Review: ChuChu Rocket! (GBA)

The ultimate game of space cat and mouse

Around the turn of the millennium, Sega wasn’t doing so hot. Their much-beloved Dreamcast failed to ignite the sales charts despite being home to a plethora of fantastic new and original games as well as nigh-perfect (in some cases, improved) home conversions of arcade hits. It was with a heavy heart that Sega fans heard the news in January 2001 that the company would be ceasing all hardware production and retool as a third-party software publisher. For their first release, amidst all the flying pigs, the once unthinkable happened: a Sega game, a Sonic Team game, arrived on Nintendo hardware. Launching alongside the Gameboy Advance was a port of the Dreamcast’s ChuChu Rocket!

An action puzzler from Yuji Naka, the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, ChuChu Rocket! makes players responsible for directing space mice (ChuChus) around stages and into rockets by dropping directional arrows on the board before the space cats (KapuKapus) gobble them up. As far as Dreamcast exports go, few games would have captured the spirit of the console as successfully as it’s done in this cheery and frenetic outing.

ChuChu Rocket! is at its best in the multiplayer portion. Players can use the then-new-fangled single-cart option to take on three of their friends in a head-to-head or team battle that has you trying to direct ChuChus into your rocket while steering KapuKapu your opponents’ way. If you don’t have anyone else to play with then you can take on AI opponents with definable play styles, and they’ll certainly put up a good fight. Toss in special mice that, once aboard a rocket, will do anything from flood the board with mice or kittens to blacking out most of the stage and you’ve got yourself a maniacal multiplayer mode to rival the Mario Kart series in screwing people over for fun. It's pick-up-and-play nature is perfect for a portable, too, and you'll be hard-pressed to resist just one more go.

If absolute lunacy isn’t your bag then the massive amount of puzzle stages should suit you just fine. Instead of scrambling for ChuChus, you’re given a limited set of directional tiles and must figure out how to get the mice safely around the board and into the rocket. There is a wealth of new stages as well as all of the Dreamcast ones, and if you ever get bored of the stages available then you can create your own using the level editor and share with your friends. And if you’d like you can even create your own characters with the pixel art editor.

However, running out of content shouldn’t ever be a problem. The Dreamcast original included a robust, if somewhat clunky, online component where players could not only play against each other but also upload their created stages for the world to see. The GBA is of course incapable of going online, but Sega didn't let a good resource go to waste and crammed over 2500 user-created stages from their servers onto the miniscule cart.

The presentation is virtually identical here to the console version. The music is fittingly cheery and catchy, and even though you’ll be hearing a lot of the same tunes over and over it never feels intrusive or repetitive. And even though the GBA substitutes the 3D character models in favor of Donkey Kong Country-style pre-rendered ones, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference apart from a few pixilated edges when the rockets lift off. It’s all very clean, stylish and runs silky smooth even under the most busy situations. Colors tend to lean on the bright side too, which is very helpful when playing on an original GBA screen that demands the concentrated power of its own sun to see anything.

The GBA port’s main problem is in the controls. Moving the cursor around the screen to drop tiles isn’t as precise as it was on the Dreamcast, and while still playable can result in misplaced tiles during heated multiplayer sessions. Dropping a tile can be done in a few different ways with mixed results, too: you can either go the one-button route by holding A and hitting a direction on the D-Pad or the multi-button method that assigns each of the four face and shoulder buttons to a specific direction. The problem with the one-button method is it’s a little slower than you need when the going gets crazy, and multi-button takes some getting used to since the layout doesn’t align like a second D-pad as it does on the Dreamcast. Once you're used to it you won't really care, but it's been done better elsewhere and it can be tough to adjust.

ChuChu Rocket! on the GBA is a great game and all, but being stuck on that platform is kind of a drag in this day and age of online-enabled handhelds. The game would absolutely sing as a DS or DSiWare release with user-generated content sharing and online multiplayer; frankly, we’re stunned Sega hasn’t done anything with the series in the last nine years besides a kart racer cameo. Even though Naka is no longer with Sonic Team, hopefully Sega Clause comes to its senses and does something new with the Chus soon.

Conclusion

As a multiplayer experience, ChuChu Rocket! is tough to beat nearly a decade after it first hit the portable scene. You'll laugh, you'll swear, you'll never speak to your friends again, and that's just how a party game should be. Just because it's ported down to a handheld from a home console doesn't mean it's a lesser experience either, packing in more content than you could reasonably know what to do with. A few control quirks slow the pace down a little but they don't stop ChuChu Rocket! from being crazy, ridiculous fun.

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