[14 December 2011]
The speed of a platformer doesn’t tend to be its defining trait. Despite the emphasis on speed in a couple of the best 2D platformers (Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Meat Boy), the modern platformer tends to be more about exploration than pure running and jumping. Ultimately, getting from point A to point B is the goal, but there are things to do along the way. The developer might add puzzles, collectibles, or even the occasional Easter egg to the nooks and crannies of a level’s layout just to get the player to take a look in places that otherwise might seem extraneous or distracting. Current-gen 3D platformers are about taking in the scenery, enjoying the view, and getting every ounce of gameplay possible out of the experience.
Still, a game like Happy Feet Two does present a study in the importance of speed, unfortunately demonstrated by its lack thereof.
Mumble might just be the least mobile platforming star of all time. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise given that he’s a penguin, albeit a dancing one. He ambles along from place to place in no particular hurry to get wherever he’s going (even when he’s looking for his lost son, as in the first act of the game!), stopping often to randomly dance around. There is instant dissonance in that first act, as the cutscenes (rendered in high-definition storybook stills, a jarringly lo-fi presentation choice for a game based on an animated movie) show us a Mumble frantic to find his boy, while the playing sequences show him in no particular hurry to get wherever he is going. The levels are not by any means large, but Mumble’s slow pace means that they can take enough time for the quickly-tiresome background music to loop five or six times, slowly burrowing a hole in the player’s brain with the power of sugary-sweet melodies and good vibrations alone.
While no player in their right mind could or should hope that Mumble would run like Sonic, a player ready to explore the environment of a platformer level should at least be allowed to move at a pace that feels like progress is being made.
Making the problem even worse is that important bits can be missed; in later levels, important things will be missed. You will have to backtrack, and knowing how long backtracking is going to take makes the very idea of doing that excruciating. You know what else Happy Feet Two has? Collectibles that, get this, you can’t see. In order to collect all of the “vibe” collectibles, you quite literally have to walk over every inch of the level that you’re playing until you feel a nearly imperceptible vibration in the controller. Once you feel that “vibe”, you have to dance in place (by holding down a single button) for a full eight to ten seconds, until an explosion of notes (the game’s more common collectible) appears. There are three of these in every standard adventuring level. It is near impossible to imagine the sort of masochist willing to hunt down and collect them all, given that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 levels in the game.
The game tries to combat this perceived lack of speed by interspersing occasional “race” levels throughout the game, tunnel-based racing sequences that feature touchy controls and lots of ramps. They’re pleasant enough diversions, and they don’t last long enough to get tiresome, but they’re over so fast, and they usually lead right back into more walking around and dancing in place. A little impromptu focus testing (read: my kids) confirmed what I suspected: while the appeal of walking, talking, dancing penguins is great, the slow pace means that the kids don’t stay interested for more than ten minutes. They’d rather go back to Just Dance or Lego Harry Potter or Kinect Sports, games that keep them engaged on a level that goes beyond slowly walking from point A to point B.
There are some decent ideas here—collecting notes “levels up” the background music, turning it from a beat to a full-fledged instrumental track to a vocals-laden pop song, giving the game’s most common collectibles a tangible effect on the game. The rhythmic mini-games that pop up every so often are fun in a Parappa-for-toddlers kind of way, and a fully-featured penguin belly-racing game might actually make for a fun Xbox Live Arcade game. It looks pretty (if awfully white and blue given the Antarctic setting), and the music is lively and fun, at least for the first two loops of any given level. You can even play it in 3D, if you have one of those newfangled TVs or a pair of red and blue glasses laying around.
The point is that not all of Happy Feet Two is bad. Much of it actually seems well thought out, and many of the ideas are interesting, if not all that exciting. Still, the decision to make the game a slowly-paced slog is the one that stands out above all others, utterly defining and ultimately dooming the game to the graveyard of movie games that don’t even come close to the quality of the movies that they’re based on.