Finding good games for portable rigs gets harder every day. Sadly, not too many developers are helping the situation much, because most of what lands on Game Gear or Game Boy these days is just plain junk.
Most game makers try to squeeze too much into the limited abilities of portable machines, or they give up altogether and serve up half-baked play and uninspired graphics. Precious few find the delicate balance between simplicity and fun.
Three recent games make the case. One tries too hard and falls flat. One doesn't appear to try at all. And the third makes it look so easy that one wonders why more don't follow.
Donkey Kong Land 2 for Game Boy is the second spinoff from the 16-bit Donkey Kong Country series. While those games look and play great on Super Nintendo, a lot gets lost in the translation to Game Boy's eight-bit processor and monochrome liquid-crystal display.
My beef with this second installment is pretty close to my complaint about the first: Designers don't seem to have considered the limitations of Game Boy when they created Donkey Kong Land 2. It works fine on the Super Game Boy adapter, but games sold for Game Boy should work on Game Boy.
Because the graphics are so dense, they blur on Game Boy. Even on the supposedly enhanced screen of Pocket Game Boy, the images are nearly impossible to see.
Obviously, this little glitch makes play pretty tough. Pity, because the action follows the DKC moves pretty closely. Dixie and Diddy Kong hop, bounce and roll through some great levels packed with peg-legged bad guys.
It would have been nice to see it all.
Too much. Too bad.
X-Men Mojo World on Game Gear suffers from exactly the opposite problem. With its color screen, Game Gear can handle some nice graphics. Yet this loser offers nothing but the barest of essentials.
The levels look as if they came right out of a template box, and the mechanical action is so routine it's boring. Jump. Duck. Punch. Jump. Duck. Punch. I enjoy the X-Men games on Genesis, but this stripped-down version left me flat, wondering if portable gaming was doomed to suck.
But as I pondered this profound question, I popped Tetris Attack into my Game Boy. Behold, the answer presented itself after just a few minutes of play. Although derivative, Tetris Attack is simple and simply wonderful.
Like the Super Nintendo version, the Game Boy port of Tetris Attack demands quick reflexes and forethought as players shift tiles in an ever-growing wall into blocks of three. From the beginning, the game never lets up.
Nothing fancy, just a very good puzzler that stands on its own. Recognizing what Game Boy can do, designers didn't push it. The screens are simple, elegant and, most of all, clear. The message to designers should be just as clear: Know the system and design to its strengths.
Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Thursday. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com