Now that the Playstation 2 is here, the selection of new PS one games is thinning out rapidly, and rather than being the sort of el cheapo games you'd want to avoid, some of these new releases are pretty decent stuff. Case in point, Mort the Chicken, one of the more solid and satisfying PS games I've played this year. It's also dirt cheap, which will turn off a lot of people who think that they have to pay fifty clams for a good game- go figure that one out. If you have to compare it to something else out there, imagine a hybrid between Earthworm Jim and an ancient Genesis game called Flicky and you sort of get the idea. The plot: confused alien cubes kidnap all the chicks in the audience of the Mort the Chicken TV show, and it's up to Mort to rescue them, and defeat the evil cubes once and for all. Before you call for the guys in the white coats to come get me, the game works because of the silly story, great level design, and simple, yet challenging gameplay. You control Mort as he runs about each level smashing cubes and collecting chicks, power-ups, and gold stars. It's simple, old school play mechanics, and it works.
Everything about the game is priceless, from the simple (but not simplistic) level designs, the chicken inspired tunes, to the expressions Mort gives you if you leave him standing for a bit. You can rescue the majority of the chicks without discovering some of the hidden items and other secrets, but part of the fun comes from exploring a level, seeing something out of reach, and finding a way to get to it. While the target audience for the game is no doubt the younger set, they'll miss most of the subtle (and not so subtle) humor in the many cinemas that start off each level. Developer AndNow's last PS game, Tiny Tank was a bit too heavy-handed with its repetitive jokes, pop-up, and less than impressive frame rate. Here, they nail everything perfectly with a custom game engine and sweet, easy to use controls and menus.
The controls are perfect- you can use the analog or digital pad to guide Mort around the levels, and the game camera is the best one I've ever used. It's fully adjustable via the Left and Right shoulder buttons, and the Triangle button is used to look around the area you're in. Mort can comb-whip enemies, or do a sort of swan dive move (chicken dive?), but find a power-up (concealed in eggs scattered around the levels), and you'll gain temporary abilities, such a handy shield or extra jumping height. The power-ups are located near areas that they have to be used, so you'll rarely waste them- again, if you're stuck the key is to look around before you leap. By the way, Mort can glide somewhat to reach hidden areas and chicks, and it's nearly impossible to die by falling off ledges, thanks to the updrafts that happen when you jump.
You can collect and drop off the chicks one by one, but you get a larger coin bonus at the end of a stage if you have a nice trail of chicks behind you as you clear a stage. There are also piles of corn scattered about to regain your health, but once you play a couple of levels, it's fun to see how far you can get without picking up any extra health. The enemies in the game regenerate, and you don't get points for taking them out, either. I thought this was weird at first, but then I realized that the developers want you to concentrate on the whole game world, not just one part of it. Earthworm Jim 64 had some of the same wackiness going for it. But got bogged down by the (too) occasional bad camera angle.
As far as the graphics go, again, the game doesn't rely on loads of special effects or trickery, nor does it need to. The engine has no problem rendering the huge multi-tiered levels, and that's no doubt due to the expressionless cube enemies. Next to the ancient PS game Geom Cube, this is the only game that you can't criticize for having blocky graphics (har de har). As for the cubes, there are a few different types you'll go up against, and they bounce and roll about the stages, trying to turn Mort into a chicken dinner. As I said earlier, the game has some really funny cinemas (featuring some great voice acting) that poke fun at the game and Mort's heroics. The music and sound effects are dead on, and will bring a smile to your face as you're playing.
There's not much more to say, except this is the sort of title that many people will overlook in favor of some of the bigger, heavier advertised (and more expensive) games, and that's too bad. Mort the Chicken is definitely a keeper, and one chicken well worth hunting down.
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