The Cartoon Network is a hotbed of cartoon innovation these days. Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory are some of the zany shows launched there and Samurai Jack follows the same formula. Visually, it is a simplistic cartoon. There are lots of large flat colors and simple, as opposed to detailed, character design. But in this is also its charm. After South Park proved that you could use construction paper and still come up with an innovative cartoon show, cartoonists are becoming more creative, ironically, with less.
In Samurai Jack: The Amulet of Time, this Cartoon Network series is put on the Game Boy Advance. Its other peers were made into half decent games and Samurai Jack follows a predictable and familiar formula; that of the action adventure title. The evil wizard Aku has sent Samurai Jack forward in time to a milieu where Aku has already finished his plans of world domination. The subtitle of this game highlights the main quest, which involves the protagonist searching for pieces of an amulet that will let him move around in time. In the meantime, it's a little like the defunct television show Sliders, only you have to face a 'boss' battle at the end of every episode, a lot of humorous looking aliens, and a color scheme that makes Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory look conservative.
I actually came to like the visual motif though. It's outlandish and completely cartoonish, for the lack of a better word, but most importantly, it was charming. Samurai Jack walks around as an upgradeable character. You can find pieces of armor and wear it, leveraging those bonuses. You can improve a plethora of statistics attached to your character during the course of the game. You wouldn't expect that sort of thing from a game that has a somewhat ridiculous look and an attitude that it can't even take itself too seriously.
In spite of this, what harms Samurai Jack the most is its adherence to standby platform action game mechanics. One prerequisite: lots of platforms to jump to and from. The problem: Samurai Jack moves much too slowly and his vertical leap makes the real life Michael Jordan at age 40 look like Tobey Maguire's computer-enhanced Spider-Man in downtown New York. It's a frustrating part of the game that you'll experience even during the tutorial itself. You might think you're jumping squarely on a platform only to find you missed it by a mile, subsequently falling straight to your own unjustified demise. Sometimes, only 20% of a platform's real estate qualifies for jumping. The rest is just artwork.
It doesn't help that Samurai Jack has some pretty involving jumping moves either. You can, for example, push off a wall to keep the protagonist in an upward moving manner. This is the type of stuff
Jackie Chan does with ease but Samurai Jack, on the other hand, has a little more of a problem, due primarily to the less than forgiving direction pad of the Game Boy Advance.
This hit and miss effect also extends to combat. Like the jumping, sometimes you can swear your pixels are hurting the other guy's pixels only to find the only damage happening are the ones inflicted on you.
Luckily the fighting is relatively easy. In fact, Samurai Jack's seven levels are not in any way shape or form overly challenging. No missteps in combat, except with a few of the bosses, will lead to an untimely demise here. Missteps in jumping platforms, however, will. Some of the more interesting parts of the game involved talking with the weird characters as well as seeing the surreal landscapes. Why the developers didn't play on the game's strengths is beyond me. Instead, the obligatory inclusions of platforms and combat do nothing but detract from the game's obvious strengths.
Let's talk about another Jack for a moment though. Part of what makes
Jackie Chan's action movies so great is, if you can believe it, not the stunts or action, but the humor in it all. Samurai Jack sorely misses the boat on that one.
As people age, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to connect to cartoon franchises. At some point in time, most people just give up on following the new fads and series, preferring to stick with the ones that they knew best. It's like giving up on wrestling, action figures or coloring books. Other, usually more sophisticated priorities take charge. I'm still watching The Simpsons and I adored Futurama but that's about as much cartoon as I've had time to immerse myself in since then. I thought those Matt Groening cartoons were simple on style and heavy on satire. Samurai Jack is even more minimalist in visual style but in its minimalism, there's something innately attractive about it. Call it wacky or zany, this aspect was captured nicely on the Game Boy Advance.
In terms of a game, though, it's just not worth the clumsy trip to get the Amulet of Time. My message to Aku: send Samurai Jack to a time and place where he can do some real damage.