them into a new franchise then, maybe, just maybe Stafi will get a worthy rival. Heck, sod the fantastic gameplay... the fact you play as a starfish is reason enough to buy this game!
OK, maybe I exaggerated a tiny bit about how stunning this game is, but I still feel beats NSMB to the title of best DS platformer. Like every game created there are going to be some flaws, Stafi's would be its overly easy difficulty and complete lack of any English text. There are so many conversations and not understanding one word of the dialog gets you pretty peeved. But this is of course a Japanese import... so I can't really complain about it not being in English
Naturally one would expect Densetsu no Stafi 4 to be set completely underwater... after all, the main character is a starfish. However the clever people at Tose decided it was time for an evolution, so now starfish are able to travel on land, huzzah! This gives birth to a great mix of gameplay by creating two sets of physics. When in water Stafi is in his element, freely swimming about in any direction you desire (no tapping of buttons to keep afloat either!). On land he becomes slower, lacking his fluidity of movement, you can flap about and float for short periods of time, but it still doesn't beat the freedom of water. Having these contrasting environments allows for a greater variety in terms of puzzles, it's unfortunate that none of these provide any serious challenge.
The games story revolves around some sinister eel doing something that appears to be... sinister. To defeat her you need to venture through a series of levels, completing various objectives. From what I could gather each mission is concerned with defeating some enemy and/or finding a certain object/person. The locations of these are clearly marked out on the bottom screen, so its mostly just a case of going from A to B. Once the specific task is completed you simply go back to the start point then exit. There are short story scenes before each level, these probably explain whats going on... to those who read Japanese that is. The animation of the characters is quite humorous in these scenes and, to an extent, it gives you an indication as to whats happening. I have my suspicions that there was some sort of inter-species love triangle going on throughout the game!
Stafi is the star of most levels, though sometime his sister Stapi takes over for a spell of aquatic adventuring. On occasion you will even see both Starfish play a part in what is best described as a tag style method. The player has to alternate between the two starfish, combining their brains (sport the irony) in order to solve puzzles whilst guiding them through different sections of the level. For example hitting a switch as Stafi in one section usually opens a new path for Stapi in another... if only people could cooperate as much as starfish do. It is common to encounter obstacle and switch based puzzles in this game, combined with a wide variance of sea-dwelling nasties that have to be dispatched by some method of attack. The ease of these puzzles and enemies is a slight shame, asides from boss battles there was no real point where I felt truly challenged.
Stafi and Stapi both share the basic moves: B- Run&Attack, A- Jump& Swim Faster, X- Interact, etc. There are also several moves exclusive to only one of the starfish, giving birth to more variety and sibling rivalry. Some of these exclusive powers consist of Stafi's double jump & ground pound abilities and Stapi's wall hop and crawl moves.. There are also 3 special attacks available to the characters. Two of which are shared, one move that recovers your health and another that turns enemies into either coins of poo (remember this is a Japanese game!). The third move for Stafi is one where he teams up with his clam friend and whooshes around at high speeds, destroying all in his path. Stapi's final move grants her the power of invulnerability for a short burst of time. All of these special moves require your power meter to be full, this is done by collecting special coins and defeating enemies. Once a special move has been executed all you power will be used up, making most of these moves your savored trump card.
At certain points you will encounter the more friendlier of the games creatures that will actually help you for short sections. Its unclear what these animals are, some are pretty weird, but the sections in which you control them usually require you to avoid obstacles/enemies and make it to the end of the area without being hit. It's a nice touch that gives a break from the normal gameplay, though its a shame these sections are so short lived.
In total there are nine lands to play through, each with its own collection of levels. At the end of these lands there are bosses who provide arguably the strongest challenge you will face in the game, causing only slight chance of ever seeing the game over screen! Boss battles are quite tough compared to the other sections, different strategies are required in order to defeat each one. On completion of the boss, you progress to the next land via a short top-down view mini-game. In this mini-game the screen is constantly moving, dragging you along with it. What you have to do it plot a path, with roses, around any dangers and try to reach the end alive whilst collecting as many mini-starfish (starfish money) as possible. The average player should clock this one in around 6 hours, probably less, depending on how absorbed you get by the cuteness.
Once the game is completed for the first time you get the option to play through again, this time with more levels and secrets available. Levels are no longer required to be played in the linear fashion, instead they can be skipped at the players own discretion. This mode will require a translation guide, due to there being additional tasks which are pretty specific in what one has to be done. Still, for those who enjoyed the first play this will provide adequate replay value.
What most impressed me about this title was that even though I cannot understand a single word of Japanese, I knew exactly what to do, how to do it and where to go. It is made so clear as to where you where you need to go on practically every single level, even if you can't grasp why your doing it. This clarity is down to the map located on the bottom screen, containing markers that indicate certain item/location you need to find. Learning new moves is also a breeze as these are explained by short clips showing what actions are required. Unlike many other Japanese games this can be completed without a translation guide, with exception to the second play through- things get a bit more complex from then on.
If you think thats all there is to this title, then you are sadly mistaken! There is a whole section dedicated to pimping out the Starfish out by buying them clothes and accessories. These items are brought with money that can be found throughout all the levels. Unfortunately you can only dress them up inside of this mode, a shame as it would have been great to see Stafi running about a level dressed as a lobster/hamburger. All this mode does it add a couple million more cuteness points to the game, but it was enough to keep me occupied for a long time.
Visually I think this game is superb, the use of 2D characters on a 3D backdrop works wonders. Every action preformed looks seamless, fantastic and so gosh-darn cute! The section where you clothe your starfish is and in 3D and feels well polished. Sure, Stafi isn't pushing the DS hardware to the max, but what it does with it is quite beautiful.
Sound quality doesn't quite live up to the standards set by looks, it is nice and cute, just not memorable. Some tunes get a tad repetitive, others are fine to listen to. Sound effects are cool, I cant really fault them. There is nothing special here, just an average set of sounds for an above average game.
Many people will be put off by the fact that this game is Japanese. Its true that you do miss out on all the story, somehow though this didn't detract from my enjoyment. Evey important aspect of the game is top-notch, if however a little too easy. This is a short, sweet and very cute platformer with some replay value packed in.
I highly recommend getting Densetsu no Stafi 4, especially as you can pick up a copy for around £20 ($38 USD). This game will probably never release outside of Japan, so import now and don't miss the opportunity to play what I feel to be the DS's best platformer.