With all the excitement of the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS I haven't had much use for my trusty old Game Boy Advance. Despite the fact that it houses some of the best portable games of all time it just sits there on my counter collecting dust. But now that I have Juka and the Monophonic Menace I have finally have a reason to wipe the dust off and sit down with my Game Boy Advance.
These days Juka is kind of an anomaly when it comes to GBA titles. Now that there are more powerful portable game systems on the market it seems like the only GBA games to hit the market are either sequels to popular franchises or games made around licensed properties. Juka is neither; it's a fresh new adventure game that actually manages to offer a few fun game play innovations while telling an interesting story. This may not be embraced by every type of gamer, but I have a hunch that the younger set will eat this game up thanks to its cute characters, easy puzzles and engaging action.
As the title implies, you play as Juka, a young Alchemist in training who must use his powers to save the world. What are his powers? Well, he appears to be proficient at concocting a bunch of different potions that will take out enemies, alter the environments and solve a lot of puzzles. As the game player you actually have to use the right ingredients to make these potions. As you progress through the game you gather the various ingredients from all around the world, such as shaking trees, diving in the water and so on so forth. If you have enough ingredients you will pull out your backpack and dial in the quantity and push a big red button. If you do it right a potion will be added to your inventory, do it wrong and you get to start all over. Thankfully you won't have to remember how to perform all of the potion instructions; you have a notebook that you can pull out at any time to refresh your memory.
Creating potions isn't the only thing Juka has going for him, he also has this cool weapon called the Sound Staff. This staff allows gives you the power to literally absorb sound waves, which comes in handy when battling all of the enemies/machines scattered around the world of Obla. At first Juka isn't excited about going around and saving the day … but he has the Sound Staff, who else is going to do it?
Obla is a world that just got out of a giant battle between good Alchemists and Dark Alchemists. As the game starts Juka learns that a lot of his fellow townsmen and women have gone missing. To make matters worse, soldiers are starting to patrol the surrounding areas and they don't take kind to people getting in their way. Concerned that something sinister is at play, Juka decides to head out and get to the bottom of this mystery. Soon enough he uncovers an evil plot by one of the only remaining Dark Alchemists and must use his potions and Sound Staff to restore order to Obla.
When you see a game like Juka and the Monophonic Menace it's easy to be reminded of The Legend of Zelda series, but Orbital has done an excellent job of keeping this game fresh and original. Although the look and art style is somewhat similar, the actual game play and story couldn't be further from Nintendo's classic franchise. Certainly Juka takes a few cues from past adventure games, but for the most part I found that this Game Boy Advance game was different enough to not make it feel like I had been there dozens of times already.
On top of that, the story in Juka is extremely important. At least, that's what they seem to suggest with all of the cut-scenes full of dialog. Every few minutes something important will happen that will trigger a scene where two (or more) people talk for a few minutes. This tends to keep the story moving along at a brisk pace. While we're not dealing with the world's most exciting storyline, the plot is interesting enough to keep your attention from beginning to end. Some may get turned off by the non-stop dialog, but Juka does a good job of keeping you engaged with the plot.
Speaking of non-stop dialog, you perhaps it's time to introduce you to the game's single most annoying character: Bufo. Bufo is a talking frog that will contact you whenever he feels like it via a wireless radio. The problem is that Bufo needs to find a new friend, because he is contacting you all the time. There are moments in the game where it feels like he talks just because he likes to listen to his own voice (not that there's any voice acting in the game). He'll just go on and on and on about completely pointless subjects that could have been summed up with a lot fewer words. This would be fine if you could skip his non-stop chatter, but you can't, and you will quickly grow to despise Bufo and his boring comments.
Sadly Bufo isn't Juka's only problem, he's also unbearably slow. I'm not sure if it's that he's wearing uncomfortable shoes or just enjoys taking in the scenery, but Juka is one of the slowest heroes I have ever seen in a video game. He just kind of walks around like he's not on some kind of important adventure, slow as can be. Maybe I’m just spoiled by all of the other adventure games and their speedy characters, but there's something about the speed of this game that really grates on my nerves. Juka's speed is especially annoying when you're faced with enemies that throw projectiles, there are a lot of times where dodging attacks is simply not an option. I know the Game Boy Advance is lacking buttons, but it would have been nice to get some sort of "run" button added to the game play.
The good news is that Juka's combat is actually quite unique … once you get used to it. The game gives you two different types of shields, a dark sound shield that absorbs the sound bits and converts them into shield energy. The light sound shield, on the other hand, absorbs the sound bits and then shoots them right back at the enemies. These two shields are mapped to two completely different buttons, which certainly seems odd at first but is pretty effective once you've gotten the hang of it. Thankfully the game teaches you how to harness these powers and use them to your advantage, and when you forget they do a great job of reminding you what you should be doing.
The graphics in Juka and the Monophonic Menace are surprisingly good. Perhaps I'm just used to all of the half-assed licensed games being released on the Game Boy Advance, but I was impressed with what Orbital was able to accomplish with this outdated technology. You won't confuse this game with a fancy next-generation title or something on the PSP, but the graphics are sharp and colorful and a lot of fun to look at. Best of all, the background graphics actually change as you get further into the game. It still looks like a lot of 16-bit adventure games, but Juka has a style all its own that should keep most gamers interested in seeing what comes next.
Juka and the Monophonic Menace manages to get just enough right for me to recommend it. Some gamers may be put off by the game's easy difficulty and cute look, but if you're looking for a fun adventure game that is not too violent or mature, then Juka is well worth checking out. It may not make you want to give up your DS or PSP, but I can certainly think of worse reasons to dust off your Game Boy Advance.