If you're finding yourself asking questions like whether it's really pronounced "Zack," or what a mamodo is, then you need not read any further. Zatch Bell! Mamodo Battles quite simply isn't for you. This dumbed-down anime-inspired fighter--which bears a striking resemblance to One Piece: Grand Battle and Inuyasha: Feudal Combat, two other dumbed-down anime fighters from Bandai--exists solely for the sake of those already smitten with Zatch Bell!, though that still doesn't fully excuse the game's short and clumsy story mode or its shallow and unbalanced gameplay.
Zatch Bell! easily could have come from the same cut-rate anime factory responsible for Yu-Gi-Oh!--both are saddled with weirdly high-concept premises, and both teem with spiky-haired youths who like to kick it with strange and often grating extradimensional beings and who like to fight a lot. If you want more specific details than that, you'd better go read a FAQ or something, because you're not going to get much from Mamodo Battles. To a point it seems unfair to expect the game to be completely choked with exposition, but there's a soap opera quality to Zatch Bell! that makes it nearly impenetrable to outsiders.
Then again, you don't have to care about character motivations when you're just kicking the crap out of everyone you meet, which is the crux of the "story" mode in Mamodo Battles. Playing as a pair of characters, one human and one otherworldly "mamodo," you hop around 10 different locales, running into and throwing down with other couples. Each stage is supposedly set in either Japan or England, but the menu that you select stages from doesn't give you much sense of place, and most are generic-looking enough to have been set anywhere. In a halfhearted bid to pad out the six incredibly short stories, the game sometimes has you go to a location to find points, which you can use to buy character enhancements or replicas of Zatch Bell!-branded collectible cards; sometimes you'll go to a location and find nothing at all. Still, it won't take you more than 20 minutes to tear through each of the six scenarios.
Once you've wrung the two or three hours of gameplay from the story mode, your options in Mamodo Battles are limited. You can test your might in the time attack mode, which challenges you to beat a series of opponents in the least amount of time; you can square off with the AI or player two for one-off fights; and that's about it. That the actual combat is rather mindless doesn't help the game's case, either. Though you'll play as a team of two characters, they effectively act as one, with the secondary character only occasionally becoming active for special team moves--and, realistically, there's only half a character's worth of moves in any given team.
You can mash on the X button to perform a canned melee attack routine, you can hit the square button to cast a ranged spell attack, and if your special meter has filled up, you can press and hold L1 to unleash an exceptionally devastating special attack that more often than not will end the match. How your special meter fills is dictated by how many multihit combos you can pull off, which brings us to Mamodo Battles' biggest problem. Many of the characters have attacks that will overwhelmingly net them big combo points, thus rapidly filling up their special meter. Though the game does offer several different difficulty settings, the AI is never particularly cunning, making it easy to use the same techniques over and over again, turning the whole experience into a monotonous grind. Live opponents can prove to be more challenging since they're more prone to mix up their techniques, but the two-player game is still plagued by poor character balance, and once both players figure out just how powerful the special attack is the game quickly turns into a race to fill up your special meter.
Zatch Bell! Mamodo Battles distracts from its stupid gameplay with some flashy cel-shaded graphics, and it works well, to an extent. Despite a total disregard for any aesthetic consistency, the characters look uniformly sharp and colorful, though the thick black lines around the cel-shaded models often reveals some pretty harsh aliasing. The attack animations can get a little repetitive, but they do a fine job of capturing Zatch Bell's goofy, exaggerated style. The game adds a lot of punch to all of the attacks with an overwhelming amount of crazy special effects. All of this glitz has a price, and even though the scope of each level is extremely modest, Mamodo Battles is still prone to some slowdown.Though all of the story sequences are told with minimally animated portraits of the characters, the game gets added authenticity by way of the American voice cast for Zatch Bell! Unfortunately, a number of the characters are so achingly annoying that you wish they were mute. Additionally, since each team has a very limited number of attacks, you'll inevitably hear the same handful of attack sound effects over and over again. Though the music occasionally treads into the kind of schmaltzy synthesized lounge sounds usually reserved for mahjong or horse-racing games, it usually backs up the action nicely with energetic and catchy tunes.
It's understandable that the audience for something like Zatch Bell! Mamodo Battles might not be bothered by the game's rather low ambitions--save for the anomalous Dragon Ball Z: Budokai games, the standard for anime-inspired fighters isn't high, and the typically young fan base is primarily concerned with the representation of their favorite characters. But if fans don't expect better, these games aren't going to get any better.