As the Nintendo DS dodders off into the sunset, it’s worth remembering that it was that system which really launched our current blizzard of alternative controllers. The success of the Wii may have provoked Sony and Microsoft’s frantic motion-control strategies, but it was the unexpected triumph of the DS that made the Wii seem plausible in the first place. The touch screen allowed for a spatial precision that previous gamepads couldn’t match, but even more exciting was the free-form creativity possible when you were no longer trapped in a world of strictly defined buttons. The potential to create a game controller that was as limitless as a blank canvas was explored in games like Kirby’s Canvas Curse and Drawn to Life, and now, bringing up the rear, comes the DS port of Max & the Magic Marker, a platformer where you get to create the platforms. But that new-fangled creative gaming idea is let down by a bunch of old-fashioned game problems: irritating technical glitches and designers who ran out of ideas long before the finish line.
The basic setup of Max is that you, playing as the titular redhead, trundle around the world collecting ink to fill your marker. When you reach puzzles, platforms, or drops, you use the marker to draw bridges, stairs, heavy rocks, or anything else that could get you through. The freeform drawing is enormously fun, making ever step as full of creativity as you’d like; when you come to a gap between ledges, maybe you’ll just draw a bridge, or maybe you’ll come up with an arrangement of levers and weights that’ll send you careening across the gap, or a stairway that lets you avoid enemies instead of killing them. It’s a shame that your ink supply is usually so strictly limited, which restricts truly wild flights of fancy, but there’s usually enough ink in your pen to come up with multiple solutions to any problem.
In short, Max & the Magic Marker has a great base mechanic. Unfortunately, the team behind the DS port has botched the execution. Most painful are the frequent frame rate drops, which make the game feel sluggish and unresponsive most of the time. Shigeru Miyamoto once said that he wanted to make the simple act of walking with Mario fun; Max & the Magic Marker is a game where the simple act of walking is a constant irritation. Jumping is equally off-putting, because the draggy frame rate causes unpredictable delays. It doesn’t help that the graphics are blurry and ugly; I know the DS is lower-resolution than other systems, but the port team seems to have not even tried to rethink the graphics for the new system, producing something that’s as unpleasant to look at as it is to play.
So the port programmers let down the developers. But the developers also let down their game. For the first hour or so, Max & the Magic Marker provides constant surprises and new ways to use your marker. After that, though, it’s like the team just decided to call it a day for creativity. The levels quickly get repetitive, both in terms of graphic design and puzzle structure. Every so often something new and fun will appear, but too much time is spent on repetition that barely even iterates on the game’s fundamentals.
Though Max & the Magic Marker seems like a game perfectly suited to the DS, this version is a hash. Anyone interested in the concept would do better to check out the Mac/PC version; it has all the limitation of the basic design, but at least it runs properly.