With last year's Dress to Play: Cute Witches!, developer Coder Child channeled both Cotton and cosplay into a unique mix of dress-up and side-scrolling flight, a solid concept that we felt was let down by poor execution on the fashion side of the equation. We found plenty to like about the airborne action, however, and that's the main focus of this DSiWare release. With the dress-up elements jettisoned entirely and the gameplay mechanics overhauled, Cute Witch! Runner is a fun, simplified flight of fancy.
The basic idea will be familiar to anyone who's played an endless runner in the last few years: as a broom-mounted, certified Cute Witch, you'll fly automatically to the right through a randomized sky, avoiding several different types of enemies and picking up stars. A continuous day/night cycle frames your flight, and as an oversized clock winds its way forward on the bottom screen, you'll try to glimpse as many "Magic Hours" — charming midnight interludes featuring a full moon and several different constellations — as you can along the way.
It's simple, and certainly nothing new, but it's surprisingly fun. The Magic Hours at the end of each night give the game a pleasant, cyclical rhythm, stars are plentiful and playfully arranged, and each group of adorable enemies has a unique movement pattern to learn: Boo-like ghosts spin sedately in your way, floating fish swim unhurriedly from right to left, and airborne octopi drift upwards before charging your soaring sorceress.
There are quite a few gameplay changes from this Cute Witch's eShop outing — for starters, you can now only move your witch up and down, and when you aren't holding a direction on the D-Pad (or face buttons), she'll drift back towards the middle of the screen. If you've played the first game, the new controls are immediately off-putting — but they're not worse, just different, and after a few rounds they feel intuitive and even pleasantly streamlined. Enemy patterns have been tweaked to accommodate the new movement limitations as well, so you won't need to worry about being blindsided by an errant octopus.
You'll also no longer need to continuously pick up stars to stay aloft — the first game's incongruous gas gauge has been replaced by a more thematically-appropriate two-tiered heart container, which lets your witch fly indefinitely as long as you avoid running into enemies more than once. This works much better with the randomly generated level layouts — eliminating the frustration of running out of gas while unreachable stars hang cruelly behind unmoving enemies — and since each Magic Hour brings a heart refill, a pick-me-up is always just around the corner.
The changes make for a simpler game, and one that scales very well for players of different abilities. The youngest witches can focus on avoiding enemies and ignore the stars altogether, while more experienced enchantresses will be tempted into risky star-swooping maneuvers by the oldest of old-school pursuits: score chasing.
When you're eventually ejected from the broom, you'll have another chance to boost your score with a new bonus mini-game that appears after a run where you've seen at least one Magic Hour. It's a simple tile-flipping game where uncovering stars can net you significant bonus points, and finding a matching pair of enemies will end your turn.
We expected the Cute Witches to take a slight graphical hit in their move to DSiWare, but the effects of the downgrade are puzzlingly uneven. The enemies, stars, and backgrounds are all nearly as crisp as they were on the 3DS, but the witch's sprite is jaggy and messy, and appears totally out of place. Everything else looks good, however; Cute Witch! is a colourful game of simple shapes and appealing artwork that should hit all the right notes for its target audience. The 3D effect of the eShop original is definitely missed, but the much-improved framerate makes up for the loss; all the aerial action is silky smooth — making a huge difference — and multiple layers of scrolling clouds give the otherwise gently-paced action a healthy sense of speed.
The soundtrack remains unchanged from the first game, and while it's very limited in variety, it's an excellent fit: the single background track for the flight sections is wispy and whimsical, and the menu music is nice and soothing.
The Challenge system also returns from the original, with thirty-two achievements to unlock, and though they've lost a bit of their purpose now that they no longer reward you with dress-up items, they still offer up lots of replay incentive. There are score-based objectives ("Get a high score of 250,000 points", "Get 80,000 points within the first 30 seconds"), incidental achievements ("Accumulate 30 minutes of play"), and a few creative challenges ("Take damage and heal yourself within half a second!") that keep things interesting. It's a well-balanced mix, with plenty of presents easy enough to unlock for less-skilled players, and lots of lofty targets for score-chasers to aim for. The game saves profiles for up to three witches, keeping track of detailed individual stats and challenges, as well as a system-wide high score table.
Cute Witch! Runner takes the best part of Dress to Play: Cute Witches! and downsizes it to DSiWare in a refreshingly thoughtful way. While in some ways we prefer the freer movement of the eShop original, most of the gameplay tweaks are for the better, and we appreciate that this is a re-imagining — rather than a repackaging — of the concept. As a simple endless flier with lots of charm, Cute Witch! is a fun game in its own right, and it's also different enough that fans of the original will appreciate it as a separate experience. For 200 points and the right audience, this is a lovable little title well worth a look.