We recently received the final Japanese version of Nintendo's quirky action game for the GameCube, Animal Leader. After spending a bit of time playing the game, we were pleasantly surprised by its addictive nature and odd premise.
You begin the game as a pink cube with eyes, a mouth, and a flap that is used to propel your creature around simplistic landscapes. As you make your way through each level, you come into contact with other creatures that must be fought and defeated. Once a creature has been defeated, you may latch onto it and rip pieces of meat from its carcass. After devouring several pieces of meat, your creature will morph and take on some of the characteristics of the creatures it has eaten. Eventually your creature will add appendages that will alter the way it propels itself, jumps, and attacks. At the end of each section of the game, you fight a boss character. Once defeated, you return to your homeland to mate with the female of your species and create offspring. You then take control of the offspring and begin the process of building your creature all over again. Located within certain levels are heart-shaped caverns that you may enter to have your creature drastically morphed into a new form. Your creature's abilities will be changed depending on what form you select. There are very few puzzles in the game, and most revolve around finding and eating a particular object that will open new areas of the levels.
Combat in Animal Leader is a simplistic derivative of the Zelda fighting engine. You lock onto enemy creatures with the L button and then jump into attack with the A button. The Y button is used to center the camera, and radar is used to show the player the location of the next creature or destination. As your creature grows, so will its attack range. The closer enemy creatures are to the fringe of your attack range, the more damage they will take when attacked. Each enemy creature has a specific number of hit points that are shown above it every time it takes damage. The smaller creatures will have from one to 10 hit points while boss characters will have upward of 50 hit points. Once all of a creature's hit points are depleted, you may jump in and attempt to rip meat from the carcass with the X button. Once the meat has been ripped from the carcass your creature will automatically eat it and take its form. If your creature runs out of hit points it will become dizzy and vulnerable to enemies. The enemies will then rip meat from your creature and take on the characteristics of the piece of meat. You may then return to attack the enemy to reclaim your creature's body part.
Animal Leader started its life as a Nintendo 64 game, and its visuals are a testament to this fact. Everything is built out of cubes, and the level of detail falls well short of that found in other GameCube games. But Animal Leader's visual charm lies in its artistic elements such as cubic blood that flies from enemy creatures when attacked. As you eat pieces of meat from dead creatures, the textures will be transferred onto your creature. For instance, if you destroy a tiger-striped creature and eat its meat, a part of your creature will become tiger-striped. The game also blends textures together so that if you later eat a piece of meat with crossbones on it, your creature could end up with a tiger-striped body part with crossbones. If enemy creatures eat a part of your creature, you'll be able to see its visual characteristics in the enemy when you see it later on. You're even able to reclaim the body part by later defeating the enemy. Other small touches help to perpetuate the game's artistic design such as a cube that hangs in the sky with the picture of the sun or moon on it and cubic ripples in the water as your creature trudges through it. The levels themselves are constructed of little more than boxes with flatly shaded textures adhered to them. Besides the artistic direction that is grounded in cubism, Animal Leader's other impressive graphical trait is its animation. As your creature changes form, the manner in which it propels itself also changes. If it has just one flap it will drag itself along the ground like a worm, but if another flap is added it may gallop like a horse or sway from side to side as if it were on stilts. The same holds true for the various enemy creatures in the game.
Many may be turned off by Animal Leader's simplistic visuals, but the gameplay that lies beneath its plain exterior is both interesting and addictive. Though available in Japan, the chances of Animal Leader being released in the US are very slim due to its derivative nature. Playing the game is fairly easy to learn, and for those who are interested in new gameplay concepts, importing Animal Leader deserves investigation.