Back in the mid '90s when Nintendo's SNES and SEGA's Mega Drive ruled the roost, movie and cartoon tie-in games were everywhere. Most were fairly uninspired, simply pasting franchise-specific characters into generic 2D platformers, but there were the occasional flashes of brilliance too, from the free-wheeling fun of Tiny Toon Adventures, the cool arcade action of Super Star Wars and Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse. Fast forward to 2013, and things feel a bit different to how they once were. Licensed games still exist, but they aren't as prevalent as in their heyday. In fact, it seems the major blockbusters are more likely to be accompanied by a mobile game than a console title now, (what we would have given for a full-blown Wreck-it Ralph game complete with Sugar Rush racing mode!), but one arena where the license is still king is children's games. Take a quick glance at what's on offer for younger players, and you'll see game after game based on cartoons and kids films. The problem is though, not all are created equal and there are some real stinkers out there (we're looking at you, Smurfs 2).
Happily though, Moshi Monsters: Katsuma Unleashed is somewhat better than the Smurfs 2 - and despite a few annoyances, it's an entertaining enough game in its own right - doubly so, of course, if you're a big Moshi fan. If you're unfamiliar with Moshi Monsters (and if you have a kid under 13, that's probably unlikely), the craze started life as an online game where children can adopt and care for their own pet monster while playing mini games and accumulating 'Rox', the game's currency. The game was (and still is) such a success that the lovable monsters started branching out into toys, books, and of course games. While Moshlings Theme Park, also for the 3DS, was a collection of mini games (similar to Peppa Pig or Hello Kitty), Katsuma Unleashed is a side scrolling action game that has more in common with New Super Mario Bros. Playing as Katsuma, a popular Pikachu-like monster, it's up to you to jump your way through the levels as you try to stop the evil Dr Strangeglove and rescue Elder Furi (and the other Moshi Monsters) from his villainous clutches.
The game's been divided into six distinct worlds, each of which has its own theme (snow, temple, castle, etc.), but follows a fairly standard formula - you'll be leaping across platforms, dispatching enemy robots, collecting as many Rox as you can and picking up hidden secrets as you race towards the goal. Some levels on the map are optional bonus stages, requiring a small amount of Rox to play, but with enough Rox inside they'll repay your investment many times over. In a nod towards its younger target audience, you're also given an infinite supply of lives, and while the levels aren't restricted by a timer, each one takes about five minutes to blast through - which is perfect for those with shorter attention spans. Katsuma has a nimble jump, a dash ability, a spin attack and a ground pound at their disposal, all of which work in a pretty similar way to the Mario games - however, as with other games of this type, there's more to do here than meets the eye.
Adding some much needed replay value, and an extra challenge for older players, each level contains a number of secrets if you stray off the beaten path. From hidden Moshlings (smaller Moshi creatures), which you can find and enter in to the in-game 'Moshipedia', to special coin pieces and stashes of Rox, which have been tucked away, waiting for you to find, there's plenty to keep more rigorous players occupied - although you won't be able to see everything on your first pass. Certain areas require certain powers to access them - and the only way to unlock those powers is to defeat the end of world bosses, and come back later. Shields, flight, and special attacks all power up Katsuma, letting you return to previously played levels and explore every nook and cranny searching for secrets - something anyone who's played the LEGO games will be rather familiar with. In a pretty clever move, the developers have also included a code for the Moshi Monsters website in the box, with more codes waiting to be unlocked within the game itself. We're not sure exactly what these do on the site, but we'd wager they're for Rox or some kind of additional content for the online game - something that's bound to go down well with the game's fans.
However, as a Moshi Monsters game, Katsuma's Revenge also had to try and navigate the awkward challenges that come with being a game designed for a broad range of children - and it's here there may be a few problems. While older children (and adults) will enjoy the depth of gameplay, younger Moshi fans may be unable to see all the game has to offer without some help. It's actually quite a tricky game in its own right, and small hands will have to be pretty nimble to control Katsuma and safely guide him through each level. It's also more than a little bit disappointing that without collecting every hidden coin fragment, the ending of the game is a bit of a let down (SPOILER ALERT: without collecting every hidden coin, you can't rescue Elder Furi from his cage, so he remains trapped and then the credits roll /SPOILER). It makes sense to give you a reason to go back through the game and collect the coins, but it can feel a bit harsh on younger players, who'd expect to see the character saved once the final boss is dealt with. You're told early on that the coin fragments are important, but they're easy to miss, especially with so much else going on. Somewhat awkwardly, the controls feel a bit sloppy too, and there's a slight delay between pressing a button or direction on the +Control Pad and Katsuma responding. It almost feels as if the game is in slow motion at times, and means that precise jumping isn't really an option. It's a shame, as these floaty controls can make replaying levels more of a chore than it should be - especially when combined with the game's somewhat dodgy frame rate.
It's no secret that the 3DS' main attraction, that 3D top screen, can be a blessing and a curse in equal measure. When used well, the added depth and flashy 'pop-out' effects can really add a lot to a game. However, when it's not implemented quite so well it can be a headache-inducing blur, and unfortunately, that's what we have here. Katsuma Unleashed looks vibrant and colourful in pictures, but in motion it's another story. It's hard to describe, but once you're moving Katsuma about there's a strange jerky motion that goes beyond a regular choppy frame rate, that makes it very hard on the eyes, even with the 3D slider off. We're not sure exactly what causes the problem, but it's really distracting, and made our eyes feel very tired after only a short session.
Still, the stutter is likely to be of little concern to the biggest Moshi Monsters fans, who'll nonetheless love Katsuma Unleashed, partly for the appeal of the characters and partly for the game itself. While it's nice to see so much thought being put into the level design and replayability, the game's shortcomings in terms of the eye-straining graphics, inaccurate controls and relatively high difficulty for a children's game mean that this is one for the older Moshi fans only - but you'll have to take a look at our Parent's Guide for more on that.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS