Tossing out trash in Japan is damn difficult. Well, the actual physical act of tossing the trash into the waste bin isn’t so bad – it’s the almanac of information that you need to have studied before the tossing that makes things a real pain in the ass. Yeah, there’s the usual separating out of recyclables and whatnot – that’s doable. But then there are such daunting questions to consider as: is this the one day of the month you can actually throw out that particular piece of garbage – and why the hell do green, beige and clear-colored glass bottles all need to be separated into different containers? If a constant barrage of questions like those doesn’t make your head explode, then consider this lovely fact: every single piece of non-burnable trash (from candy bar wrappers to bento containers) that you toss must be hand washed – and dried – before dropped into that non-burnable waste bin … good fun!
Clearly the Japanese have a fiendish desire to keep everything related to trash disposal as frustrating and complicated as possible, so I was hardly surprised to find Sony’s new garbage disposal puzzler on PSN to be one of the most teeth-gnashingly aggravating games I’ve ever played in my life. Named Gomibako (which translates to “trash can”) in Japan – or Trash Panic everywhere else – this game is bolstered by a strikingly interesting gameplay idea, but is undercut by frustratingly cheap difficulty and a dozen other niggling flaws.
One’s first impression of Trash Panic isn’t likely to be a good one. Upon first booting up the game you are greeted with a one-two sucker punch of a poorly designed menu layout and some absolutely horrific title music. Ten elementary kids marching around my living room whilst smacking cymbals together and singing “It’s a Small World” off-key would have pretty much the same effect on my sanity as listening to the game’s title music for longer than fifteen seconds. After finding and pressing the TV’s mute button and selecting one of the game’s oddly named difficulty settings (Main Dish for “normal” and Sweets for “easy” – what is this, a cooking game?), you are whisked away to the game proper – and to a surprisingly innovative puzzle game experience.
Trash Panic’s core gameplay mechanics are quite simple. You are fed objects one at a time (like in Tetris and countless other puzzle games) and must use them effectively in the playing field to earn as many points as humanly possible. Where the game earns points for innovation is in clever use of its garbage disposal theme. You see, instead of piling up 2D shapes or multicolored gems like in more traditional puzzle titles, Trash Panic has you dropping highly detailed pieces of garbage into a three dimensional trash can. The trick is, each object you drop into the trash can has its own weight and density, and you are required to fling the incoming trash down upon other pieces with the hopes of breaking both pieces into smaller bits. The ultimate goal is to fit all of the trash given to you into the limited space of your little trash can – if three pieces accidentally fall out, it’s game over. All this flinging and breaking is powered by the always versatile Havok physics engine, so the manner in which bits of broken garbage trickle down into the trash can is quite realistic and always different each time you play.
The randomness introduced by the complex physics system ends up being a double-edged sword, however. Yes, it can be addictive trying to get everything to sit just the way you want it to, but the game’s ridiculously stiff difficulty – and the linear way in which you are forced to clear every level – leaves very little room for error, and this imprecise shifting and jostling can be absolutely infuriating. Now, I tread a bit carefully here, because I understand that what’s challenging for me may be par for the course for someone else, but please do consider that I’ve completed such games as Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox (multiple times on the hardest difficulty) and Viewtiful Joe for the GameCube, and don’t consider either of those titles to be even close to as maddeningly difficult as Trash Panic.
Sony has recently announced that Gomibako will be named Trash Panic in North America and Europe.
Naturally, just because a game is challenging doesn’t means it’s bad, but many of the ways Trash Panic’s developers ratcheted up the difficulty are just plain cheap. For example, in the Main Mode (a series of six, progressively more difficult stages that you must complete to beat the game) you are not allowed to save your progress. So, if you clear the first five levels (which can literally take five or six hours on the “normal” difficulty), but can’t quite clear the last one, next time you boot up the game you’ll have to start over from scratch. Now, when I’m playing a game that has been downloaded in full to my PS3’s hard drive, the option of saving progress to that very same hard drive doesn’t seem like too much to ask – especially considering that the ability to save has been a standard feature in most games since … well … about 19-freaking-86.
Even without this artificial boost in difficulty, the game would still be one tough cookie to beat. The later stages have you filling up your trash can with water and oil, setting garbage ablaze, stringing together “Rot Chains” (done by dropping blobs of trash-eating bacteria into your waste bin) and monitoring the temperature and carbon dioxide levels of burning refuse. There really is a lot to think about, and while all the micromanaging is engrossing, things do become overly complex near the end. The scoring system also becomes more and more confusing and cryptic the further you get in the Main Mode, and one really gets the feeling that the game would have been better off if the developers hadn’t tacked on so many superfluous features to the title’s strong, central gameplay mechanics. Trash Panic is definitely at its best during the very first level, when it’s just you, your trash can, and a steady stream of garbage to worry about.
Trash Panic is a very tough game to review. I’ve spent over twenty-four hours playing it, mostly due to my masochistic desire to be one of the few people on the planet to have beaten the game on Hell – the hardest difficulty (yes, according to the game’s leaderboards, only one person has completed the last stage on Hell). About half of the time I’m playing the game, I’m having a good time, and the other half I’m darkly brooding about stringing up each of the game’s developers by their big toes and slapping them repeatedly in the faces with a giant mackerel. The game is fairly expensive for a PSN title at 1500 yen (or about $15 US dollars), and that, combined with the ridiculously tough difficulty, makes it really hard to recommend. I suppose if you are absolutely dying to pick up a new puzzle game and have some extra money to spend, you could do worse. Just remember, after failing to clear Stage Five for the hundredth time in a row, be sure to throw your PS3 controller at something soft (and not your cat).