Kids' Video Games With Current Movie Tie-Ins

Isthmus | December 3, 2004
Parents are easy touches, and movie and game makers know it.

Every year, in addition to the crop of kid-targeted films designed to lure parents into theaters like lemmings in search of a buttered popcorn fix, there?s an inevitable crop of computer and video games based on those films. The logic is almost ridiculously transparent: The kids had so much fun in the theater, of course you?ll want to re-create the same experience for them in the den. Et voilĂ ! Built-in buying audience.

This logic, of course, has a single, glaring flaw: All too frequently, games based on movies are cobbled-together affairs designed only to cash in on the movie?s appeal. Sometimes, games based on movies suck.

And sometimes they don?t. As this year?s set of straight-to-the-disc-drive specials proves, movie games are a very mixed box of Jujubes.

The Incredibles (THQ/Heavy Iron Studios) is the animated event of the year, representing yet another bar raised for the kings of modern computer-assisted animation, Pixar Studios. The movie is so amazing that the game based on the movie feels...disappointing. What should have been an incredible, you?re-in-the-film experience feels only, well, credible.

At heart, The Incredibles is a straight-up exercise in basic third-person action. Eighteen missions put you in control of one of the members of the Incredibles family at a time. (Disappointingly, you never get to play Frozone, although he does make multiple cameos, and Samuel L. Jackson provides narration.) On rooftops, in the streets and even on Nomanisan Island, the family beats down faceless henchmen, robots and silly villains like Bomb Voyage and, of course, Syndrome. Each character has familiar punch and jump abilities, as well as several chargeable Incredi-moves (Mr. Incredible?s super-punch or Violet?s force-field ball). The missions featuring Elastigirl tend to be the most entertaining -- her Incredi-moves allows her to bounce around the game environment like a rubber ball, and she grabs and throws thugs like an octopus on a caffeine bender.

There are plenty of momentary thrills. Mr. Incredible can pummel multiple goons at once, and Dash blurs past obstacles at satisfying speed, but the thrills never dispel the game?s disappointing sense of sameness. Clips from the film segue disjointedly into computerized cut-scenes, leaving little sense that you?re progressing toward anything meaningful -- except the next hot spot that will trigger the next wave of bad guys. As Mr. Incredible sighs more than once during his set of missions, why does it have to be so hard?

Unlike The Incredibles, Pixar?s would-be summer blockbuster Shark Tale (Activision/Know Wonder) was a rare miss, a stale soufflé of star voice talent and pop-culture references that ended up sleeping with the fishes. The game, by contrast, is brisk, entertaining, and a textbook example of the way kids? games ought to be constructed.

You play, naturally, as Oscar, a fast-talking fish with a host of personal and financial problems -- not the least of which is the fact that the world thinks he?s killed a shark that was accidentally offed by a falling anchor. Plot-wise, Shark Tale is about unraveling Oscar?s crises. In practice, it?s about a series of easy, yet fun-to-play mini-games. Tasks range from racing through sewers to guiding Oscar through an obstacle course while a giant shark tries to make him an appetizer. In other sequences, you?ll control Oscar as he shows off his, uh, dance moves to the beat of tunes like Young MC?s ?Bust a Move.? (You see? There are advantages to cross-promotion.)

The presentation is downright fin-tastic. You?re free to swim around several colorful, intricately designed underwater locales, including a fully realized city, and there?s an almost perfect balance between game sequences and humorous cut-scenes. Pixar?s signature humor is also on full display. Anchor/reporter-fish Katie Current narrates much of the action, poking fun at our hero and network news conventions in the same fin-swipe. None of the name actors who lent their talents to the big screen lend it to the computer monitor (Will Smith, Renee Zellweger and Robert DeNiro are all MIA), but thanks to some great backup work by the stand-ins, you?ll be having too much fun to notice the difference.

Fear the girth! It?s astounding that it?s taken this long for SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon?s lovable but intellectually challenged porifora, to make his big-screen debut. The upside is that the game based on The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (THQ/Iron Steam Studios) is, like the TV show, the product of careful planning and well-executed design.

The plot of the game loosely tracks the plot of the movie: SpongeBob and his starfish pal Patrick bop from Bikini Bottom to beyond as they solve a mystery and exorcise some personal demons. Mr. Krabs stands accused of swiping King Neptune?s crown, and our hero, who?s steamed about being passed up for a promotion, has to wreak his vengeance and save the day.

The game play is fairly basic. Alternately controlling SpongeBob or Patrick, you?ll jump platforms, bounce around, and smash things while collecting ?manliness points? to level up to new and exciting abilities. There?s a nice amount of variety here, and the levels when Patrick and SpongeBob hop behind the wheel of the out-of-control Patty Wagon are a wild ride indeed. The whole package, from the loopy design of the underwater game world to the comments the characters make as they?re leaping between platforms is so silly, so spot-on, that it?s difficult to find even small fault. Unless you loathe SpongeBob (and who can loathe SpongeBob?) you and your young ?uns are going to be charmed silly.

There?s only one real bummer: For an animated game based on an animated film, there?s a surprising lack of actual in-game footage from the film itself. The closest we get here is stills -- kind of a disservice to Nickelodeon?s biggest new movie star.

Of all the movie-based games on the shelves this season, A Series of Unfortunate Events (Activison/Know Wonder) may be the hardest sell. As entertaining and imaginative as the Lemony Snicket books are, I struggle to fathom the allure of stepping into the Baudelaire brood?s beleaguered shoes. What?s the hook? Traipsing around Count Olaf?s spooky mansion while dodging all manner of thugs and odd creatures can?t compete with a digital trip to Hogwarts with Harry Potter. And although Jim Carrey is credited with providing voice talent to help carry the action, he sounds like he?s just phoning it in, and we?re left with a series of unfortunate puzzle sequences.

Actually, make that a session of Inventors 101. Fans of the books know that Violet, the middle Baudelaire, has a preternatural gift for invention. In the books, this makes her a great, brainy female protagonist; in the game, it?s annoying. Instead of hunting for a single key to open the door that segues to the next level, the game forces you, alternately controlling Klaus, Violet or Sunny, to search for several incongruous objects so that Violet can tie her hair back and create a wacky contraption that flips the out-of-reach lever. Talk about doing things the hard way. Why not just stand on a piece of furniture?

The game does have has its assets. The levels are beautifully detailed and designed, and kids may relish the chance to pummel Count Olaf and his girlfriends with an endless supply of rotten eggs (shot, naturally, from the lobber Violet has cobbled together). They?ll also probably enjoy controlling Sunny, the baby Baudelaire, even more. Her special ability is biting, and it?s a weirdly unsettling trip to watch her gnaw through various ropes and objects like some kind of Tasmanian gopher.

Thank God nonfictional children don?t have abilities like these.


Pick your platform, don?t sweat the rating

Each of the games reviewed in this article are available for multiple platforms (PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube), so whatever system cables are currently snarling your den or living room, you?re probably set. Another piece of good news: The Entertainment Software Review Board has rated each of these games ?E? for everyone. Aside from a few spooky environs in A Series of Unfortunate Events and the sequences in Shark Tale in which prowling barracudas pounce on Oscar, there?s nothing here that?s likely to give little ones the holiday heebie-jeebies.

-- A.R.C.


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
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