Trying to translate the unrelenting might of the Hulk on a portable system, even one with two screens, is not an enviable task. So it comes as no surprise that The Incredible Hulk on the Nintendo DS is a far different game than the console versions. The open-world chaos has been shrunk down to a series of 30 confined levels, and Hulk's terrifying rage has been bottled up, turning his exploits into a 2D platformer with only the occasional glimpse of the angry beast buried under that green skin. Though the game fails to impress as a Hulk-smashing simulator, it is actually the strongest, most imaginative game to bear his likeness this year. A variety of cleverly designed levels and some challenging (though never cheap) obstacles make this title stand out on its own merits.
The story seems to exist merely as a way to emphasize that Hulk doesn't need motivation to smash things. You're quickly whisked from Alaska to Brazil and, finally, America, with only a thin plot linking these locations together. All you really need to know is that guys with guns and flamethrowers are evil. It's never explained why Hulk is able to gracefully swim through coral reefs or why he momentarily satiates his rage by destroying a downed satellite, but the baffling nature of each encounter doesn't hinder the fun in the slightest. Do you really need an elaborate tale explaining why you have to defeat the abominable snowman?
Level design is the real star of the show. Though the levels can usually be beaten in less than 10 minutes, they offer a lot of variety during the course of the game. Some are linear, where you'll simply have to walk in one direction until you find that elusive satellite dish. Other times you'll have to trek through a labyrinth that spreads as far vertically as it does horizontally. There are levels that take place underwater, forcing you to destroy coral to clear a path to the end, and others that take place in a city, making you smash through buildings along the way. Other times you'll have to use vaults to hurl yourself forward. It's an odd technique, but it spices up the action a lot. Flinging yourself into a group of enemies or a well-constructed building is one of the few times in this game that you'll truly feel like Hulk.
Your limited move set makes combat predictable, but smooth animation and sharp controls make sure it never gets in the way. The primary method of dispatching enemies is with a simple punch. You can charge this up by unleashing your anger, but that's not really necessary since most enemies can be killed with one or two blows anyway. Jumping on enemies' heads is another--much sillier--method of taking down foes. The only thing stranger than making Hulk swim is seeing him pull off his best impersonation of Mario. The final method you can use to kill those who oppose you is to toss something at them. Unfortunately, there aren't many objects scattered around, so you won't have many opportunities to actually pull this off.
The Incredible Hulk also packs a surprising amount of challenge. Your expandable life bar allows you to be hit up to seven times before you're forced to restart the level. Though the game starts out with plenty of health packs to ensure you won't meet an untimely end, the later stages ask you to go long stretches without healing yourself. Because the enemies are placed in an intelligent manner, you will have to exert a lot of patience and precise jumping to make your way through to the end. Thankfully, the game never feels cheap. Every time you're caught in a bomb blast or are peppered by a chaingun, it's your fault. Sure, it isn't very Hulk-like to slowly creep through a heavily populated area, but it makes for some satisfying platforming.
The Incredible Hulk can be finished in about five hours, but you can replay levels to find all the hidden unlockable skins. After you see all the different versions of Hulk, though, there isn't any reason to go back. The boss fights are simple and repetitive, needing only the vaguest hint of skill to conquer. Most bosses have an attack/move/repeat pattern, making them extremely predictable and fairly boring. The two-player mode is mildly fun, but because it requires two cartridges, most people won't be able to take part. It's you versus a friend in a race to cause the most damage, but your limited tools of destruction make this fun only in very small bursts.
Even though The Incredible Hulk doesn't let you really experience what it's like to be this supposed superhero, its level design is enough to make you forget about your limited move set and stymied rage. Unfortunately, the game isn't very long, there's little reason to play through a second time, and the two-player mode is pretty forgettable. Still, even with its problems, this is the best Hulk game coming out this year.