Monsters vs. Aliens, despite the familiarity that so readily breeds contempt before the game is even out of the cellophane, is actually a pretty decent little game.
We're at the point where there's a template for this sort of thing.
Since the PS2 -- and keep in mind, that means we're talking over seven years now -- animated children's movies have spawned Crash Bandicoot/Spyro the Dragon-style action-adventure games to match their cinematic sources. Something about that style of game must have presented itself as the most approachable, easy-to-pick up format for the target audience of the movies involved, and they've been making this game ever since. Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, The Incredibles...they've all featured running and jumping and beating up enemies and the occasional fetch quest. There have been a couple of exceptions to the rule -- Finding Nemo's undersea setting necessitated a different style, and so we got a slightly old-school 2-D style adventure, and the fantastic Cars pretty much fell into being as a crossover racing game -- but for the most part, you're getting a tossed-off adventure game. There's an ideal sort of risk-reward that comes with this style that makes it adequate, if not exciting, and the kids who are playing it are likely to think it adequate, if not quite up to the experience of the film that it's aping.
Knowing this and knowing that having young children has necessitated (or, at least, encouraged) the purchase of a number of these games already, it was with some trepidation that I powered on the PS3 edition of Monsters vs. Aliens. The screenshots that I'd seen weren't all that encouraging, and quite frankly, the movie looked kind of obnoxious despite the solid reviews it picked up.
And then, something strange happened. It's hard to tell what it was exactly that initiated it, whether it was the game itself or the enthusiastic response of the children watching me play it, but, hey, I was having fun! And maybe, too, it was that realization that made clear that Monsters vs. Aliens, despite the familiarity that so readily breeds contempt before the game is even out of the cellophane, is actually a pretty decent little game.
The reason for this is pretty easy to pick out. You play as three different monsters over the course of the game: Ginormica (a.k.a. Susan), B.O.B. the blob, and The Missing Link, who's sort of a man-fish-thing. The appealing thing about playing as these three different characters is that each of them has their own distinct play style. Ginormica's level's are action-racing games on rails, exciting and fast-paced if pretty basic. The Missing Link's levels are the traditional adventuring levels with little puzzles, combo attacks, and a mouthy protagonist. Perhaps most interesting is B.O.B.'s set of levels, which are also designed in the traditional adventuring style but are also designed with an eye toward B.O.B.'s unique skill set -- namely, being able to climb onto walls and ceilings, fall through grates, and swallow just about everything. The end result? A game that follows many of the tropes of the worst of these types of games but remains interesting by constantly varying the gameplay style and showing off an above average penchant for smart level design.
Just as interesting, too, is the game's method of offering extras to the player. Somewhat reminiscent of some of the more imaginative of the Final Fantasy series' power-up systems, the DNA Lab provides a fairly linear way of allowing the player to purchase movie stills, running commentaries, and even extra levels "deleted" from the game. The most appealing part of which is that you only have to buy the things you really want. In order to traverse deeper and deeper into the very much non-helix structure of this particular DNA, you have to beat the levels in the game as well as various challenge levels based on actual scenes in the movie; that's where the requirements end, though, as you never have to purchase a single movie still that you couldn't possibly care less about if you don't want to. Of course, if you want to get all of the trophies or achievements in the game, you'll want to, but that's a psychoanalysis session for another time. The point is, the DNA Lab works well as a way of offering but not forcing extra content on the player.
None of this is to say that Monsters vs. Aliens is a perfect game; far from it actually. As befits a game with the audience that something like Monsters vs. Aliens has, the difficulty is almost nonexistent. The game is six or seven hours long, and there's plenty to do, but no seasoned gamer is going to have much trouble at all doing any of it. There's also the matter of the sound design, particularly the choice of having the characters say something after a particularly good move or even an ordinary punch that happened to knock out a baddie. Hearing The Missing Link say "Never mess with The Missing Link!" over...and over...and over again makes you want to toss him off the nearest cliff, just to teach him some humility.
There are also, of course, the occasional glitchy moments that come with a game developed on a deadline, not to mention a final boss battle that almost defines anticlimactic, but these are somewhat niggling issues when a game like this is so surprisingly well-built.
So yes, there is a template to this sort of thing, but as we've seen time and again -- as with every old-school Nintendo theme that showed up, however briefly, on Guitar Hero World Tour's download service, or the recent Out of This World -themed LittleBigPlanet world, working within a template doesn't mean it's impossible to create something worthwhile. By coming up with level designs that differ enough from stage to stage to maintain a fresh playing experience, Beenox (who whiffed so mightily with the awful Bee Movie Game) managed the feat of coming up with a movie themed game that actually doesn't sour the experience of the movie it's based on. It won't change the world, sure, but fans of the film will find it to be a perfectly worthwhile way to revisit the characters they loved so much on the big screen.