It's been a while since I'd played a Pokemon spin-off, but I finally sat down and spent a good chunk of time with Pokemon Dash, a DS launch title that I've been trying to get motivated to take a good look at for what seems like forever. I'd dipped into the game a long, long time ago, but didn't remember much about the game at all.
It turns out the game isn't really a racing game in the traditional sense, but it does provide an interesting, if somewhat unrefined, collection of game elements that really show off the capabilities of Nintendo's at-the-time newest handheld system. First off, the game uses the touchscreen to control the three major actions, which are: dashing by swiping over you (as Pikachu) in a particular direction, swiping over the markers on the left or right sides of the screen to make you rise or fall if you have a balloon item, and tapping on the balloons to pop them to make you fall faster. The game also requires you to shift between looking at the action on the bottom screen and using the radar on the top screen. The radar provides essential information on where the next checkpoint is (you have to dash to a set number of them on each course), or where vital items are (balloons, and also items that let you dash faster through specific terrain, such as forests or swamp). The game also has a unique feature where you can plug in your GBA mainline Pokemon games and transfer your current party into maps that are used for a special mode (more on that later).
The main mode is actually pretty fun, although the mechanics are a little bit awkward. During the bulk of the game you're dashing around and the bottom screen shows an arrow showing you where the next checkpoint is, but the radar on the top screen doesn't show you any map info, just icons showing where the checkpoints and items are. Also, when you have a balloon item you rise up in the air and are presented with a map view of the whole course, but you're not given a pointer to the next checkpoint. Instead, you're given a hint of where to find it, in the form of an image of the section of the map the checkpoint is in. It's up to you to hunt around the quite large map to find the part of the map that matches the provided image. This sounds fun in theory, but it ends up not working at all in practice. The AI on the higher levels unerringly knows exactly where to find the next checkpoint, so you end up just having to do a lot of memorizing to match their speed and win. On the higher levels you also can never take a direct line from checkpoint to checkpoint, and you often have to choose to land further away from a checkpoint in order to nab a balloon or item that you'll need to get to the checkpoint after the current checkpoint. Planning out your route sounds like it could been a fun game mechanic, but in practice you end up just chasing after the Pokemon who are ahead of you to figure out where to go next.
The game has three difficulty levels, each with five cups that have five courses. On the regular level it's pretty easy to beat the AI, but the hard level definitely requires a lot of rote memorization via trial and error (which is par for the course with racing games, but which I don't find much fun), and perfect stylus technique. The expert level shakes things up and does present you with the map and the checkpoints beforehand and it's completely up to you to choose the order to tackle them in. As with the hard GP, it requires a lot of effort to beat the AI, and the scales definitely tip towards the frustration side rather than the fun side. Thankfully the game allows you to restart a course at any time without any penalty except a cosmetic one where the trophy you earn at the end won't be shiny if you restarted a course.
Rounding out the package are the usual time trial modes, and a multiplayer mode that requires all players to have a copy of the cartridge. The last mode is the GBA connection mode mentioned previously. This is actually a pretty fun, if shallow, mode that dispenses with most of the gameplay of the other modes and focuses more on the "seek and find" part of the game where you're given a bit of a map image and you have to locate it on the whole map. This mode is made more difficult by rewarding you for the progress you've made in your GBA game, as the time you're given to get through all the maps is based on how high the levels of your Pokemon were. It's pretty much impossible to get through all the maps if your Pokemon are low levels, which I suppose might encourage some people to make more progress in the GBA games before trying to tackle that mode (although by that time (although by the time Pokemon Dash was released, the GBA games had been out for months.
I'm glad I finally was able to force myself to sit down with this game, and I was glad to find that it was more enjoyable than I expected. The game was developed by Ambrella, who have since then gone on to churn out the much less unique Pokémon Rumble games. Pokemon Dash has some good ideas, and it's too bad that they didn't completely gel. It doesn't seem to deserve quite all the flak it got when it was released (mostly, I suspect, by Pokémon fans disappointed that it wasn't a mainline Pokémon game), and it's a decent game overall, especially considering it was a launch title.