If you've ever watched an episode of Zatch Bell! on the Cartoon Network, you've probably said to yourself, "this would translate well into a fighting game." Pat yourself on the back, because you were right.
Bandai Games has transformed the TV show into a one-on-one fighting game a la Tekken or Soul Calibur, except with a decidedly Zatch Bell! flavor. In the show, powerful spirits called mamodo come to Earth to suss out which of them will become the king of the demon world. Zatch Bell is one such mamodo, a boyish demon who has come down with amnesia and forgotten all about the mamodo tournament and where he came from. The stars of the show are Kyo, and his mamodo, Zatch, a boyish demon with an unfortunate bout of amnesia. In order to use their spell books, a mamodo must team up with a human, who in turn, directs them in battle. Zatch's partner is a 14-year-old student named Kyo. It all sounds a lot like Pokemon or Digimon, and it is, in a way. But many of the mamodo are far from cute, and most are crazy powerful. The video game emulates the show's teamwork aspect by putting both the human and the mamodo into battle together. During each match, the human sticks close behind the mamodo and makes gestures, while the mamodo moves around and casts the attacks that you input on the controller. Every so often, the human will tack on a few slaps of his or her own, but generally they're just in there for moral support. Other similarities to the show include the backgrounds, which are based on scenery from key episodes, and the voice-acting cast, which is made up primarily of actual series voice-actors.
So, how good is it?
It's certainly not the next Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or Soul Calibur, thanks to its button-mashy gameplay, but Mamodo Battles is definitely a fun, explosion-filled beat 'em up that does justice to the cartoon it's based on.
The attack system is easy to get the hang of, perhaps too easy. Physical attacks are performed by pressing X, magical attacks by pressing square, and you can block or evade by tapping circle or triangle, respectively. You need mana in order to perform magic attacks, but the meter is easy enough to refill by performing physical attacks. Movement is handled with the d-pad or the analog stick. Different attacks come out depending on what direction you're pushing when you press the buttons. Each character also has a few pre-set combos and chains, which are unblockable after the first hit. That tends to make for some juggle-heavy matches. The lack of a jump button also tends to keep the fighters face to face with one another. Matches are best-of-3. The winner of each round is the one that manages to totally deplete the other fighter's health meter. This is all pretty standard stuff for most fighting games.
Top-tier beat 'em ups, like Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur, offer a better selection of attacks and combos, and more chances for reversals and counter-attacks. Zatch Bell!: Mamodo Battles, by contrast, gets by on its basics. Every attack, for the most part, is brilliant and flashy, and when you chain two or three together you tend to slash a third of your opponent's life meter off in a fell swoop. Each character also has a screen-filling "ultimate attack" that you can activate when your magic meter is full. These bad boys are totally eye-candy and nearly unblockable. They take a couple seconds to build up, so you can interrupt them then, but the only way to counteract one once it's unleashed is to activate your own ultimate attack. That leads to a button-mashing mini-game to decide which attack succeeds and which one fails. Basically, what I've come away with after playing the game for a few days is that it's more like Super Smash Bros. Melee than Virtua Fighter or Soul Calibur. If you're the type of person that gets frustrated by fighting games that offer unblockable attacks and lengthy juggles, you may want to shy away from Mamodo Battles. If, on the other hand, you can forgive the slightly cheap A.I. and the masher-friendly controls, you'll probably have a lot of fun with it because of how frantic and fast-paced the matches are.
Fans of the show, in particular, will appreciate the look and feel of the game. The graphics and audio, overall, are high-quality, but it's the show-specific details that really pull everything together. The 3D arenas are setup just like those in recent Tekken games. They're large and flat, and, once you reach the ring boundary, an invisible wall keeps you inside the confines. The scenery bounding each arena looks sharp, and there are some moving details, such as water in the rivers or double-decker busses driving the streets in London, but overall the arenas don't flex the PS2's graphical horsepower. Mainly, there's just not enough going on outside the ring. Still, if you enjoy the show, you'll appreciate trading punches in 3D renditions of familiar locations, such as Mochinoki Middle School, Mochinoki Park, and Hoback Castle. The character graphics look like they were ripped right out of the show, thanks to the cel-shading effect. It's sweet how the mentors hang back and direct their mamodo partners, just like they do in the show. They're all clutching their spell-books too. Magic-based attacks are outlandish and explosive, and nearly-always fill the screen with sparkly lightning bolts and laser effects. Some of the characters' ultimate attacks are downright awesome, such as Kanchome's, which has his partner, the effeminate Folgore, whipping out a giant fan and creating a tornado with it. To top it all off, the character select screen and matchup screens use hand drawn artwork taken from the Zatch Bell manga, and all of the battle cries and between-match dialogue scenes are voiced by the actual actors from the cartoon. For sure, this Zatch Bell!-based video game oozes Zatch Bell! atmosphere at every turn.
Whether or not you follow the TV show, you'll know everything there is to know about Zatch and his quest once you've played through the game a few times. There are 14 playable teams, but only two are available from the start. To unlock the fair majority of the rest, you have to play through chapters in the story mode. The story mode includes SIX (6) different scenarios. I love the way they're setup. Each scenario is split into parts, and each part is split into chapters. You can pick the order of chapters, and thus, the order of the opponents you'll face. At the end of each fight, you'll be treated to a short story sequence that fills in another piece of the overall plot. You can also go back and re-view any of the dialogue scenes anytime you like. Initially, there are scenarios available for Zatch, Tia, Kanchome, and Brago, but two additional scenarios open up once you clear the others. Besides the story mode, the disc also includes the typical versus and practice modes you'd expect to find in this type of game, as well as a development mode and a card gallery. When you win matches in story mode, you earn points that you can spend to upgrade characters' abilities in the development mode or to buy cards in the card gallery. The card gallery is just a collection of 134 cards taken from the Zatch Bell! trading card game. They're nice to look at, at least. The development mode, on the other hand, is a Godsend. The CPU A.I. is sometimes too-good at predicting and avoiding attacks, so it's nice to be able to beef up physical attacks and spell power, or to tack on some extra HP, just to make things fair again.
Overall, Zatch Bell!: Mamodo Battles is better suited for fans of the show than fighting aficionados, which isn't a knock on the game at all. The developers obviously made it a beginner-friendly, button-mash style fighting game on purpose, and while many of us worship at the altar of Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur, a lot of people out there do not. If you enjoy the Zatch Bell! TV show and think that a fighting game containing the characters, locations, and stories from the show would be right up your alley, then don't hesitate to pick this one up.