Zatch Bell: Mamodo Battles is Bandai's attempt to capitalize on Cartoon Network's newest hot property which has already captured the hearts and stolen the souls of masses of young boys with the Anime, comics, and requisite trading card game. After all, what fighting anime license could be said to have arrived without its very own fighting game? Mamodo Battles offers up an accessible pick-up-and play fighter from the folks that delivered the GameCube Naruto titles and Bloody Roar series.
I'm not particularly familiar with Zatch Bell as a franchise. Like Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and other G-rated franchises from Japan there seems to be a contingent of (mostly creepy) adults who enjoy obsessing over it, but by and large, it seems squarely targeted at the preteen set. As best I can tell, Zatch Bell chronicles the relationship between the teenaged Kiyo and a small blonde boy in a Shirley Temple dress and sensible shoes, who apparently comes from another dimension. While this is sure to make any NAMBLA member's loins quiver, I've had difficulty appreciating what appears to be a directionless storyline centering on preaching friendship and peace by having children beat the snot out of each other.
The assortment of modes is as good as any you'd expect, but the meat of this title seems to center around the game's story mode. In this mode, you'll be able to select from 5 of the main "teams" of characters, and travel to different locales of your choosing where you'll encounter various people and smash their faces in. Upon arriving at a destination, you'll be treated to some voiced dialogue, which will invariably end with a fight whether there's a reason or not. This dialogue is pretty insipid and rarely, if ever, has anything to do with anything that has previously transpired in the story. Upon victory, you'll be treated to some preaching about wanting to be friends with whomever you beat up, and some rambling about becoming a kind king, before moving on to find the next battle through sheer trial and error. This leaves the story feeling "episodic" at best and "incoherent" at worst. Luckily with attention spans being what they are today, I doubt the kiddies will mind.
Mamodo Battles will probably turn a few heads with its unique twist on the genre; each Mamodo will fight alongside his "trainer" (was it really necessary to make them sound so much like Pokémon?). Although your Mamodo does the slugging, his trainer can be employed to assist. This is played up a bit more than the usual "striker" concept with which you might be familiar, allowing players to call on their trainer to launch them into the air, block hits, etc. It's a nifty spin on things, albeit mostly superficial.
It should come as a surprise to no one that this is not a technical fighter. It's designed to be accessible to players of a young age, without a lot of emphasis put on complex inputs or timing. There are 3 main play buttons, a physical attack, a magic button and a block button. Projectiles can be launched by simply tapping the magic button, and 15 hit combos unleashed by repeated taps of the attack button. The skill involved is most certainly not in the execution, so don't expect to spend time laboring over the timing of your combos or being able to quickly execute a super; the learning curve here is as shallow as hooker's grave. Timed blocks allow players to counter, which adds something for high-level players, and there is a bit more to the combat than recent Eighting releases, but for the most part, don't expect much in the way of depth. That said, the action is quick, responsive, and fun for short plays.
As a package, Zatch Bell is well rounded. In addition to the story mode, expect to find a standard single player tourney, training, character building, cards to collect, stories and characters to unlock and all the trimmings. The diligent Zatch enthusiast will surely plunk many hours into unlocking all of this, while others will probably become less motivated before reaching the depths of the title's offerings. Still, one can never have too much extra content.
Zatch Bell is a competent and enjoyable button masher, and it's going to hit the mark with the younger set already hooked on the franchise. In that sense, it's a success. More experienced players should approach with a degree of caution, but pick-up-and-play fighters have their place in any library. While this may not be the next Project Justice in that regard, it stands among the better games of this type, especially in light of the GameCube's thin lineup.