It's hardly surprising that Nintendo would have a brand-new Pokémon game ready to go within the first few months of the DS's launch, what with it being one of Nintendo's biggest franchises and everything. However, what is thoroughly shocking is how completely half-baked this first attempt is. Titled Pokémon Dash, this bizarre racing game is simply one of the laziest uses of the DS's touch screen technology to date, featuring highly repetitive gameplay that gets old before you've even finished your first race.
The basic gameplay in Pokémon Dash works as follows: As the lovable Pikachu, you participate in something of a foot race against five other notable Pokémon characters. These races consist of finding a series of checkpoints scattered across a fairly vast and treacherous landscape with varying types of terrain. To race, there is really only one control mechanic. You simply take the stylus, and repeatedly scrape it across your touch screen in the direction you want Pikachu to run. The faster you do this, the faster the little guy will run. If this sounds like it might be a little repetitive, you're wrong. It's actually a lot repetitive. The action of just briskly pushing your stylus across the screen becomes very tiresome very quickly, and at times, you may actually find yourself worried about scratching up your touch screen.
The actual racing itself is broken up by periodic bouts of hot air balloon flying and rough-terrain crossing. Essentially, the way the race tracks are designed is that you'll find lots of lava pits, ice fields, chasms, and oceans blocking you from getting to the next checkpoint within a stage. Some of these things can be traversed naturally, though they will slow you down. Others require you to run over a special icon on the map first, which will let you walk on lava, or something to that effect. Others still simply can't be crossed without the aid of a balloon. You can find balloon icons all over the map, and once you find one, you'll suddenly find the gleeful Pikachu launched into the air. At this point you can move to anywhere on the map before you come diving back to the ground. You can even pop the balloons to head to the ground much faster (though you'll want to avoid doing that over a particularly hard surface, as it will stun Pikachu temporarily).
While these few little things do add some variety to the gameplay, the problem is that the whole racing model is simply flawed, largely because of its reliance on a near-broken radar system. Whenever you find yourself airborne, you'll be able to see the entire map, and you'll see a little map that displays where the next active checkpoint is on the upper screen of the DS. The problem is that it only shows a scant bit of the terrain around where the checkpoint is, and the little arrows that appear onscreen while you're racing disappear. If you can recall what direction they were pointing before you actually go airborne, you might be able to find the next spot reasonably quickly. However, if you don't, you can very easily fall behind. In fact, it's really in your best interest to just play through all of the tracks at least a few times before actually trying to win any of the races, as you pretty much need to memorize the checkpoints before racing effectively.
Apart from these problems, there are some other annoying quirks that further bog down the experience. For one, the challenge in the game is simply all over the map. The first sets of races you can play are supposedly a normal difficulty, though overall, they're almost ridiculously easy, since your opponents are insanely slow. Once you move onto the hard mode, the difficulty shoots through the roof, and successful races almost become a fleeting afterthought. There are also some other irritating little things, such as the game's pause menu, which is just plain dumb. Basically, the pause menu is mapped to the touch screen, and when you select any option, it acts on it without any confirmation menu whatsoever. This means that if you accidentally, say, hit the "exit to main screen" option instead of "restart race," option, the game will exit out of your current GP and you lose all progress up to that point. Had there been a confirmation menu to help correct this, it wouldn't be a problem at all. But then, considering how generally thrown together this game feels, it's almost unsurprising that issues like this would exist.
Pokémon Dash also offers a couple of other available modes beyond the GPs, though none of them are any good. The multiplayer consists of all the available tracks, playable for up to six players, as well as a fairly weak battle mode. Each player will need his or her own copy of the game to participate. There's also a weird custom track mode, where, by plugging in one of the GBA Pokémon RPG cartridges, like Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, FireRed, and LeafGreen, you can basically create new courses that are shaped like Pokémon characters. However, this mode is almost totally worthless, mainly because the custom tracks just look plain awful and are rarely ever any more (and sometimes are significantly less) fun than the already included tracks.
Even outside of this custom track mode, the basic tracks in the game just don't look impressive at all. Everything looks flat, ugly, and unpleasant. The Pokémon racers aren't really any better, though they are marginally better than the nasty race environments. The top-down camera view works serviceably for what the game is, though it doesn't allow you much breathing room to see what's coming up ahead. The audio in the game is equally annoying, featuring a lot of Pikachu's cutesy voice, some fairly forgettable music, and a few cheap sound effects here and there. All told, it just seems like the developer had no aspirations whatsoever to do anything decent with this game's presentation.
Though it may be the first DS game to bear the crest of the Pokémon license, Pokémon Dash is a game that will be unappealing to even the most vehement of fans. The game itself has so little to do with the actual, established Pokémon brand beyond an exceedingly halfhearted use of the show's characters, and the whole racing mechanic just falls terribly flat. DS fans will have to wait a little longer for a decent Pokémon game, as this one is most certainly not it.