Delusion now

  • Developers: Mitchell Corporation, Nintendo SPD
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release Dates: August 8th, 2012 (Japan), December 12th, 2012 (Korea, according to Gamefaqs), January 17th, 2013 (North America, Europe/UK)
  • Available On: 3DS
  • Genre: Puzzle

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Published by Nintendo? Developed in part by Nintendo SPD? How could something with Nintendo involvement from the 2010s be obscure or forgotten!? Well, when was the last time you heard anybody talk about Tokyo Crash Mobs? Probably never or at least not since its release I would wager because it was a 3DS-exclusive download title with a bizarre aesthetic and a seemingly familiar gameplay style at first glance. Games exclusive to the 3DS eShop almost always went unnoticed by the masses since Nintendo would only really market them during Nintendo Directs (if they were lucky) and the shop’s bizarre categorization meant you either had to know what you were looking for or be willing to dig for a while. Beyond all that, if you were paying attention in 2017 after the Switch came out, you’ll remember that people got so fanatical and obsessed over the Switch that they quickly began to HATE the 3DS. I remember people asking for Nintendo to stop making 3DS games, begging incessantly for late 3DS games like Metroid: Samus Returns and Persona Q2 to be ported to Switch, and acting like the 3DS was impossible to use due to its screen and size as if the last 6 years never happened. It was absurd and pretty embarrassing if you ask me, especially when you see now that just 5 years after its launch, a lot of these same people have turned on the Switch and think it’s a piece of junk in desperate need of a successor. Really just goes to show you how fickle and driven by “hype” gamers can be, huh?

For me, the Switch is a big step down compared to the 3DS. The 3DS feels like the last time Nintendo was willing to get weird and interesting with things (I may not like it, but the Wii U was certainly weird too!), whereas the Switch feels disappointingly corporate and sterile. The menus and eShop on Switch are so basic and lacking in music compared to the myriad themes of the 3DS and the console “gimmicks” like HD Rumble were dropped immediately. While I’m not a big fan of touchscreen controls (something we’ll revisit later) and never bothered with the 3D feature, I absolutely loved the clamshell design of the 3DS and dearly miss how much having two screens added to various games. The first party games on Switch are generally good to great and it gets plenty of third party exclusives due to being the only viable console in Japan, but beyond those, it’s mostly just ports of stuff I’ve already played or versions of new releases where the only perk is hypothetically playing it on the go. I dunno about you, but playing something like Doom Eternal on a smaller screen with the trashy Joycons sounds like an absolutely miserable time! I used to love bringing games to college as a way to kill time between classes (it’s how I got through most of my DS and 3DS library!), but even if I had the Switch back then, there’s no way I would have wanted to bring it around. I do have tiny baby hands, but the Switch just doesn’t feel portable enough to me, between its screen size, its pitiful battery life, and fan noise that’s loud enough to hear when the sound is off. I only play on the Switch when I have to (no way was I gonna miss out on Shin Megami Tensei V or Xenoblade 2), but I always think of and look forward to revisiting the 3DS because of how comforting and nostalgic it is to me, the difference between business and pleasure, if you will.

Aren’t 3DS themes and icons just the best?

As a game available on the successor to DSiWare and WiiWare, previous Nintendo services that had no shortage of unusual one-off titles, you’d probably expect Tokyo Crash Mobs to be a one-time experiment from a small team in a similar vein. Not so! In case the involvement of Nintendo I mentioned before (including an executive producer credit for the late Satoru Iwata) wasn’t enough, it’s also important to mention that the game was developed by a group called Mitchell Corporation. Mitchell was responsible for a variety of arcade titles, including the Buster Bros./Pang series, but their longest lasting legacy was Puzz Loop, a puzzle game in which you shoot colored marbles at a string of approaching marbles in order to match colors and make them disappear. If that sounds familiar to you despite never having played Puzz Loop, that’s because the concept lived on through various variants, the most well-known ones being the Luxor series and Popcap Games’ Zuma. Puzz Loop itself got some sequels and ports on the PlayStation, DS, and other consoles, and while Tokyo Crash Mobs is technically the newest in that line of sequels, it’s distinct and different enough that I’m willing to write about it without covering its predecessors. This game is really something else, for better and worse, in how it iterates upon the existing concept while injecting itself with an aesthetic and a story that’s genuinely difficult to describe and understand.

Fun fact: four actors were credited for this game (Soyo Kurata, Camilla, Taihaku Shioya, and Momoyo Ogura), but none of them have credits for any games before or after this! I wonder what they’re up to now…

The deadpan expression on the faces of the two protagonists on the title screen really gets you fired up to do some puzzle gaming, huh? Tokyo Crash Mobs is utterly unafraid to be itself and do what it feels it must do, even if it doesn’t give off high budget vibes or indicate what the game actually is. You’ll be doing some puzzling as described, but it has a surprising amount of story for the genre too and presents it using FMV and digitized actors, two things that often get a mixed or negative reception. It’s as much an experimental indie art film as it is a puzzle game, really. Naturally, reviewers on major websites at the time who actually covered this were flabbergasted by the whole thing, chalking it up to nothing more than “that wacky Japan!”, but I’ll spare you such sentiments. This is absolutely a strange, unusual game, but it does have genuine intent and is absolutely trying to say something using its imagery. Whether or not that message succeeds or if I was even able to understand it… is another story, but I’ll do my best to explain my read on it and provide my perspective, and isn’t that the fun of a story that’s intentionally vague?

Tokyo Crash Mobs stars two women who want very different things in life. Grace dreams big, and she wants nothing more than to be one of the first people to get into all the hottest restaurants and other places around Tokyo, even if that means depriving others of their fairly earned chance to do so. A simple dream, but one that’s well-defined and something she’s clearly passionate about. Savannah, on the other hand, is going through some stuff. She appears to be a student of some kind who wants nothing more than to remain asleep and dreaming, lost in delusion as she rejects her psyche’s attempt to bring her back to reality through the pressing of mysterious buttons by people that keep showing up to cut her delusions short. It’s unclear if this is due to depression, fear and uncertainty towards the future or just pure escapism as the lesser of two evils is unclear, but what is clear is that Savannah doesn’t want those buttons getting pressed. The motivations and lives of the protagonists may seem at odds with the gameplay at first, but they’re actually intertwined with the gameplay in ways that result in a cohesive package, even if the player isn’t quite sure of what the package is.

When playing as Grace, Tokyo Crash Mobs is a game about assertion and aggression. You start at the back of a line of flashy Tokyo “scenesters” who are looking to get into the restaurant and your goal is to eliminate them until you’re close enough to be one of the first 10 people to enter when time runs out. And how do you go about clearing out the line? Simple – you throw people at other people if they’re wearing the same color outfit until you match 3 or more, which causes them to vanish, naturally! You can throw as far as you need and you can throw over people, so this is a variation on the Puzz Loop formula that feels free-form and strategic in a satisfying way. You need to be accurate too, since shots don’t have aim assist or anything like that – if your aim is off even slightly, you’ll either miss your target completely or add a scenester to the line in an awkward place, making your task all the harder. You might be tempted to just stick to what’s directly in front of you, especially with how often the camera loves to move around and obscure chunks of the playing field for no reason, but since you can easily target anywhere, maintaining awareness of the environment allows you to make bolder plays and bigger combos. Making long shots accurately, assessing combo opportunities without letting the timer get to you, and deciding on targets quickly becomes essential in short order – this is quite a challenging game that affords little in the way of mercy.

To make things more complicated, almost too much so, there are a ton of different scenesters and gimmicks to worry about. You’ve got line cutters, people who encourage other people to cut the line, ninjas (yes, ninjas) who can’t be eliminated unless adjacent scenesters are first, giant explosive balls that get passed down the line, random bouts of dancing that causes the scenesters to inadvertently dodge your shots, and potted plants that somehow block your shots at the worst time every time. It’s a lot to take in once they start combining it all! You do get the occasional power-up to help you, including the likes of a UFO that abducts all scenesters of a certain color, umbrellas that change the colors of onscreen scenesters, and a giant yarn ball that can mow down anyone in its (admittedly not so useful) linear path. Items can even be carried over from other levels, which is something that really helps if you’re struggling. Like with most dreams, your goal will ultimately be achieved through dedication and practice, but expect plenty of resistance- Grace’s stages are the easier part and they still don’t mess around!

To fit Savannah’s predicament, her stages are closer to the original Puzz Loop formula and feel more like a game of tower defense. The scenesters line up and march towards the button that Savannah needs to protect. Instead of throwing, Savannah relies on rolling scenesters like bowling balls into each other to make matches and push the scenesters back. This sounds fine on paper, but it’s functionally a straight downgrade compared to Grace, which makes Savannah’s stages both less fun and more frustrating. Rolling has no perks over throwing and in order to hit targets that are behind a row of scenesters, you need to point and hold a shot at a group until they decide to jump, giving you a window to roll under them. This did not work reliably for me at all since Savannah’s stages always have the scenesters on the move, which seems to cause the ability to constantly reset and not work. There’s a particular type of scenester that whistles and speeds up the entire line to a tremendous degree, and unless you can eliminate them immediately, the line will approach the button in seconds with that speed boost, making a maneuver that requires waiting for someone to jump pretty worthless until the game slows down to give you a chance to save yourself at the last second. That bit of mercy is nice, but it’d be even nicer if I didn’t have to practically throw a round to make use of my character’s tool set! I honestly dreaded doing Savannah’s stages every time because I knew they’d always be a harsh difficulty spike due to more limited and less fun options, and considering they make up half of the game’s three week structure, that’s not the best sign.

I’m of a conflicted mind when it comes to this game’s difficulty. The harsh difficulty does reinforce the themes of the game – whether you’re trying to make your dreams come true or clutching onto your dreams as a way of escaping the real world, that’s something you’d have to fight tooth and nail for. The combination of the game’s intentional repetition (three weeks of alternating between Grace and Savannah) and the frustration of having to retry levels that seem stacked against you or losing due to something like never getting the one color of scenester you need makes you question if the whole thing is worth it and experience the same emotions of the protagonists. The skill ceiling being so high also encourages replays for high score awards, which have seriously demanding requirements and can extend this two hour game into something that’ll take ages to complete. I’m terrible at puzzle games and while I was able to make it to the end, I got the lowest rank on almost every stage! Looking at this Gamefaqs guide by “UncleDale”, the requirements are so far beyond what I got that I legitimately have no clue how you even go about achieving these scores! There’s just one big problem with the difficulty – Tokyo Crash Mobs has a pretty nasty bug that sometimes crashes the game whenever you load a stage! In my experience, this only happened whenever I lost a level and wanted to retry and the frequency of the bug was about a 1 in 4 chance based on my estimates. Strangely enough, none of the professional reviews I could find mentioned this bug, though the aforementioned Gamefaqs guide does mention it, so I know it wasn’t just me. This made losing a far more frustrating thing than it needed to be, and at times, I was nearly ready to quit and leave Savannah in her predicament without a second though.

At the end of each week, Grace and Savannah join forces to fight against ninjas that duplicate and create more ninjas while dodging their attacks. The girls are able to throw balls to eliminate the color-coded ninja clones like in the normal game, but the twist here is that you use gyro controls for these levels instead of the touch controls. This actually works really well, much better than the normal controls do if you ask me, though stylus controls are an option if you want. With the gyro, you can quickly and accurately aim while being able to turn on a dime in order to dodge enemy projectiles and melee attacks. Once you remove every ninja clone, the real ninja goes away and another one or two will join the fray to repeat the process. These levels are much easier than the regular game, but I also had the most fun with them, so I kinda wish the whole game was like this!

To reiterate, the story takes place over three weeks and the first six days of the week have you alternating between Grace and Savannah and the final days have you facing off against the ninjas as the two work together. Despite the focus on story here, the cutscenes really don’t tell you much in a vacuum. Most of them are a few seconds long at best and they tend to just feature the heroines staring out into the distance in various environments. Sometimes you’ll see the scenesters up to their usual shenanigans and there’s a recurring thread about the ninjas trying to interfere and being related to Savannah in some way that never quite made sense, but taken piece by piece, there isn’t much to say. Before I starting writing this post, I was ready to say something like “it’s strange that they went through the effort of hiring and digitizing actors when the cutscenes are so short and repetitive”, but I had a change of heart and now appreciate what (I think) they were trying to go for. I see Tokyo Crash Mobs as a game about learning to face reality. At first, it seems like a jolly old time being able to get your way and clear crowds by making people vanish. But with time, repetition sets in and you end up feeling hollow and empty. You can keep up the façade for a little while, but eventually, you’ll realize that nothing will ever truly change unless you wake up from your delusions. What was once a joyous novelty is now the weekly grind, no different than a typical nine to five. Grace is the first to realize this, and through her assistance, Savannah eventually presses the button herself, which I see as her realizing the lesson as well. I never really figured out what was up with the ninjas and if they were anything more than a bit of wacky randomness, but hey, some things are better left as a mystery, I suppose. The game is perfectly paced to match the story as well – by the time I was getting tired of the game, it ended exactly when my feelings were beginning to echo that of the protagonists. I was ready to wake up and return to reality. I’d be curious to see other takes on this story, since it’s an interesting one and one that can easily be interpreted in multiple ways like a good artistic indie film.

Tokyo Crash Mobs is the kind of game that’s emblematic of Nintendo’s digital download services. It’s a small, bizarre, yet charming experiment that you rarely find elsewhere nowadays, especially from a company as safe as Nintendo is. It clearly wasn’t a high budget production and it suffers from steep difficulty and unreliable controls, but it’s the kind of game that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. I was honestly kind of fed up with its gameplay even before the end and that bug I kept encountering only made things worse, but because of how it all comes together, I find that it remains steadfast in my memory. Its story is one that I’m still thinking about just because of how difficult to parse it is and I can’t help but ruminate on some of the game’s bizarre choices elsewhere. There’s an entire mode called the “Memory Maze” dedicated to re-watching the game’s cutscenes (with a few new ones in there and a weirdly intense music track backing the whole thing), but they’re arranged in a series of branching paths that has them all out of order! You can try every path to see them all and get 100% completion, but doing so doesn’t do anything! There’s practically zero reason to ever use this mode considering you can just replay the stages in Story mode to see the cutscenes in order, but they still went for whatever this mode was supposed to be and I can’t help but respect that. I hope there comes a time where people dig deeper into the 3DS eShop because there’s likely more interesting oddities like this lying in wait for a properly curious person to come find them. Free from the shackles of typical corporation and gamer expectations of flashy graphics and mechanics designed purely for player retention, development teams of all shapes and sizes can really work some fascinating magic. Who knows where Mitchell Corporation will take Puzz Loop next, but I sure hope they direction they choose is just as inspired as this game was.

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