Considering the usual mindlessness of movie tie-in games, it's hardly a surprise that Cars DS – the game based on Pixar's long-awaited cartoon car caper – involves some sort of racing element. Rather, the fact that only a quarter of the game actually involves full-on racing could be seen, initially, as a good sign.
Because as post-modernist chroniclers of Pixar's films might have already guessed, just as Cars is less about racing and more about the journey of a talented but cocky youth (voiced by the talented and perhaps even cocky Owen Wilson) towards understanding the wider implications of community and friendship within a competitive environment, so Cars DS is less about racing, and more about touchscreen-based mini-games.
Indeed, the more you play the game, the more it becomes apparent how radical publisher THQ and inhouse studio Helixe have been.
For example, when first loading up the game, the quick racing option is almost impossible to find. Instead you're presented with three mini-games, divvied up between the movie's supporting characters: Snot Rod the hot rod, cafe owner Flo, and stoners VW bus Fillmore and jeep Sarge.
Each offers a different experience. For the stoners, you're (rather ironically) thrown into a memory game, where you have to repeat back the increasingly complex flashing sequence of a six-way traffic light. Flo's mini-game involves servicing the cars who arrive at her drive-in by furiously rubbing them with your stylus – the (ahem) rub being the further you get into this mini-game, the more cars arrive simultaneously, generating more furious rubbing. In the third mini-game you do get a racing game of sorts, but only in terms of having to avoid crashing into cars on the freeway by tapping left and right to dodge Snot Rod around the traffic he's overtaking: there's no control over your speed.
It's only when you've completed this bunch that you're offered your first round of racing at the Piston Cup.
Taking the role of perky hero Lighting McQueen against arch rival Chick Hicks, you're thrown into a race where once again you have to avoid the traffic you're constantly overtaking. At least this time you have D-pad control, but strangely, because you're only racing against Chick, you spend most of your time dodging around the other slower moving cars. In order to actually beat Chick you have to carefully use your time-dependent acceleration boost (once used, it recharges slowly) just before the finishing line to win the race. This is because the computer-controlled Chick is never far behind, no matter how fast you've gone or how much you've blocked him off into the traffic in previous laps.
At first therefore this racing seems an appalling mess – something not particularly helped by the automatic pitstop that sees you wielding the stylus to touch your wheelnuts in the signified order to change your tyres. But, as with the rest of Cars DS, the more you play it, the more interesting it becomes.
It's certainly not what you'd expect, and for this type of licence, provides a surprisingly novel experience. The problem is that the Piston Cup only consists of four races, and there's little reason to replay them once you're victorious.
And, ultimately, this is the major failing of Cars DS. In total, there are 12 genuinely interesting mini-games, based around the various characters that populate the film. Each takes some time to get the hang of, but they're all fun. There's everything from fishing with Mater's tow rope and flicking tyres into improbably high stacks with Guido the forklift truck to perhaps the best, Tractor Tippin', where you have to manoeuvre next to the sleeping tractors – avoiding mean combine harvester Frank the Bull – before waking them up by shouting into the microphone.
But with even the most thumb-tied tot capable of completing Cars DS in less than five hours, any Pocket Gamer reader is likely to end up feeling pretty shortchanged. And that's even taking into account the additional two player head-to-head mode – which requires each of you to have bought a copy of the game anyway.
Sadly, in this case, innovation on its own just isn't enough to cut it. The post-modernists might get away with their film criticism, but for gamers, if something's called Cars, then we probably need to see more racing cars.
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