With Christmas approaching, parents everywhere are being hassled for the latest heavily marketed must-have toys – and the games industry, like the toy industry, is in there vying for your cash. The run up to the festive season always sees an explosion of child-friendly titles, many of which are tie-ins to familiar movies and cartoons, and so will be irresistible to our quaintly impressionable offspring.
Buy are any cartoon games any good? Usually, it has to be said, children's titles are not much cop – and those based on TV series' tend to be the absolute worst. They're often bashed out by small studios on tight budgets in a fraction of the time major releases will demand – and there seems to be a general consensus that, 'oh, who cares? It's just for kids. They won't know the difference.' And while I know from first-hand experience that there's some truth to this (my two sons played the scrappily jumbled together I Did It Mum titles for months), I wish publishers would invest a bit more time, effort and cash into these things.
After all, I come from a generation that grew up with video games based on cartoons based on toys – I loved the Transformers, MASK and Zoids, and I'm more than happy to watch animated trash on TV with my kids, then try the games. I'm already indoctrinated, I get it. I'm not like my parents who wouldn't know one end of a Decepticon from another (although my dad was a keen gamer in later life, thanks to the fact that I asked for the likes of Leaderboard, Paradroid and Way of the Exploding Fist, rather than TV tie-ins). So when I buy kids' titles, I expect to get something out of them, because I play too.
And I'm not alone. The success of Nintendo's Wii games has shown that parents are willing to engage with family titles, as long as they're inclusive and solidly designed. This message doesn't seem to have reached the makers of movie and cartoon licenses. Here, it's still very much about knocking this stuff out as quickly as possible before the kids move on to their next advertising-guided obsession.
With this in mind, I grabbed a whole load of recently released cartoon games, sat down with my sons (Albie, who's three and Zac, who's five) and played through them. I stuck with DS games, as portability is quite handy at this time of year, thanks to endless driving around to see relatives. Also, I'm not sure how many young children have Sony PSPs…
Anyway, this is what we discovered…
I'll start off with the two related games from the Nickelodeon stable: Dora's Cooking Club and Diego's Build and Rescue. The former (2K Games, £34.99) is a big disappointment. I was expecting a child-friendly take on the Cooking Mama series, but this is essentially an incredibly repetitive counting game, lazily skinned as a cook-'em-up. On each of the four recipes, you need to carry out actions like chopping vegetables and stirring or folding your ingredients, but having to carry out each action dozens of times in a row quickly bored my three-year-old. There's no sense of actually learning the recipes or the cooking procedures involved, and repeating menial kitchen tasks while Dora shouts at you soon begins to feel like being made the most junior chef at the latest Gordon Ramsey eatery. Except Dora swears less.
Diego's Build and Rescue (2K Games, £34.99) is a tie in with Mega Bloks and suitably feels like a budget version of Lego Indiana Jones. The shouty animal lover must yell his way through a series of 2D platform environments, rescuing animals and returning them to their proper habitats. He can occasionally use Mega Bloks to build bridges and steps, while his backpack transforms into a pogo stick, parachute, spade or zip slide handle when the situation demands it. The graphics are bright and reasonably detailed and my sons really enjoyed the vehicle driving sections. However, the control system – which allows for both d-pad and touchscreen input – has some slapdash inconsistencies, and although there are a few alternate routes to discover, the whole thing lacks any sort of real care, attention or, lord forbid, depth. My sons haven't asked to play again – but this could be because we don't get the Nick Jr channel so they're not being bombarded by Diego messaging.
On to Thomas and Friends: Hero of the Rails (Barnstorm Games, £19.99), in which our cheeky tank engine discovers a rusty old train named Hiro on an unused section of track and vows to rebuild him. My sons have lost interested in the TV series – I suppose there are only so many times you can listen to the same heavy-handed moral message about not showing off, even if it is delivered by a range of passive aggressive railway vehicles. They were similarly unconvinced by this game, which features eight mini-challenges including giving Thomas a wash, racing along the tracks, playing snap and shunting trucks, all of which are awkwardly and unconvincingly wedged into a short story mode. Wise players can, however, chose to skip the story and just select the mini-games.
My sons were disappointed that they didn't get to direct Thomas around a track like they can on the website, and weren't really that interested in painting or washing him. The set-up is similar to the Peppa Pig DS games, but totally bereft of humour, style or visual appeal. It's definitely one for absolute Thomas apologists, and even they will be disappointed they don't get to interact with any of the trains or locations in any meaningful way.
Toy Story 3: The Video Game (Disney, £29.99) has a similar structure – a narrative adventure interspersed with mini-games – but it's a much more polished and cohesive experience. The main story mode follows the plot of the movie with Woody and co desperately trying to get back into Andy's affections before heading out on their prison escape drama. The main game sections work as 3D platformers allowing you to explore environments, gather useful objects and pick up tokens that can be used to unlock goodies. We get a convincing if highly simplified take on the Toy Story world, and the locations are fun to explore. The mini-games are hit and miss: the decent Tower Defence clone is fine, but my sons just couldn't get the hang of Buzz's space shoot-'em-up sequences which require deft and simultaneous use of the stylus and d-pad – a bit much more the under-sixes.
It's not a particularly long game, but all the areas become accessible through a series of game modes in the intro section so there's some replay value. It would have been great to see a few more extras – collectible character cards, for example – but this is definitely one of the better Pixar titles. (And judging by the overt anti-gaming message in Toy Story 2 I always assumed they made them crap on purpose.)
Batman: The Brave and the Bold (Warner, £29.99), based on the latest animated TV incarnation of the super hero, is also rather good, though. It's another 2D platformer, this time pitting Batman against a series of classic villains hiding out in a range of locations from space stations to dinosaur infested jungles and the streets of London. Each stage is intricately drawn and filled with staple old skool genre elements like moving platforms, disintegrating platforms and pixel-perfect leaps across deep chasms. Batman unlocks a range of weapons and items as he progresses, and gets a different helper on each stage who can be tag-teamed in when necessary.
It's not particularly imaginative, but it's slickly crafted and relatively challenging – too challenging, in fact, for my five-year-old who was continually having to hand it over to me for some of the more demanding sections. The end-of-level boss battles are particularly tough at times, with some multi-stage fights that take a while to work out. Definitely worth a look, this is one for slightly older children who love the animated series or who have already leapt their way through superior platforming fare like New Super Mario Bros.
Finally, The Penguins of Madagascar (THQ, £24.99) is really quite a nice little 3D puzzle adventure, in which players guide the four military-minded birds through a series of short missions, pulling levers, leaping chasms and collecting ice creams. Each of the characters has their own skills, so Kowalski can build contraptions to access new areas, while Private can crawl through tunnels and Rico can blow things up; the challenge is in working out how to employ these to reach the end point of each stage.
It's all neatly designed and clearly sign-posted, and the 3D visuals are simple, but fine. Plus, the missions do actually become quite complex later on, demanding some logic deduction and sequential planning. As they progress, players are able to trade in the ice creams they've collected to open up mini-games and challenges, and all the characters repeat little phrases from the Madagascar films (and spin-off cartoon series) which amused my boys. I actually found myself taking this on the train to Brighton last week, which is a good sign. Possibly my favourite of the bunch.
So, there you go. I think out of all of those, only the ones aimed at older children – Toy Story, Batman and Penguins – were any good. The good thing is, most of these are already heavily discounted online and can be picked up for less than a tenner. If that buys you a few hours of peace after an extravagant Christmas dinner, it's probably money well spent.
Do you have any favourite DS children's titles? Let us know in the comments section.
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