It is all too easy to stumble across a well made kid's game given a critical savaging by a reviewer who clearly hasn't considered the target audience over their own gaming requirements. Yet at the same time, it is equally common to find evidence of lazy game design in titles aimed at youngsters, who rightly deserve the same standards of quality that their elders take for granted.
It is a sad truth that these two shortcomings feed into each other and sadder still that a game with as much potential as Spectrobes is peppered with the same faults that so many inferior children's games suffer from.
Though Spectrobes does everything it can to distinguish itself from its famous rival, it is impossible to play the monster-hunting game without constant reminders that you are playing a Pokemon clone.
The game sees you explore seven planets, collecting, nurturing and fighting various cute alien creatures in what is something like a saccharine version of badger-baiting. Spectrobes' main distinguishing feature comes with its emphasis on excavating fossils to gather your gang of eager pint-sized combatants, as opposed to rifling through the flora of Pokemon's worlds.
The plot sees you assume the role of Rallen, a roguish young adventurer sent through space with his team mate, the overly cute Jeena, to complete basic tasks for the leader of your home Planet. Quickly you are charged with confronting and eventually defeating the Krawl, a vicious alien race intent on the destruction of every new culture they discover.
Crash landing on the first of the game's planets, you discover an unconscious old pilot, who wakes to teach you of the power of the battle hungry pets known as the Spectrobes. The dazed space man named Aldous gives you a tool called the Prizmod, which can be used to store and transport the obedient Spectrobes.
Gradually the plot takes you skipping between the game's planets, with the vast majority of your time spent fighting the Krawl and digging around to hunt for the Spectrobes that lie beneath the soil in fossilised form. It is the focus on collecting them all that will no doubt encourage fevered play from children and rather despondent reactions from older gamers.
The first of the initial two Spectrobes that join your side has the ability to scan the ground beneath his feet for buried objects. Once he has drawn your attention to the ancient treasures of the soil, a mini-game appears that sees you ferociously tapping and scratching at the screen to reveal fossils and minerals and up your various experience points.
The excavating itself is quite a tidy little gameplay element, that only loses appeal because you have to return to it with such regularity. Using a range of tools from a heavy weight drill to an air blower, you must quickly uncover the various artefacts without causing them any damage. The fossils you dig up can be taken to a high tech laboratory on your ship where they can be 'awoken', which requires you to sing into the DS's microphone, turning into fledging Spectrobes.
After moving your newly collected monsters over to various incubators, they can be fed the surplus minerals you unearth. These cause them to evolve and change in various ways, bolstering everything from their overall health to their defensive capabilities, though at the outset the process of feeding and developing your pets does feel a little random. As you progress though, you begin to develop a sense of delicately controlling a whole farm of evolving animals, in a take on asset management gaming that, while distinctly garish, reminds you of the kind of complexities young minds handle with ease.
Along with the fossils and minerals, you occasionally unearth shiny metallic cubes which provide additional information and open up sizeable extra elements of the game. These include the 16-player wi-fi battle mode, and the input system that allows you to access extra creatures and other bonuses by using codes from the Spectrobes cards that will no doubt clutter the area behind the till in newsagents across the country.
Though there is an undeniable appeal in the compulsion to collect every Spectrobe, in reality this means a disciplined and patience-stretching technique of shuffling gradually across the soulless, empty landscapes, scanning every piece of ground for the elusive fossils. Including a map would have made this process a pleasure, but without any clues at all, collecting and digging quickly becomes painful and repetitive. That said, it is just the kind of activity that many younger players will enjoy greatly, with their higher threshold for frustration and the looming presence of homework.
Unfortunately it is not only the landscapes that suffer from the substandard visual style. Though some of the cutscenes, Spectrobes and many of the interiors are rather nice by DS standards, the battle sequences are cursed by some dreadful visuals, although as a gameplay mechanic they work well.
Once you have trained your tiny allies you can add them to your front line of warriors, who will join you in the skirmishes you encounter. The melees themselves make a bold attempt at developing on the tired old system of turn-based random battles so familiar to RPG fans. As you explore the barren planets, you can see exactly where you will meet with confrontation, allowing you to evade or pursue combat. If you do become embroiled in a scrap, there is a sense you are playing something half way between strategy and action focussed combat. Your team mates are lined in what looks like a typical turn-based match-up, and the HP points that pop up after every blow are straight from the RPG recipe book, but the ability to control movement and attacking through direct button commands rather than menu screens makes for a miniature arcade beat-'em-up.
Spectrobes is a decent enough kid's game that certainly does a fair amount to distinguish itself, but in the end it is just another Pokemon style challenge. For fans of Pikachu and his friends who have exhausted the numerous Nintendo games, Spectrobes is worth picking-up, and most will enjoy it thoroughly. However, as a youngster's game with cultish appeal for older players, and as an example of a well-made and original title, Spectrobes misses the mark by some way.