As a movie, Space Chimps tanked pretty hard — it was vigorously ignored by critics and has so far failed to even earn back its budget at the box office. Lost amidst the perennial excellence of Pixar (WALL-E), and heavyweight entertainment properties from Dr. Seuss and George Lucas, Space Chimps barely registered as a blip on moviegoers’ radars.
As a videogame, though, it’s got a lot going for it.
To begin with, the game honors the medium’s long and storied tradition of simian protagonists. Monkeys, with their smarts, their athleticism, and their enthusiasm for alternate modes of personal locomotion, always make for compelling characters.
In Space Chimps, the player controls a pair of engaging chimps, Ham and Luna, on a mission to liberate the alien planet Malgor from the tyrannical king Zartog. Ham and Luna are astrochimps, you see, highly trained and tasked with piloting their spacecraft through an intergalactic wormhole. Ham, in fact, is descended from the first generation of chimps sent into orbit during the great space race of the 1950s and 1960s.
The plot, so far as it reveals itself during gameplay, is as generic as it sounds — with villains named Zartog, you kind of know what you’re in for. And it really doesn’t matter. Space Chimps is a 3-D platformer/puzzler, and a pretty good one at that. So long as you’re familiar with the conventions of the platformer genre, you know what your job is. Just keep going — up, down, through and around whatever obstacles might be popping up. And wallop the bad guys.
The most critical element with this type of approach is an intuitive control paradigm — platforming in three dimensions can get frustrating fast if the basics aren’t covered. It’s here that Space Chimps excels — movement and combat options are simple, direct and easy to pick up. Using the Wiimote and the Wii nunchuk, you control movement and action with one hand, camera control with the other.
Here’s where the monkey business comes in. Whether playing as Ham or Luna (you’re controlling one or the other, depending on the level), you’re playing a long-limbed and dexterous hero. The designers have taken full advantage of the chimpanzee’s potential for running, jumping, swinging, climbing and whomping the beejeezus out of the bad guys.
Ham, for instance, can do a flying head-butt attack to stun the aliens, then follow up with a basic attack or sequence of combos. He can also swing from hanging vines, climb walls and cliffs, and execute some Olympic-caliber maneuvers on the uneven parallel bars that are scattered about each level.
I also liked the fact that the game deliberately switches up the rhythm with levels and interstitials that call for sneaking and puzzle-solving rather than straight-ahead platforming and fighting. It’s the little touches that count. Like picking up the exploding fruit provided by friendly aliens and hurling them at the unfriendly aliens. Or, even better, using your monkey smarts to wing the kablooeying fruit at an unstable wall and blow open a new tunnel to explore.
The puzzle elements are of the standard variety — move the box here to block the gate, squirt the acid here to uncover the exit. This kind of busywork has been de rigeur since Lara raided her first tomb. Space Chimps strikes the proper balance, with well-paced levels and varied gameplay between the kinetic and puzzler passages.
A few sequences fail to hit on all cylinders, however. Luna gets an option early on to strap on some butterfly wings, and later you pilot a giant alien manta ray type critter. The flight controls are as messy as the ground controls are clean. You can safely skip the packaged Fluvian Run mini-game, which offers cooperative and competitive two-player modes.
Movie tie-in games like this typically (and often deservedly) get a bad rap, but Space Chimps is an entirely adequate entry in the genre, and earns points for being easy to learn and maximizing the potential fun that can be had with brachiating chimp heroes. I particularly liked the method by which the game, in the early levels, embeds tutorial elements with subtle graphical hints. If you’re stranded on a platform, you might see some unobtrusive translucent arrows float by indicating the wall, pole or vine you can monkey around on next.
It helps, too, that the game’s life/health system is fairly generous. You’re forever falling off cliffs — goes with the territory — and Ham simply materialized where you leapt off with a few ticks marked off on your banana health-o-meter. The game auto-saves frequently, so even when you do finally run out of luck, you simply reset again.
The sound design and voiceover work are solid (Patrick Warburton and Cheryl Hines reprise their roles from the film), the music is quite nice, and I only ran into a handful of bugs — nothing catastrophic.
There’s nothing particularly innovative, either, but no one is expecting that. As an item of consumption, Space Chimps is professional-grade merchandise, proof positive that — with the proper budget and lead time for development — movie tie-in games can be entirely satisfying, thank you very much.