A fate worse than… Something.
Remember how bored you were all the time in middle school? How you spent every day staring at the clock, counting down the minutes until recess, or lunch, or (finally, finally!!) school was over and you could go home? Remember how you used to wish that the library had ghosts, or that the appliances in the cafeteria would come to life, or a giant demonic mutant rabbit would attack the school, just so it would be, you know, interesting?
[image1]Well, guess what? It turns out that none of that is very interesting at all. At least, that’s what playing Death Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom would lead you to believe.
Death Junior (or DJ), the neurotic, skeletal son of the Grim Reaper, is attending the school’s science fair along with his creepy, freakish classmates. Through an unfortunate accident involving a piece of demon DNA, a thermonuclear reactor, and a cute little bunny, the entire school has been shifted into another plane of reality, and all the students imprisoned. Even worse, dad’s best scythe has been stolen!
To avoid getting grounded (and to save all of your classmates, I guess), DJ has to make his way through the transformed corridors of his now possessed school, slaying demons, rescuing pre-teens, and generally saving the world. When DJ rescues classmates, they give him their locker combinations, where he’ll find health and weapon upgrades, presumably wedged between the textbooks, gym socks, and illicit weed stashes.
To help him out with obstacles he encounters along the way, DJ can also enlist the help of his friend Pandora. Somehow while the school was in the process of getting warped to an alternate dimension, Pandora ended up dead. While this isn’t great for her, it works out wonderfully for DJ, as he can use her connection with the spirit world to find invisible platforms and floating souls, which Pandora can harness and launch like pebbles from a slingshot to trigger puzzles, heal DJ, or boost his confidence.
[image2]You see, in addition to a health meter, DJ also has a confidence meter. When enemies hit him, his confidence decreases. When he successfully hits something else, his confidence goes up accordingly. Wait, isn’t that exactly the opposite of what our school counselors and Social Services agents have been trying to tell us for the last thirty years? Oh, never mind. The important thing is that DJ’s confidence increases the damage his scythe deals, so if you can keep the little bugger’s self-esteem at high levels, you can kick more demon booty. I recommend playing the after-school-special “Free to Be You and Me” album at high volume whenever DJ’s in a tough battle. It couldn’t hurt, right?
In The Science Fair of Doom, all of the elements of a good platform puzzle game look to be in place. Quirky characters? Check. Interesting game mechanics? Check. Good looking levels? Check. They’ve even put a lot of thought into the controls, so that you can easily manage the game with one hand on the stylus and the other pushing buttons. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but many DS games fall into the trap of only requiring you to use the stylus sporadically, so that you’re constantly dropping it to fumble for a button, and then scrambling for it again when you really need it. Death Junior avoids this mistake elegantly.
Unfortunately, that’s just about the only elegant thing about this game. Everything else moves about as gracefully as a walrus dancing the Macarena. The major culprit is the extremely poor correlation between the buttons you’re pressing and what happens on screen. The controls are horribly imprecise, so you’ll find yourself missing jump after jump, or simply wandering off of cliffs. As the game progresses, DJ learns plenty of awesome combo moves, but they don’t serve much of a purpose. With the lack of control, I found it far easier and more effective just to keep jabbing at the screen with my stylus until either DJ or the badguy was dead.
DJ’s "lives" are unlimited, so dying wouldn’t be much of an issue, except for the fact that the game forces you to start back at the beginning of the level every time Death, uh, dies. This adds a needless level of frustration as you’re forced to hack your way through the same baddies time after time to reach your goal.
[image3]And even if you’re the one still standing at the end of an encounter, you’d better get a move on quickly. Monsters respawn ridiculously quickly, so if you’re trying to catch your breath or figure out a puzzle, you may end up killing the same demon four or five times. These seem like gaming 101 kinds of problems, so it’s annoying that the developers didn’t spend just a little bit of time playtesting and tinkering to fix these glaring issues.
When I picked up this game, I was really looking forward to the irreverent Nightmare before Christmas meets Invader Zim feeling the game projected. Mostly, however, the style just didn’t deliver on its promise. The graphics are good by DS standards, and the level artwork is clever and interesting, but that’s just not enough. The music is entirely forgettable, and there’s no voice work at all, so the limp dialogue falls even flatter as you read it on the screen. Occasionally, I was able to step back and recognize that there was something pretty spectacular about watching a pygmy skeleton whapping the hell out of a morbidly obese gerbil with a candy cane while swerving to avoid the critter’s heat-seeking, chili-enhanced poo balls. But these moments were, unfortunately, all too rare. And I was too busy trying to get my shots to actually connect to be able to appreciate it very much.
I don’t think this was the developers’ intention, but Death Junior and the Science Fair of Doom turns out to be a good approximation of the Middle School experience: you’re frustrated, you’re bored, and you’re not really in control of your own body. And while both have some great moments, in the end I’m happy to graduate and move on.