It's fashionable and far too easy to bitch about Rare. The former darling of the industry is now its whipping boy, and Rare's track record of major releases this generation speaks for itself. You can argue that Grabbed By The Ghoulies was a fun and enjoyable cartoon romp (it was), or that Star Fox Adventures successfully appealed to the younger end of the market (it did), but the fact remains that Microsoft probably had more in mind when they opted to pay 375 million dollars for the Ashby wonderkids. Three years later with almost nothing to show, Rare is becoming a laughing stock.
So you're probably expecting It's Mr Pants to be bad. Granted, it looks like something a bored Rare employee knocked out one lunchtime while idly considering which console platform to cancel Kameo on next; it's based on an obscure company in-joke; it's got a painfully and self-consciously wacky title; and the soundtrack might make you run screaming for the hills. On top of all that, it's on the Game Boy Advance, a choice of platform which can't have pleased Microsoft overmuch, and it's a block-based puzzle game.
'It's Mr Pants is compulsive and enjoyable'
Yet, somehow, almost inexplicably, It's Mr Pants is compulsive and enjoyable, and its timing has turned out to be impeccable: handheld puzzle games have never been so popular, or so numerous. GBA owners casting covetous glances at Polarium on the DS or Lumines on the PSP will find a surprising amount to enjoy here. Sadly, they'll also have to withstand being harangued by a fat man in Y-fronts, but everything comes with a price.
The concept is, inevitably, a simple one. Coloured blocks of various shapes and sizes are placed in turn on a square grid. Every time a rectangle of six blocks or more of a single colour is formed, it disappears. Blocks can be placed on top of one another as long as they are of different colours; so it's possible to cover up a yellow block with a red one, but not place a red block that overlaps with red blocks that have already been placed on the board. With no tutorial mode it's initially baffling unless you decide to dig out the manual, but after a few goes it quickly becomes second nature.
The game's heart is its Puzzle mode. This presents the player with a pre-determined series of blocks with which to clear specific grids. These start off nice and simple with only a couple of blocks necessary to progress, but later stages feature dozens of blocks and many thousands of possible moves. The various ways in which blocks can overlap and cover each other means that the game is trickier than it initially appears, although the puzzles themselves are tightly designed and generally only have a single solution. It's Mr Pants is reminiscent of classic GBA puzzlers like Denki Blocks or Chu Chu Rocket, although the game's allocation of 150 puzzles seems meagre in comparison to the many thousands on offer in the latter title.
The game is also, curiously, played against a time limit, and unplaced blocks drop of their own accord after a few seconds. The game's cerebral nature doesn't benefit from this unnecessarily arcade-like intrusion; Rare seems to have lacked the courage of its convictions and the game would have benefited from a purer, more puzzle-like approach. Also missing, curiously, is the ability to see, in advance, which blocks are coming next. As these don't change from game to game, it puts the player at an unnecessary disadvantage on the first couple of tries. Tetris is fine with an unpredictable sequence of blocks, because they're randomly generated each game, but It's Mr Pants is essentially a puzzle that needs to be solved and preventing the player from seeing the information necessary to solve that puzzle can lead to a frustrating amount of trial and error.
'a small talking lightbulb... It's Rare's equivalent of Microsoft's unloved Office Assistant'
Not that the game wants you to get stuck for very long. Fail any board more than a couple of times and a small talking lightbulb in the corner of the screen starts pestering you to let it help you. It's Rare's equivalent of Microsoft's unloved Office Assistant and its intrusions are about as welcome - it's altogether too tempting to give in to its demands but doing so quickly removes any satisfaction you might have derived from beating the game. Sometimes It's Mr Pants becomes as much of an exercise in willpower as it does in puzzle-solving.
The game's fast pace seems more at home in the Marathon and Wipeout modes, which respectively challenge the player to continue as long as possible or wipe out an entire board in under two minutes. Without the puzzles to focus the mind, though, the game seems simple and repetitive, and it's easy to use the same tactics over and over again. These modes are a fun diversion and little more. And those hoping for some multiplayer goodness may be left disappointed - these Pants are designed for one person only.
It would be impossible to discuss It's Mr Pants without mentioning its presentation. Bright, brash and extremely loud, the game is an assault on the senses. The wobbly, shaky graphics and bright primary colours give the title a distinctive look, but it's the soundtrack that really stands out. It simply never lets up. Mr Pants himself rants away incessantly in a ridiculous Monty Python voice, while a backing chorus of farmyard animals, odd whistling noises and insane plinky-plink tunes maintain the aural attack. Even your lightbulb helper has plenty to say for himself. Subtle it ain't, but there's twisted genius at work here: the music is maddeningly catchy and even the most stalwart gamer will be doing Mr Pants impressions after a couple of hours' play.
It's Mr Pants, despite the ridiculous name, is considerably better than you probably think it's going to be. It's no classic, but there's something irresistible about its demented enthusiasm. At times it seems unsure of whether or not it's a proper puzzler or a more action-based title, but on the whole it hangs together reasonably well and, most of all, it's definitely a Rare title of the old school: slightly flawed, not entirely sane, surprisingly funny, and defiantly British. It's not the wholesale return to form we're all hoping for - but it's definitely a step in the right direction.