When it comes to the DSiWare service, we've seen quite a range of software released so far. Some has taken the "less is more" approach and used very simple ideas to create a gaming experience, and others have gone for a slightly more ambitious effort to mixed results. Pop Island ends up actually being a little bit of both. While the basic gameplay idea is quite simple and very easy to pick up, the audio/visual presentation is much more ambitious than we normally see on the DSiWare service and ends up giving the game a rather polished look, especially for a downloadable title. So is this unique capture the flag title worth your 500 Nintendo Points and is there enough fun to keep you coming back for more?
At its core, Pop Island is basically a souped-up version of the classic strategy game "Capture the Flag". You take control of one of the game's many animals, each with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, and must go around the various areas picking up flags and carrying them safely back to your home base. Of course, to do this you'll have to take them away from animals on the opposing team and manage to keep them away long enough to transport them to your base. To help you out, you'll have the ability to toss fireworks at your opponents in order to stun them and force them to drop any flag their currently carrying. You can also use these fireworks to keep opposing animals from taking a flag away from one of your fellow teammates. It's this careful blend of chasing down the flags, not to mention safeguarding your own teammates, that makes up the meat of the action in the game.
There are eight planets to unlock and each has its own unique terrain to traverse. You'll also be able to unlock new animals, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some animals perform very well on land, but tend to be sluggish in the water, whereas an animal like the penguin will ski across the water very quickly but tend to be slower on the land. You'll have to choose the animal that works best for you on each of the different planets. You'll even be able to take control of animals that can fly which also have their own unique benefits and hindrances, adding even more strategy to your approach to each of the game's various levels.
You can choose to play the game as a single-player experience that will allow you to take control of an animal and work together with your team of AI-controlled animals. You control the animal with the D-Pad and can toss your fireworks with the "B" button and jump or fly higher into the air using the "A" button. You can even pick up special power-ups in the various playing fields that allow you special powers like a super-jump or a lightning attack that can take out opposing players anywhere in the vicinity of your animal. You'll find these especially useful in some of the more difficult modes of the game where the action gets quite intense. Your ultimate goal is to capture and return more flags to your base than your opponent's team within the time limit. While this starts out easy, it can quickly become tougher as you progress through the game's various planets, each with their own unique terrain.
While the single-player mode is enjoyable enough, it can also get a little repetitive after a while without that human interaction quality you get when you bring other players into the mix. In all honesty, you won't be able to fully appreciate the title until you can round up some additional players: this is where the game can become very competitive or cooperative, depending on how you choose to play the game. It's as easy as creating a multiplayer game and then allowing fellow players to join in, and you can then put together your teams and head into battle. If you thought the single-player game was intense, wait until you get up to eight players all taking part in a match at the same time. Of course this is where the real fun begins and the game truly shines brightest.
The game's simple and intuitive control scheme makes picking the actual gameplay up fast and easy. Of course the responsive play control also tends to make the game quite enjoyable to play and allows you to spend more time tackling your opponents and less time fighting the game's controls. The unlockable planets and animals give you plenty of incentive to keep playing the game and the ability to save your best scores is also a nice feature. It's clear from playing the game that the developers obviously intended the game as a multiplayer experience, so you'll get far more out of it if you approach it as such. Of course it's still an adequately enjoyable solo experience if you don't mind the game's sometimes aggressive playing style. You can even share a demo version of the game with friends via the DS download play option.
Pop Island might use a simple 3D architecture to form its various planet terrains, but it does so in a very efficient and colorful way, and the areas scroll effortlessly at a constant 60 frames per second. Even when the action heats up on-screen and there are large groups of animals moving around, the game never seems to hiccup. It's also nice that the different planets offer quite a bit of variety in their surroundings that keep things looking fresh no matter how you progress through the game. The whole presentation might not have quite the detail of a 2D style of graphics, but the silky smoothness more than makes up for it.
If you thought the visual experience in Pop Island was wacky, wait until you get a load of the soundtrack. Not only is it insanely crazy in style, but it sounds absolutely huge in its presentation. It features some of the best stereo separation heard on the DS system so far and gives the game a very unique audio experience that you have to hear to comprehend. Even the voiced dialog you'll hear from time to time is very well done and of a very high quality. They may have been slightly compressed, but you certainly won't know it from listening to it. It's easily one of the highlights of the game and the fact the developers went with such zany musical tracks even further highlights the game's sound package.
There's something to be said for a developer capable of taking a classic gameplay idea like 'capture the flag' and somehow crafting it into a unique gaming experience with high-quality production values. Not only does the game look and sound amazing for a DSiWare release, but it's so simple to pick up and play that you'll find yourself diving in and having fun in almost no time. In the end, Pop Island's quick-burst style of gameplay ends up being the perfect fit for not only the DSi system itself, but the DSiWare service as well, and for 500 Nintendo Points it's a great bargain considering everything you're getting for your money.