It's tempting to write off the new edition of Meteos as a typically disastrous, Disneyfied sellout for Q Entertainment, the creator of Lumines and the original Meteos. But amazingly, Disney Magic doesn't take the easy way out and offers up a new way to play Meteos without messing with a successful formula. And for a game featuring unlockable Cinderella art, it's an incredible challenge, even if you're a stylus-scratching whiz. It's not quite as mesmerizing as its predecessor, but if you like puzzle games or are a fan of Disney films, Meteos: Disney Magic is a thoroughly enjoyable game with many hours of entertainment packed into its cartridge.
Playing the game is very much like playing the original Meteos. A bunch of blocks constantly fall from the top of the screen, and you move them into a group of three or more to fire them--and any blocks above them--into the air using the Nintendo DS's stylus. The goal is to fling them off the screen, but the tricky way gravity works in each level offers a unique challenge. Creating a three-block rectangle may throw it and the blocks above up and off the screen or send it lazily into the air just to fall slowly back. In many cases, vertical groups will fire differently from horizontal groups, so you need to get a handle on each level's gravity because your strategy will need to change every time the level changes. Combos add another tactical element and are created by shaping rectangles on a set of blocks already fired into the air. In some cases, the only significant way of firing off large numbers of blocks is to create combos, so it's not just a mechanism for getting a higher score.
The biggest modification to the gameplay is how you move blocks. In the original Meteos, you could only move blocks vertically; now, you can move them horizontally too. It's a huge change, and one that might make purists squirm because the limitation on block movement was a big piece of the challenge in the original game. But the rate at which blocks drop gets to be absolutely nuts, especially at the hard difficulty level, which throws out win conditions so grueling you may first wonder if it's even possible to get past some of the levels. And if your hand-eye coordination makes you so dexterous you could be the subject of scientific study, there's the unlockable expert difficulty that limits blocks to vertical movement. Good luck with that one. But the younger audience inclined toward the license rather than the gameplay won't be turned off because there is an easy difficulty level that offers a more easygoing experience.
There are a few other gameplay changes here too. You'll notice that you flip the DS on its side to play, which is an improvement over the original, because the vertical game board doesn't have to be squished horizontally onto the touch screen. There are also some special powers you can take advantage of now: slow mode, nitro boost, and horizontal block movement. Slow mode decelerates the blocks to a crawl for a short time, while nitro boost flings your blocks right off the screen without regard for the level's gravitational pull. The horizontal block movement ability is available only in expert difficulty, but when used, it lets you move blocks from side to side for a short time.
Oh yeah, then there's that whole Disney thing. Disney fans will like the theme just fine, although it's a mystery why this particular set of films was chosen. Toy Story, The Lion King, and Winnie the Pooh seem like obvious choices because of their popularity among fans. But Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas? Lilo & Stitch? Surely, they could have been ditched to make room for Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, Aladdin, or even classic films, such as Snow White or Fantasia. In story mode, the levels are strung together with Jiminy Cricket's little narrative about how the Disney stories have gone awry and that it's up to you to set them straight again. It's not as fun as the spacey theme of the original Meteos, but the artwork and backgrounds are cute and colorful. However, you will likely forget the existence of the top screen (or rather, the screen that is normally on top) entirely because you'll need to keep your eyes glued to the touch screen.
If Meteos: Disney Magic is missing anything important, it is noteworthy unlockable content. By playing through the different modes, you unlock artwork you can use in other modes and view later, but it doesn't compare to uncovering the new planets and tunes of the original. Only one of the film themes is locked in its entirety at the start of the game, and it doesn't take long to unlock it, which leaves only the expert difficulty as the major remaining incentive. Non-branded backgrounds and artwork may simply work better for games like this, because no matter how good they are, it's hard to look forward to unlocking predictable images based on ubiquitously marketed characters.
However, strong gameplay makes it easier to overlook the bland extras, and there are multiple ways to experience it outside of the story mode. Challenge mode lets you play for high score or against the timer, or you can play versus with up to four CPU opponents. But like in the original Meteos, playing against others is the real delight. Up to four people can join a multiplayer game, and the download play option allows you to share the game with only one cartridge. Successful launches shower your opponents with incinerated blocks that morph into usable blocks a few seconds after they land. You can even choose which player you wish to target or simply let the game automatically target one for you. Any good game is even more fun against real people, and Meteos: Disney Magic is no exception, assuming your buddies can stomach the cutesy Disney visuals.
The appeal of the sound and graphics is tied directly to the appeal of the source themes. Lilo & Stitch may have been an odd theme choice when there were so many better ones to choose from, but the blocks are clear and easy to distinguish from each other. The Little Mermaid features nice artwork, but the blocks look so much alike it's easy to get confused. The sound is fine too, and like the graphics, the re-creations do justice to the source material, but their success depends on how good that material was in the first place. One of the Lion King levels features the rousing tribal music from the film, while the Pirates of the Caribbean stages have plenty of booming cannons and typical Hollywood music but not much personality to go along with them. Where's Johnny Depp when you need him?
Still, there's plenty to like here. The core Meteos gameplay and level of challenge remain intact, even with the special abilities and horizontal block movement. It's ironic given the game's title that it's missing some of the delight of its predecessor, but Meteos: Disney Magic is still a worthwhile investment for puzzle-game fans. It's hard, it's fun, and playing it is its own reward.