Back in the olden days, when dinosaurs (such as Godzilla) roamed the theaters, “movie merchandising” was largely limited to a comic book and, maybe, a lunchbox.
Today’s average movie mogul would sooner play in a lion’s pen than release a movie, particularly one for younger viewers, without spraying its brand upon every conceivable form of media. And a blockbuster just isn’t a blockbuster unless it has its own tie-in game.
Movie tie-in games have developed a reputation as pasture patties, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re usually rushed productions that need to go through a protracted approval process while also meeting a strict release deadline. The result can be glitchy, incomplete and bland.
Despite all this, we’ve been treated to a string of above-average examples of a much-maligned subgenre. They are rarely the pinnacle of the game designer’s art, but they allow gamers to enter the movie or become the main character — and that makes up for some other failings.
Originality Is Optional
It makes sense, then, that movie adaptations are graded on a curve. And who among us C-students does not cherish the grading curve?
A video game spun off the movie Wall-E, for instance, does not have to be a blazing triumph of originality and gameplay design. We’re just hoping for a pleasing game for the 7-to-11-year-old demographic. The action should allow them to play as the cute little robot, explore the environments from the movie in a little more depth and face some benign challenges.
And you know what? That’s what the team at Heavy Iron Studios (specialists in tie-ins) have given us in their multi-platform Wall-E game. It captures some of the film’s charms as it allows us to take control of the adventures of Wall-E, and eventually Eve, from the planet surface and into space.
Much of the game is a standard puzzle-based obstacle course. You navigate the levels and use different kinds of garbage cubes to flip switches that open up new areas. Many of the flaws common to rushed games are in evidence, from graphical glitches to frustrating camera angles, but they don’t have a serious impact on the overall enjoyment, particularly for a young Wall-E fan who just wants to toss garbage cubes at targets and fire Eve’s blaster.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian game, on the other hand, has a bit more polish, partly because it builds on the previous Narnia game, and partly because it’s created by Traveler’s Tales, the inimitable team behind the hit Lego games.
Prince Caspian is a simple multi-character combat game with some puzzles added to the mix to make things interesting. The fun begins with a sequence that fills in the 1,300-year gap since the Pevensies left Narnia, then picks up with a fairly linear jog through the storyline, complete with clips from the movie itself.
The combat in the game is incessant but tame, in keeping with the tone of the film.
The recent superhero renaissance not only gave us two excellent movies with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but a pair of very good games featuring the characters. Both are bolstered by the voice acting of the movie cast, with Robert Downey Jr., Ed Norton and others reprising their roles for the game.
Iron Man: The Video Game is the lesser of the two. The recreation of Tony Stark’s various Iron Man suits is top-notch, with custom options, remarkable controls and a solid sense of their flight and weapons capabilities. The ability to wield Iron Man’s powers largely compensates for the game’s lackluster, and often repetitive, level design. The game is bloodless, but contains a bit of salty language.
The Incredible Hulk: The Official Video Game has a more open-ended design, clearly influenced by the last couple of Spider-Man games, which were themselves influenced by the “open city” design of the Grand Theft Auto series.
Everyone’s favorite Gamma-American lands smack in the middle of a compressed recreation of New York City, and tries to see if he can become more angry than a New Yorker in rush hour. Hulk can travel the city at will in huge bounding leaps, following the threads of several different major and minor storylines or simply wreaking havoc.
The execution is wonderful, but parents should be warned that Hulk is one of the most flat-out aggressive games on the market, as one would expect from the character. It’s utterly bloodless — vanquished foes simply disappear; civilians always get up and walk away no matter how much Hulk beats them — but the unrestrained aggression on display can be a bit much.
Hulk can literally smash New York City to pieces, and is encouraged to do so in order to collect various rewards. It’s undeniably fun and presented with a comic-book absurdity, but it’s not for all kids.
And the list could go on. Go ahead and assume that any major movie (particularly movies for kids) will have its own games spread across every platform. Some will be good, most will be forgettable.
One game based on the movie Kung Fu Panda, for instance, is actually a great deal of fun for younger players, while the Happy Feet game simply makes them cry.
Just remember: The curve is in effect.
Thomas L. McDonald is
editor-at-large of Games magazine and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
CONTENT ADVISORY Wall-E: Mild cartoon violence. Prince Caspian: Non-graphic combat action. Iron Man: Some rough language, PG-level violence (including a bit of blood). The Incredible Hulk: Some rough language. Civilians cannot be hurt, but rampant destruction is a key gameplay element.