THQ's second kick at wrestling on the DS is unquestionably an improvement over their first title. Thanks to graphics that could easily be mistaken for something you'd find on the Wii (and perhaps at the appropriate angle, the PS2), a bevy of different mechanics that show off some of the DS's more unique capabilities, and a fine selection of both wrestlers and matches to choose from, WWE: Smackdown vs Raw 2009 is a title that looks and feels like it belongs alongside its console contemporaries. That is, unless you take into account the unnecessary, overly-complex control scheme that you are subject to on the DS. Outside of this rather noticeable hiccup and some other gameplay faux pas, SvR 2009 on the DS does provide a fine alternative to gamers whose portable gaming allegiance lies with Nintendo over Sony.
While the PSP version of SvR 2009 has twice as many wrestlers (and the inclusion of divas), twice as many match types, double the career modes, unlockable content and a generic create-a-finisher option to its credit, what you get on the DS is still pretty substantial. But it's the original quirks that really distinguish this title as far more than a doppelganger to its next-gen equivalents.
The quirks in question centre on the control scheme that is the bread and butter of the gameplay for SvR 2009. Matches are slow-paced, somewhat methodical and could loosely be considered homage to the wrestling titles that were prominent on the N64 nearly a decade ago. Trust in your stylus is imperative if you want to experience any success in this game. What THQ offers as a control scheme both works and fails for different reasons. Since this is a title that puts an enormous emphasis on stylus control, it might be better to address where this control scheme fails before singling out its praises. (suggestion: "before" already implies you'll do it first.)
Regardless of the match type you choose, the actual wrestling varies little. The most basic of attacks are done by tapping the touch screen along with any directional button. Often enough your computerized grappler will respond with each tap, but range is important. Tapping wildly not only makes you look foolish, but makes it that much easier for the computer to telegraph your movements and counter in kind. Grappling is done by drawing concentric circles either once for a weak grapple, or twice for a strong grapple. Throw in a direction and you have a few moves at your disposal to mix things up. While striking proves to be effective most of the time, grappling, however, is not. Once again, being within range matters, but unlike with strikes, there seems to be a considerable amount of imbalance between your grapples and the AI's. For starters, regardless of whether you successfully initiate a grapple or not, the computer seems capable of adjusting on the fly. From there, the computer will either grapple you first (and for the AI, the grapple movement is so fluid that you cannot counterattack regardless), or they will stop you in your tracks with a well placed strike or running strike (the latter movement not seeming to require any build-up on the CPUs part). Meanwhile, your running attacks can be spotted a mile away, allowing the computer to minimize the damage and respond accordingly.
Since strikes and grapples make up the majority of the gameplay, these little deficiencies are really just the beginning of what makes the control scheme so impractical. The computer is also quite adept at performing an Irish Whip--which, based on the otherwise well-done tutorial, seems easy to execute, but is quite the opposite in an actual match. Performing grapples from behind results in yet more of the telegraphed movements that do not handicap the computer. If the computer picks you up off the mat, you can either rub the stylus like crazy to snap out of your virtual paralysis, or accept being at their mercy. Either way, if it wasn't for some inconsistent AI, it would seem woefully unfair that the computer can string together attacks more consistently and fluidly than you can.
Wrestling with the stylus does feel restrictive when taking into consideration that the DS has 6 buttons it could utilize, but there are a few innovative turns that show off the finer features of the hardware. (suggestion: anything but saying "features" twice would make the sentence less redundant.) Using the stylus for submission holds and pinning are prime examples. The former has you either moving a silhouette around the screen or having you tap certain parts of that figure depending on whether you are initiating the attack or are the recipient. Kicking out of a pin is achieved by tapping the numbers on the screen before the 3-count.
The stylus control also shines in some of the specialty matches, as in the steel cage, where you tap the screen to get your wrestler to climb up the cage as fast as possible. In a table match, you first need to set up the table, then tap the screen to weaken your opponent with a flurry of punches, and then slide the stylus up and down to toss your hapless victim onto the wood. The implementation of the stylus in the specialty matches overall is nicely done, but not so for all matches. The ladder match requires you to punch your opponent off the ladder via tapping the screen, after which you have mere seconds to touch any of the 10 studs on a belt. The combined factors against your success--the small size of the studs, the fact that the belt swings (which makes the timing of when you send your opponent to the canvas much more of a calculation), and the fact that the opponent quickly recovers and joins you back on the ladder--makes this one match that could drag on much longer than necessary.
While the specialty matches are nice diversions from the main game, the career mode for SvR on the DS is significantly different then the other consoles. The experience is a mixed bag when one takes into consideration the tedium of the wrestling aspect. However, what you can do outside of stepping into the squared circle keeps the mode from being a complete letdown. Your wrestler has a swanky home in which you can choose to do a number of things, such as check out your personal records, sleep, or even shop. The shopping option provides you with items that can boost your attributes and reduce your fatigue. Once you leave your humble abode, you can go to one of three other venues: the Arena, the WWE headquarters, or the Gym. Each facility serves a purpose, but the gym provides gamers with the strongest incentive to keep playing.
In the gym you have the choice of playing one of three training minigames, which would be wise, since they level up different parts of the body and, in turn, increase the amount of damage your limbs can take in the ring. Each mini-game is simple to play through and fun enough to make the process less of a chore. Whether you are blowing into the microphone to perform squats, following a small square along the screen while doing dumbbell shrugs, or sliding up tabs to simulate a bench press, each game provides the most frantic action experience the game has to offer.
Getting back to the actual wrestling, the object of the career mode is to build up your popularity, beat up wrestlers, win matches, and eventually win championships--nothing more and nothing less. Depending on what brand you pick, this process can lose its appeal quickly. Case in point, the ECW brand has only 6 wrestlers. So if you enjoy multiple encounters with the likes of Tommy Dreamer and Elijah Burke, then look no further. Seeing as the other brands have twice as many wrestlers, these might prove more exciting for some, but the goals remain the same regardless of your brand . Throughout your journey, you can talk to any of the wrestlers who happen to be just aimlessly standing around, like the top-tier guys who will basically not acknowledge your existence. As you build up momentum and popularity, though, the mid-carders will start calling you out. These dialogue exchanges are practically meaningless and nowhere near as well done as the other SvR titles, but at least the wrestlers look oh-so-pretty.
Do not be surprised that the biggest selling point for SvR 2009 on the DS is its graphics. Considering the wrestlers looked decent a year ago, THQ has done a formidable job of making the wrestlers look as nice as they do on the other portable and the next gen-systems. Naturally, these graphics don't compare side-to-side with the others, but considering the capabilities of the other systems, the DS version looks like it pushed its graphical considerations to the limits and it pays off. The entrances, venues, and arenas also look fantastic. Throw in some near-perfect audio-quality for the wrestler's themes and some generic-but-non-threatening tunes throughout, and you've got an aesthetically pleasing package.
Sure, the other SvR games have a Create-a-Finisher, two different career modes, an over-hyped overhaul of tag-team wrestling and an inferno match, but none of these games' Create-a-Wrestler is as solid as it is on the DS. Simply put, the CAW doesn't overwhelm you with hundreds of different eyebrows, lips, and clothing styles, but it does allow you the freedom to put on or take off as much as you want. Why the CAW in the other titles has to restrict you with layers is really beyond inexcusable. They may offer more selection, but your finished product will look similar regardless of which system you are playing on. The only downside for the DS's CAW is that it allows you a mere two character-saves.
All in all, Smackdown vs RAW 2009 looks great, has more than enough game modes to keep the average wrestling gamer busy, and does in some instances make excellent use of the DS's technology. However, the fact that this game is a wrestling title, and the actual wrestling is flawed because of a sensitive, unresponsive control scheme drags down the game like a Vince McMahon promo on an otherwise fine episode of WWE programming. Had there been another option such as using those handy buttons with the letters on them, it would have not only provided a more diverse control scheme, but also a more serviceable one as well. The SvR series on the DS has some fine things going for it, but perhaps a trip back to the drawing board for next year's game would result in something truly spectacular.