Some of you may recall Lode Runner. It was the pioneer of “action puzzle” games, and it was enormously popular across the globe. The keys to its success were challenge, simplicity of play, and the ability to expand the game by creating your own maps. In the dark ages of the BBS, before the dawn of Usenet and WAY before the World Wide Web, hardcore hackers traded maps with each other when not busy hacking. Fun times.
Fast-forward 25 years — now we’ve got Steal Princess, a visually charming DS ditty developed by Climax Entertainment, who also developed two of my favorite adventure games: Landstalker and Dark Savior. Unfortunately, Steal Princess’s freakish controls make the interface more difficult than it should be, whereas map creation is a spectacular failure. But it has STORY SCENES!
The introductory scenes tell us about a female thief named Anise, who has been “mistaken” for a legendary hero by the King of the kingdom she’s been robbing. Even though he feigns ignorance, the King appears to be quite aware of Anise’s true identity and sends her on a quest to rescue his only son (while casually remarking that if he were to catch Anise the Thief, she would be executed on sight). That part is actually amusing. Most other story scenes feature a lot of dull blather between “cute” demons and “cute” fairies, who come across as annoying instead of charming. I suppose someone who has never seen the “two spoken words are subtitled as three sentences” joke may be amused by the “humor”, but such Sunday afternoon karate film fodder feels tiresome here. Thankfully such scenes only appear every dozen stages or so. Out of 150.
The core game, which spans such locales as grasslands, seashores, and demonic palaces, consists of the following structure:
1) Defeat certain enemies to reveal a key.
2) Use the key to open a lock-box.
3) This causes a door to open.
4) Walk through the door to end the stage.
It’s a solid foundation, supplemented with hidden gems to be discovered by breaking boxes, defeating enemies, or simply whipping opponents around. Anise’s whip is a thing of beauty; she can stun enemies, she can flip switches from afar, she can swing across chasms, she can pluck flying beasts from the sky, or she can grab a kobold and use it to block a warlock’s incoming fireball. The targeting system is annoying — hold the shoulder button to lock onto a target, but when you first press the shoulder button, it may switch to another target entirely — but otherwise, the whip is pretty darn sweet.
The game then adds a ton of different weapons, some of which can only be used a few times. The weapons have different elemental properties and only work against certain creatures. Press one button to pick up an infinite-use blue lance, then a second button to slay a blue enemy, which reveals a red sword. Press the “pick up” button to drop the lance and grab the two-use sword, then press an entirely new third button to switch back to the whip so that Anise doesn’t accidentally waste any precious stabs via inadvertent taps of the “attack” button.
Did you follow all that?
Cumbersome button-pressing gets in the way of puzzle-solving, and the optional stylus control has issues of its own (and still requires pressing buttons). To push stone blocks around the map, Anise needs the shield, which makes her drop her weapon. When done pushing blocks around, she’ll have to go back and pick up that flail or lance. And she’d better not accidentally deflect a fireball with that shield, or else it might crumble and force a STAGE FAILURE!
Steal Princess’s ridiculously ornate control scheme masks a lack of true challenge. Sure, there are some truly clever stages, but many are based around haphazardly killing enemies and destroying crates to locate the necessary weapons . . . and then using that knowledge on the second attempt to secure an easy victory, unless the touchy controls or iffy targeting screw it up. The best action puzzlers lay it all on the table and force the player to think their way to victory. If Climax intended to tax my brain, then trial-and-error shouldn’t be so effective. I did feel a mild sense of achievement after completing each stage, but it was more of a “whew, I didn’t press the wrong button by accident”, as opposed to “damn, I’m so smart”.
Whereas the main game could have been so much more, the map-making mode should have been so much more. Steal Princess lets you create your own stages . . . six of them. If you want to make more than six, you’ll have to delete old ones. If you acquire any new levels (either the bonus stages already included on the cart, or stages created by a friend), then those overwrite the same six slots as maps you create. To repeat: BONUS STAGES THAT ARE ALREADY CODED INTO THE GAME OVERWRITE YOUR HOMEMADE MAPS. At first, only a paltry few enemies, objects, and weapons are available to be placed on a self-created stage. Additional monsters and items have to be unlocked and then purchased in the main game. It takes a looooong time to do that. It’s also possible to litter your map with nine gemstones and no enemies, then grab all those jewels, stroll to the exit, and use all the money you just picked up in the main game. But that would be dishonest.
All of that being said, the biggest problem with map creation is . . . you can’t actually create your own map. Steal Princess presents a meager assortment of landscapes, but you can’t fashion your own hills, valleys, pits, or spike traps. All you can do is throw enemies and objects onto terrain that was already created by someone else. You can’t even determine Anise’s starting location! This is the worst “level edit” mode I’ve ever seen. (Note to developers: that’s not a challenge.)
Once upon a time, I would have told you: “Steal Princess isn’t a bad game — it’s just disappointing”. After playing the game again . . . yeah, actually, it IS a bad game. The pre-programmed stages are ruined by the controls, and the map-making mode is ruined by dumb design. While waiting for Steal Princess to arrive in the mail, I imagined myself passing the cart back-and-forth with friends, designing new stages — or better yet, series of stages like we used to create in Lode Runner — but that just isn’t possible.
I stopped caring about this game after 25 hours; I certainly won’t care about Steal Princess in 25 years.