The DS version of SEGA’s Captain America: Super Soldier feels like it was an obligatory offering rather than anything the programmers really wanted to code. For the most part a brawly platformer, CA:SS has Cap punching, shielding, and jumping his way through Baron Zemo’s castle, which has been overtaken by HYDRA to further their research. Zemo isn’t too happy about this, so he’s willing to help Cap out despite the fact that the two would normally be at odds.
Along the way Cap will encounter other villains from his comic book history, like Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, Madame Hydra, Iron Cross, and a much more aggressive version of Armin Zola than we see in the feature film to which this game ties-in. The game takes place as a sort of side-story between the missions shown in the film, and there is little direct contact with the main enemy Red Skull, although he does make appearances.
Cap mostly gets by on his enhanced physical attributes; he runs faster, jumps higher, and hits harder than normal men. A lot of time will be spent fighting HYDRA stormtroopers in various forms, which mostly consists of mashing the A button until they stay down but you can mix it up with grapples (X button) and a few combo attacks. Cap’s only non-fist/kick weapon is of course his trademark vibranium shield, which can be tossed using the Y button or raised in defense using the R button (the control scheme is completely customizable, which was nice of them; I moved block to L). Raising the shield at just the right moment will reflect most projectiles back to their source, which is a vital skill in some areas of the game. Deflections and racking up large combos also fill up Cap’s spirit meter; at half full you can hit L to have Cap devastate everything on the screen with a shield-tossing fury, and when completely full you can temporarily supercharge Cap’s strength and really unload a pummeling. In my experience the shield spam attack was far more useful than Patriot mode, as enemies can really pile up on you later in the game as they start getting wise to Cap’s strategy. It is not uncommon for groups of enemies with shields (immune to your own shield throws), grenades, and guns mixing it up with elite brawlers and commanders enhancing their strength. In fact, the sheer amount of enemies that you have to wade through reaches obnoxious levels fairly often, which is just one of my problems with the game as health pickups are few and far between and it’s really easy to take quite a few hits, especially when ranged enemies come into play while you’re dealing with the melee mooks. There’s even one part late in the game that pits you against a horde of mixed enemies while you have to keep your pal Bucky from getting KO’d by them (and their grenades and guns…); that’s right, an escort brawl. And yes, it’s exactly as annoying as it sounds, but at least it only happens once — although mashing your way through the cut-scene that immediately precedes it will get old fast.
My main problem with the game, however, is the platforming. While this may not be a surprise to anyone familiar with my general gaming tastes, CA:SS makes it especially annoying. As mentioned, Cap jumps higher and moves faster than normal men, and can even wall jump if you push the correct direction. This results in flighty, erratic jumps that are difficult to land with precision on the often narrow platforms you have to hit. Further compounding the issue is the fact that Cap automatically grabs most ledges he comes near, which gets in the way more often than it helps. Also note that I said “most”; it almost always seems that he never grabs the ledges that you really want him to grab, although I’m sure this is intentional on the designers’ part (generally moving platforms can’t be grabbed). When the platforming takes place over pits of instant death, you can expect to be restarting the stage fairly often, which is just as frustrating today as it was 25 years ago. I actually had to resort to defying the laws of physics in order to progress through some stages; you see, if you throw your shield while jumping, Cap stops dead in mid-air to do so, after which he drops straight down (on to the platform I needed him to hit) — what kind of 8-bit logic is that? Some stages have invisible checkpoints, which also become invisible walls (literally; Cap will rebound off empty space) that prevent you from backtracking to find collectibles that you might have passed by, which are now gone forever.
To their credit, the designers tried to mix up the variety between stages, although this usually creates more problems than it solves. Certain areas are stealth missions that force Cap to disable/avoid cameras and sneak up on enemies with visible ranges of sight; said enemies have to be dispatched with stealth attacks (which is always ramming their skulls into the floor with a pro-wrestling DDT-style move) and never by, say, blasting them in the back of the head with your shield which is how Cap would normally accomplish such a task. Shield flinging is the only way to take out the cameras you’re allowed to disable directly, however, so it’s clearly not a noise issue. Either way, one screw up and you’re back to the last checkpoint/start of the level. As you might guess, this gets old fast. The other main type of stage is what I call “Robot Unicorn Attack mode”, which has Cap automatically running to the right avoiding enemy fire; all you can do here is jump and dash, avoiding or bashing through enemies while collecting medals for points and trying not to hit a wall or fall into a pit. Again, flighty jumps and awkward timing will result in total restarts more often than not, although these stages are usually brief enough to not be a huge issue.
Finally, the designers seemed to realize that they were working on a two-screened, touch-capable system fairly late in the process. Normally the bottom screen contains nothing but a vague enemy radar and an indication of how many collectibles (power-ups and POWs) are in a stage — without any indication of where the stage actually ends, mind. But at certain points you suddenly have to engage in a brief touch screen mini-game to perform a feat of strength. Presumably these are just replacing the traditional button mashing, but it can be awkward when you suddenly need to take your thumb off of the action buttons to either rub up and down really fast, spin in circles, or tap a quick three-button Elite Beat Agents sequence (that never changes in either placement or speed). I think I actually would have preferred the mashing, just because it would be less awkward.
All in all, Captain America: Super Soldier for the DS is, as might be expected, your typical licensed movie tie-in game. There are enough good ideas here to keep it from being utter trash, but just barely. Extra points go to getting most of the movie’s cast to do voice work (notably absent is Hugo Weaving, but Red Skull has a minor role in the game anyway) and the alternate costumes you can unlock by rescuing POWs that reference most of Cap’s designs over the years (and also include one for U.S. Agent). But in the end, I’m not really sure what the target audience for this game was meant to be. It’s way too hard for kids, and even adults will quickly grow frustrated with its shortcomings. Die-hard Captain America fans would be better off going with one of the home console versions, but as a weekend rental or something I guess it isn’t that bad of an experience overall.
Pros: Variety in stages keeps things fresh…ish.
Cons: Reeks of being obligatory lip-service to the DS’s crazy-huge install base.