Ah, the 1990’s. The decade in which I grew up, or at least grew up on cartoons, straddling the bridge between re-runs of the old classics – Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, The Flintstones and the like – and then new cutting-edge cartoons. Yes, I remember when cartoons such as Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken and Courage the Cowardly Dog were just one episode pilots commissioned by satellite – yes, satellite, not digital – television station Cartoon Network in a show called Cartoon Cartoons. This was a time when the channel stopped in the evening to be replaced by a movie channel and when I had to visit an internet cafe to play on its website as I didn’t have web access at home.
These were cartoons that were, let’s say, a little more crudely drawn than the Hanna Barbera classics and perhaps a little crass, but I enjoyed them as a child and phrases such as ‘Do not push the button; you have no idea what it does!’ and ‘Ooga-booga’ were familiar to me and I knew my Professor X from my Mandark, my Dial M for Monkey from Super Cow. Ah, the memories.
OK, now I’m showing my age, but a new game for the Nintendo 3DS allows me to return to this time and re-live some of these cartoons again in game form.
Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion is a fighting game that takes characters from this era and through to the present day. There’s no major characters from the classic era of cartoons so unless you grew up from the 90’s onwards these characters are probably alien to you and, from the character roster which I’ll come to later, even I have to scratch my head over some of them.
The game is basically the result of someone at Cartoon Network meeting the game publishers, grabbing a coffee and undergoing a conversation along the following lines:
“We love Super Smash Bros Brawl. Re-make it for the 3DS with Cartoon Network characters, please.”
Basically, that’s what it is. Out go Nintendo and Co. characters, IPs and locations and in come Dexter, the Powerpuff Girls and other characters along those lines.
The game, which sounds a little like it’s been literally translated from the Japanese and the name has become a little weird sounding in English, is a comprehensive fighting game package that takes Nintendo’s seminal fighter as inspiration. Over a rocky metal soundtrack you are introduced to the game and asked to set up a profile, of which there is space for four.
With verbal instructions in the style of Professor X from the Powerpuff Girls narrating the game – the storyline is presented like a cartoon episode – you are taken to the main menu offering you four options: Story Mode, Battle Mode, Options and Vault, selectable by D-pad or touch screen. The options menu is home to the usual suspects including sound options, the credits and the ability to switch between four control schemes, of which I prefer type b. Unfortunately, there is no more detailed customisation than choosing one of the four pre-defined ones but you can see which ones fits you the best. Basically, the four right-hand buttons are mapped to jump, attack, grab/interact and signature attack, with the D-pad or circle pad used to move, the shoulder buttons for block and the touch screen for launching your special attack (read Super Smash Bros final attack).
The vault offers time records of your stage completions, a limited stats menu and the ability to replay the movies shown as you progress through the main story mode, each one matching the style of the cartoons perfectly but with very limited animation, though they do look good and detailed.
The bulk of the game is to be found in Story Mode which is this game’s equivalent of the ‘Subspace Emissary’ of its inspired source. Here you can start a new game or continue your progression or go back to re-play levels.
Story Mode opens like a cartoon, complete with narration, with some comprehensive voice acting, though, unless the voice artist of Dexter has changed since I was young, they are not the original voice artists. Weirdly, also, the movies aren’t presented in 3D, which seems a missed opportunity for a 3D game. The basic play of the game is that enemies are attacking the world of the Cartoon Network characters and causing barriers to break down, meaning characters can move between the different cartoon worlds to help defeat the threat.
For instance, you start as Ben Tennyson from Ben 10 (a very popular modern cartoon for kids I believe, knowing a couple of parents whose kids are mad on it) in the world of Chowder, a cartoon that began on the channel in 2007.
The game plays out on the top screen as a cross between a platformer and a fighting game. Using your controls, with weapons and abilities unique to each character, you have to progress from left to right, destroying enemies and reaching the goal, with different enemies taking more attacks to kill than others. As you get hit you receive more percentage damage and, like in Nintendo’s hit franchise, the more you get hit the further you fly when hit and if you fall off the stage or fly off the screen you lose one of your limited number of lives. As you fight, you pick up health or particles that build up a meter on the touch screen which, when full, can be activated to do a final awesomely destructive smash.
Graphically, the game matches the cartoon environment of the locations perfectly and the sound effects and music compliment it well. The 3D adds a certain depth to the game but, to be honest, the 3DS’ capability is incredibly underused and feels like it is a DS game upgraded at last minute for the console. Playing in 2D certainly doesn’t detriment the game in any way. Musically, the game is un-intrusive and matches the fighting style well, but there are few examples of the cartoon theme songs being employed.
Each level is presented as an episode of the series and at the start you can pick from a pool of eighteen characters (but only from the ones of these you’ve unlocked). The characters are well rendered and match the cartoon styles, though done in 3D.
Fitting for the young age range the game is aimed at, the levels aren’t particularly challenging. Most enemies can be just jumped over but some enemies have to be defeated to progress, as shown by an indicator on screen. As well as baddies there are jumps, collapsing platforms and much more. In fact, for as much as it is a carbon copy of Smash Bros., these platforming elements are much more fun than the single-player mode of Nintendo’s game. Often levels also end on a more difficult to beat boss, and where the game really stands up is on the extra levels that add variety, such as a mine cart level ripped straight out of Donkey Kong Country, a level where you have to fall and avoid flaming cannons and other breaks in the style which are very welcome, and mostly well done, but naturally derivative of other games with inspiration plucked from all over the video game back catalogue.
As you progress through story mode you unlock more levels themed around cartoons and characters, which are accessible through Battle Mode.
This mode gives you three main options: playing the game locally, against the CPU or via download play. Unfortunately, there’s no internet play here which seems a missed opportunity, though download play does allow you to share the game with your friends. Local play, however, does require one game per player, so you’ll be seriously limited to play that unless you all have the game, which seems a shame and a misfire from the publishers.
Battle Mode, though, does offer some good customisation. You can play a standard game or do some limited customisation in length of time to play, the number of lives you have and how often items appear. You can select which character you want from those unlocked (plus others available out of the packet) or choose a random, how many CPU players you want to play against (up to 3) and which characters they are. There’s a choice of three difficulties and you can also select which cartoon location you want to fight in, with a choice of at least two maps per show.
Expect appearances from Chowder, Ben 10, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Codename: Kids Next Door, The Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home For Imaginery Friends, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and Samurai Jack. For someone of my age, there were only two of those I ever watched but have a passing familiarity with the others. I would have liked to have seen more from shows such as Cow and Chicken. However, the choices are all from Cartoon Network’s pool of original programming so it suits all ages I suppose. Each cartoon has stages unique to it complete with destructible scenery, such as on one of the The Powerpuff Girls stages where a large Mojo Jojo robot starts destroying buildings as you fight.
There is an XL version of the game for other consoles though which has more characters in it and, though I’ve not unlocked all the characters on the 3DS version, there is at least one retro character appearing in the roster which is a pleasant surprise, but for gaming on the go this seems the format to go with, but just bear in mind there are some more bells and whistles on home console versions.
These battles are very much Smash Bros territory. After a very short loading screen and a nicely placed verbal introduction to the competitors and a countdown, the fight begins, with the aim being to knock your opponent off the screen until all their lives are gone. As in story mode, you have the three attacks and a block, and the final attack when you have collected enough pick-ups. Your moves are unlimited and you can supplement your health by picking up objects, using some objects as weapons such as bombs and swords, or activating special blocks that, like assist trophies in Smash Bros., help whichever character activates them. The ones I’ve got and recognised include a dancing ballerina Dee-Dee that inflicts damage, Fuzzy Lumpkins with a blunderbuss that turns enemies temporarily into meat (yes, really), HIM, the giant devil, and a pouting and preening Johnny Bravo who arrives on a pain-inflicting motorbike, so there are nods to other cartoons in their armoury of material. No news yet on whether the devil from Cow and Chicken appears but I’m hoping he does.
The animations of the characters are fluid and unique to each one and though voices are limited, it’s fun to play as your favourite toon and they all work well with the environments. After a battle is won or lost you’re greeted with a stats screen and the option to pick another battle.
Overall, Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion is quite clearly a Smash Bros clone taking heavy inspiration from Nintendo’s popular franchise. However, what they have done is make a good job of it and the locations, characters and sound effects are all done with loving care. The nods to cartoons are fun and though probably more smile-inducing to people who watch Cartoon Network now to people, like me, who did in the 1990s, there is much to enjoy in the retro nods. Story mode is arguably better than the Subspace Emissary with much more variety in the levels and, even though the difficulty is low to suit the target audience, I very much enjoyed playing the game.
Last-ability of the game is pretty good too with the ability to replay levels to get the best time and there is much mileage in unlocking characters and experiencing all that battle mode has to offer. The addition of single-card download play is good, but multi-card local play not so, and the absence of internet play is a shame, so this will tend to be a solo playing experience.
Graphically, the game is fitting to the cartoon style and mostly a visual treat but the 3D effect and depth borders are pointless.
Punch Time Explosion is a fun fighting game that, for younger players familiar with the characters and comfortable with the level of difficulty, will deliver many, many hours of fun. But even for me as an adult, there is a fair bit of challenge in some of the bosses and fun to be had in spotting references. A few other characters and locations and perhaps older cartoons wouldn’t go a miss, but I imagine that’s down to licensing, but overall an enjoyable fighting game that takes the best bits of Smash Bros. and doesn’t ruin them whilst also adding more single player enjoyment and tweaking it for a different universe.
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