Nintendo has finally gotten into the downloadable content business with
WiiWare, which made its debut in Japan a few weeks ago and will be
hitting consoles in America today. That first Japanese wave included
all Japanese games… except one: Epicenter Studio’s Saku Saku Animal
, now known in the US as Critter Round-Up. Being the only American
game in the Japanese launch was a pretty great honor, but even better
is being called the best game in the launch by numerous gaming

moment of disclosure here: I have known Nathaniel McClure, the
co-founder of Epicenter Studios, for years. I first met him when he was
in college and was friends with my brother; they moved out here to LA a
bunch of years ago and fell into the world of video games. Than ended
up working on the Call of Duty series for quite some time, gaining
himself a serious reputation in the industry. As Call of Duty 4 was
getting off the ground, though, he realized that he was busting his
ass, working 80+ hour weeks for megabuck franchises where he saw almost
none of the profits. He called up his friend Brian Jury, another long
time video game insider who was working at Collision Studios, and
convinced him that the time had come to jump ship and start working for

The two started off pitching a
Wii game called Real Heroes: Firefighter, the told me when I visited their brand-new
Sherman Oaks digs last week. While making the rounds pitching that
game, they met with Konami and one thing led to another and they ended
up being the developers of one of the WiiWare launch titles. The
problem was that time was tight – the game needed to be delivered in a
breakneck three months. A small studio, Epicenter stepped up to the
challenge and delivered a game that’s curiously addicting and
surprisingly filled with many levels of game play.

a lunch with Than, Brian and lead designer Tony Dormanesh, I sat down
to play the game. The premise is simple – you’re a guy who has a pen
filled with animals. You have to build fences to keep the different
animal types separated. This is fairly easy at first, as you’re in a
barn yard, but as the game progresses you move to more exotic locales
with more aggressive animals. Trying to build a fence around a group of
monkeys – who will throw their shit at you – while being chased by a
hungry lion is not as easy as you might think.

graphics of Critter Round-Up are simple and blocky, calling to mind
woodcut puzzles for little kids. That cartoony aesthetic hides some
complex gameplay, though. The predator animals will eat prey animals.
Power ups – ranging from meat to entice carnivores to a clock to slow
down time – can change the balance of power. Chickens can lay eggs,
making more animals for you to round up. Elephants can charge through
your fences and prairie dogs can slip out through holes in the ground.
The good news about predators is that once they eat an animal they’ll
be temporarily sated, giving you a chance to get by them. The game is
billed as ‘action/puzzle’ and I think that’s a perfect description –
you’re constantly looking for the best ways to pen up the animals (the
more animals you get into the same fence, the better your score), but
there’s so much randomization and so many deadly animals wandering
around that you’re just as often taking evasive action as you are
planning ahead. And that random element means you’ll never approach a
level the same way twice.

I played
single player for a little while, and was sort of annoyed when Than
said it was time to try multiplayer – because I as having so much fun. There’s
a co-op mode, where four players can work together to fence in critters
(although I would think that having four people in there, along with
all of those animals, would get tight), but the game really sings in
the versus modes, of which there are four. One hilarious mode will be
familiar to fans of Tron, except instead of creating walls of light,
you’re leaving behind fences. There’s a terrific soccer game played
with snowballs, and there’s a game where you’re chasing chickens. But
to me (and I’m a guy who opts for Deathmatch on Grand Theft Auto IV
multiplayer) the crowning jewel of the versus modes is a game where you
and your opponents are trapped in a pen with a bunch of predators.
Whoever lasts longest wins, and you can trip each other up, hopefully
delivering your friend into the mouth of a hungry crocodile.

The depth of gameplay in the game is sort of astonishing: there are 50
levels for single player, there are the four multiplayer versus modes,
25 levels of multiplayer co-op AND an infinite mode that randomly
generates levels forever and forever – or as long as you can last. All
for 1000 Wii Points, or about ten bucks. To me Critter Round-Up simply
plays like a scaled down version of what would be a great Wii title on
its own. If there’s any game worth your Wii Points today, the WiiWare
US launch date, it’s got to be Critter Round-Up.

Meanwhile Epicenter Studios is looking to the future. They have
Firefighter in development (just think about how a firefighting game
can perfectly integrate the Wii controller. Brian explained to me that
what they want to do is take advantage of the Wii’s controller, not
abuse it. In Critter Round-Up, for example, you use the controller like
an old fashioned D-pad, except when you want to knock down a fence you
created – you shake the controller to do that. Epicenter isn’t into
making waggle-fests), and they have another WiiWare title in the pipe,
the rhythm game Crescendo. If these games are half as fun as Critter
, they could be the next video game success story.