OK, it’s Thursday! Let’s see what’s happened in the games industry this week that I can write about. (*checks all major gaming news sites*) …sh*t. OK, back-up plan! What have I been playing this week? (*mentally goes over list of games he’s played in the last two weeks that he could write about and that other people would be interested in reading about*) …sh*t. Never mind, there’s still time! I can still think of something! (*checks clock and sees that it’s actually Friday*) …sh*t. Ugh, I really don’t want to have to talk about Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL. (*hysterical metaphor for looming deadline*)
In theory, Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL is a veritable licence to print money and win my heart forever. Basically, it’s Smash Bros. but with characters that I actually care about – sorry, folks, I was not raised Nintendo and, therefore, have absolutely no attachment to any of those characters; feel free to pry my Gamer Card from my cold, dead hands! 25 classic Cartoon Network characters from 9 classic Cartoon Network franchises and Ben 10 battling it out in stages set in their classic worlds! With as many of the original voice actors as the budget could manage reprising their roles! And the story mode was going to be narrated by Space Ghost! Quite simply, this was a game custom designed to be my favourite game and no-one else’s!
Yeah… yeah, it’s not good.
It plays like Smash Bros. alright, just if Smash Bros. wasn’t in the least bit fun. Or well made. Collision detection is a mess. There seems to be almost no rhyme or reason as to which of your attacks actually hit your opponent, which attacks cancel out other attacks and, in many exasperating moments, knowing whether your attacks are actually doing any damage at all thanks to the almost complete lack of feedback, both visual and physical. The only constant that comes from the collision detection is that the AI will always hit you. Always. The camera is terrible, almost permanently pulled too far back for you to ever be able to make anything out and very twitchy, like it’s being handled by a paranoid crackhead who loves abusing the zoom and pan functions on a video camera.
The character roster is shockingly unbalanced, pretty much a death sentence for a fighting game, with me being able to breeze through stages with certain characters (Ben Tennyson, any of the Powerpuff Girls) whilst being lucky to tickle my opponents with others (step forward, Chowder, you useless, useless sack of crap). Stage designs are unbelievably dull. Despite having nine beloved and visually rich Cartoon Network franchises plus Ben 10 to cull interesting and unique stage designs from, almost all of them consist of five platforms stitched together in the same 5×5 square box and nothing more. The game never takes advantage of its source material enough to make any of its stages memorable or unique. Oh, almost forgot: said stages are almost always small squares. Very small squares not fit for more than two people at a time which, coincidentally, is the number of players that the game can cope with having on screen before the frame rate starts coughing up blood. Seriously, trying to play this game with four people on screen at once is equivalent to Chinese Water Torture as you battle the frame rate, the poor collision detection, the small stages, the exceedingly pulled-back camera, and the unfair AI.
But the frame rate is not the only part of the presentation that is poor. Graphically, the game looks like arse with textures that are flat and blurry, and character design that’s relatively accurate but let down by graphical technology that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a PS2. Sound design is also bad with, once again, almost no feedback on whether your attacks are hitting anyone and a collection of bored VAs spouting the same four lines over and over again. You have not experienced Hell until you’ve heard Flapjack from The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack screech “ADVENTURE!” at the top of his lungs for the thirtieth time in five minutes.
All of this, however, is just a warm-up for the main event: the Story Mode which is, in a word, balls. The story itself involves some mysterious and evil force that’s corrupting the Cartoon Network universe and requires characters from each of the franchises to come together and battle against it. Seems fun on paper, but the execution is severely lacking. The script is poor and completely lacking in these things called “jokes.” The between-level cutscenes are done in the cheapest Flash animation money can buy – on many occasions, characters have manoeuvred across the screen by bobbing along, up and done like frakkin’ cardboard cutouts. In-game conversations are not actually voiced yet characters stand around and flap their mouths in time to dialogue as if they are – instead, the game announces which character is talking by playing one of two short vocal samples, further explaining why I had to hear “ADVENTURE!!” thirty times in five minutes.
Then you actually play the damn thing and it’s like you’re playing a relic from the PS1 era. In fact, the vibe I got most from playing the Story Mode is that of the Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase game. That game does not hold up. Platforming is the definition of floaty with there being many, many times where I died due to sliding off of a platform that I just caught the edge of or wildly overshooting thanks to the overly twitchy controls. Level design is similarly dull, mostly consisting of walking to the right and punching anything in the way of the right in the face to death. At random points – at least, they feel random by just how out-of-nowhere they arrive – the monotonous brawler platforming is broken up by little gameplay-changing interludes: an on-rails mine cart section, a side-scrolling shoot-em-up section, an escort section… you know, the sort of things you’d find in a late PS1-era platformer? Nevertheless, they’re all executed in the same haphazard manner as the rest of the game.
In fact, whilst playing Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL, when I wasn’t getting vibes of a really crap PS1 game, I was getting vibes of cheapness. Everywhere I go in this game, I get a sense of its handheld roots, the presumably miniscule budget that went into this expanded port, of corners cut and the non-existent effort put into hiding any of them. Like how, on multiple occasions, I completed story levels within ten seconds of starting them because I launched my opponent off-screen with one combo. How each level seems created using liberal amounts of copy-paste from other levels in the game. How the cartoon clips you can purchase in the store last 45 seconds at most instead of being full length episodes – it’s 2013, there is no excuse otherwise. How there is no online multiplayer anywhere (no, really). Everything about this game exudes this constant stench of Budget Game, yet it was being retailed for a full £40 (the British equivalent of $60) when it’s clearly not ready for the big leagues.
And yet… The worst and most paradoxical part of Punch Time Explosion XL is that developers Papaya Studio clearly do care! It’s the little things, the little touches that prove that they care about the source material. Like how Bloo and Mac from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends have a super move where Bloo transforms into his Mary Sue character from “The Bloo Superdude” episode and performs an epic metal guitar solo that stun locks everyone in awe. Or how the game’s synergy partners (touch the mystery box for an assist with each character having a super assist with a certain character) can actually be kind of genius at points, like how The Toilenator from Codename: Kids Next Door’s synergy partner is Mandark from Dexter’s Laboratory because of course he is – watch the shows, people! Or how one of the Foster’s stages occasionally has a large assortment of imaginary friends race through it that you have to avoid lest you take damage. Papaya got the little details down, the fan specific nods that make a lifelong Cartoon Network fan like myself geek out over, but they completely failed to build a compelling or even half-way decent game to house them.
Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL should have been a licence to print money and a fantastic alternative to Smash Bros. – no, Sony didn’t make a Smash Bros. clone of their own, why are you so insistent about that? Instead, because everything about it that’s not related to the little fandom specific details is utter garbage, it just comes off as a giant waste of such a golden concept. I don’t want Cartoon Network to give up with this idea, because I am adamant that it is a goldmine just waiting to happen if done right, but the game of that idea that we have at the moment is one of the most disappointing that I have played in a long time.
In Actually Important News, This Week: Johnny Gat is coming back to Saints Row IV. There are not enough “YES!”’ in the world to express the joy that I am feeling about this development.