Originally released to arcades in 1984, Space Ace sought to recapture the magic of its predecessor, Dragon's Lair. And by "magic" we mean "ability to eat money." Gameplay was not high on the list of priorities for the team that designed these games, but flashy presentation certainly was. As a result, we are left with a visually stunning artifact of the golden age of arcade gaming...that just so happens to be borderline unplayable.
Space Ace on DSiWare is a faithful enough adaptation of the original game. It might be awful, but, if anything, that speaks to the accuracy of Digital Leisure's port. The alterations made are to the benefit of the game, but not by much.
You take control of a space adventurer named Dexter, and must...no, wait. That's not entirely true, as you don't take control of anything. An animated film starring a space adventurer named Dexter plays on your DSi, while you press buttons to keep it running. Or, more often, don't realize you're supposed to press a button, or which button, or when, or why, and the film abruptly ends.
Excited yet? Don't be. The film might be beautifully animated (in fact, it absolutely is), but the voice acting is spotty and the writing atrocious. If the only thing a game can do to keep you playing is promise you that you'll get to see the rest of a film, it had better at least be a good film. Space Ace is...well...pretty lousy.
The plot revolves around Dexter rescuing his girlfriend Kimberly from the clutches of an evil Papa Smurf-ish character called Borf. With a setup this generic, any enjoyment one will garner from watching the film will be down to the strength of the writing, and, in Space Ace, it's just disappointing. There's more cheap sarcasm than actual humor, and, unless you find people screaming in silly voices funny, you won't find much to laugh at.
The game consists of a number of pre-animated scenes strung back to back. You watch one, press the correct button or sequence of buttons, and then move on to the next. If you fail to press the right buttons, or don’t press them quickly enough, Dexter will die, and you will restart at the beginning of that scene. Often this requires you to watch at least one non-interactive sequence again, as they are not skippable, and the weakness of the writing really sinks the experience when you're listening to an exchange for the tenth time that wasn't funny the first go around.
Sometimes the game will give you a hint of which button you are supposed to press. For example, if a rock lights up to Dexter's right, pressing right will cause him to step on it, or hide behind it, or some such thing. But often, there is no indicator of what to do, and you'll only realize that you were supposed to do something because Dexter is now dead and you're rewatching an animated exchange you've already seen. Again. And again. And again...
In many cases, the course of action is obvious. Avoiding projectiles, for instance, or hopping over pits, are second nature to all gamers. Other times, however, it's literally impossible to survive without having experienced that scene already. There's no way of knowing that a floor will crumble from beneath Dexter, or that a laser beam will zap him from above, unless it's already happened and you've memorized it. And unlike other brutally challenging games relying on precise pattern recognition (such as those in the BIT.TRIP series), mastering one scene in Space Ace won't make you any more prepared for the next. There's no skill involved; it's rote — and always unfair — memorization. We used up our full complement of lives three times just trying to figure out how to prevent death upon entering the space station early in the game, and when we finally did "solve" the puzzle, it was entirely a matter of mashing random buttons until something worked. Not a great start, Space Ace.
That said, there are some variations in the game which do serve to make it more interesting, if not exactly more fun. At various points in your adventure, you will be given a prompt to ENERGIZE. If you press the action button, Dexter will transform into Ace, his space-adventuring alter ego. Interestingly, this is not mandatory, and you can keep playing the game as Dexter if you so please. While playing as Ace, however, the events play out differently. Where Dexter must dodge or evade creatures, Ace can battle them. It doesn't change the gameplay at all, but it does present a new series of prompts to memorize, which, we guess, could possibly be fun to somebody foolish enough to want to play through Space Ace twice. There are also mirrored sequences in the game, which play out identically to their "normal" counterparts, but switch the correct buttons from left to right, and vice versa. Whether a normal or mirrored version of any particular scene loads seems to be purely random.
Digital Leisure did think to include an option for varying difficulty (present in many Space Ace releases in the past, though not all of them), and a nigh-mandatory option for infinite lives. This doesn't nearly make the gameplay experience better as it does make it almost sort of playable, maybe. Separate volume controls for effects and dialogue are included, as well as the option to play the game on either the top or bottom screen. (The other screen will display an irrelevant score readout.)
As far as the port itself goes, it's pretty strong. The video is smooth and the audio — while embarrassingly acted — is clear. It's the game itself that you'll regret buying, and it's a shame that the effort that went into producing this port wasn't invested in a game more worthy of preserving. If you can't find a better way to spend 800 points, somebody should take away your credit card.
Like Dragon's Lair before it, Space Ace was designed to eat as many quarters as it could, as quickly as possible. And while this was obviously a result of its place in time, it does not make for a very rewarding gaming experience today. If you are specifically looking for a game that will frustratingly force you to repeat unforgiving sequences until you've memorized them, just so that you can move on to another set of sequences that expect you to do the same, then look no further. If you'd rather spend your hard-earned money on something you'll enjoy, however...keep walking, and don't look back.