The best puzzle game on DS is back with new moves and tons of Disney characters, but is it better than the original?
The original Meteos is easily one of my favorite DS games. I can still pick it up randomly and get addicted to it for a few days, even two years after I first imported it. Needless to say, I have been curious about the sequel, Meteos: Disney Magic. Who would think of combining a frantic, abstract, space-themed puzzle game with Disney properties such as The Little Mermaid and Winnie the Pooh? Nevertheless, more Meteos sounded good to me. The biggest problem with Disney Magic is that you can easily get more Meteos by simply picking up the first game. It really never gets old, and sadly, its newer and more colorful retooling offers no significant gameplay upgrades and is surprisingly less charming.
Now, that's not to say that everything is the same. Disney Magic turns Meteos on its side, so now you hold the DS like an open book. The advantage of this layout is that the vertically oriented gameplay fits better on the now vertically oriented screen, and the pieces can be made larger so playing doesn't feel like surgery. (Leave that to Trauma Center.) On the downside, not as many blocks fit across the screen, so you are always playing with eight columns whereas the original Meteos varied from eight up to eleven, depending on the stage. There's no more room for the "speed up" button on the touch screen, so you have to press the down direction on the D-pad for that function, which is a bit awkward with the system in this position.
An even bigger change is that you can now move blocks horizontally as well as vertically. It's not as game-breaking as you might expect, partly because you can't make diagonal moves. If you want to move a block two spaces to the right and one space down, you have to do the horizontal move, then lift the stylus to end that move, then touch the block again and move it down. Although it may sound annoying, this restriction of one axis at a time slows you down enough that you can't just move pieces anywhere you want as fast as you want. It basically saves the game, because allowing horizontal moves does open up a lot more possibilities and effectively makes the game easier. However, seasoned Meteos players probably won't notice much difference at first because their pattern recognition is based on vertical movement. With vertical and horizontal movement kept separate as they are, Disney Magic is arguably more difficult than its predecessor because the narrower playing field means you have fewer opportunities to make matches. (By the way, the random scribbling "cheat" still works, except now you can do it in two dimensions.)
Expert mode is closer to the old style, only allowing horizontal movement as a special power with limited use. Good luck getting to it though, because Expert mode is locked until you beat Hard mode. It took me several tries just to get through Normal, and I still haven't been able to complete Hard. Realize that I'm a pretty good Meteos player; I can regularly set up five-block blasts, combo the entire screen, and generally have my way with the computer A.I. You see, the missions in Disney Magic's story mode aren't challenging because of unusual gravity effects or clever opponents, but because they ask you to clear out incredible quantities of blocks in very short time limits. Not all missions are like that; in fact, most just ask you to play until a certain kind of block has been cleared a certain number of times, which is silly in itself because it's not like you could focus on a single color; you have to clear the board fairly evenly just to survive.
So, that's Story Mode, which has barely any story at all and is set up the same way as the branching mission structure in the first game. There is also Challenge Mode, which lets you choose from any of the Disney themes (like different planets) you've played in Story Mode and then allows you to set up a custom game like survival, time attack, etc. with a few basic options. I'm very sad to report that Disney Magic does not keep the highly addictive store feature, which made the first game so compelling for so long. You unlock bonus content quite quickly by simply playing each level in Story Mode, and the bonus content is completely boring, just character art and background music (which does not live up to the fantastic soundtrack of either the original Meteos or the classic Disney movies).
Disney Magic absolutely deserves credit for its multiplayer mode. You can play with up to four players from a single game card, a feature that more DS games should offer. As far as I can tell, the multiplayer options are equally rich whether your opponents have game cards or not; the only difference is load times. I have to ask, though: where is Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support? Tetris DS came out a full year ago with this feature, so releasing a brand new puzzle game on DS without online play seems pretty crazy.
Taken on its own, Meteos: Disney Magic is a great handheld puzzle game with plenty of variety and plenty of gameplay for novice players, experts, and everyone in-between. The only real complaint you could leverage against it is that the Disney license is not used very well, especially in the laughable Story Mode and lackluster game music. But Disney Magic can't be taken on its own, because the first Meteos is still fresh, still available, and still ridiculously fun and addictive. The new game has its fair share of changes to the formula, but they don't really make the game better, just slightly different. Unless the Disney art is a huge selling point for you, there's little reason to choose Disney Magic over the original, wonderful, plain-old Meteos.