At the peak of his popularity, Tintin's creator George Remi was in control of an organisation that must have looked a little like a video game company. When writing the Calculus Affair, for example, there were photographers despatched to Switzerland for reference material, as well as background artists, letterers, and Remi himself who would draw the characters. Now Tintin is in the hands of an actual video game company. No wonder he looks so at home in his new surroundings.
Ubisoft's been crafting a Tintin game to accompany the forthcoming film, and, as is often the case with these things, I'd been expecting the worst: a cartoon masterpiece reduced to a limply reconfigured FPS where you run around Marlinspike Hall, stealth-choking Nestor, collecting a trail of floating croissants and taking cover behind 2CVs. (I know Tintin's not French, incidentally, but I couldn't think of any Belgian cars.) Put those fears aside. What Ubisoft's actually done is much more interesting. It's taken Tintin, and turned him into Donkey Kong.
I certainly wasn't expecting that - yet it works surprisingly well. The game's 3D art is set on a 2D plane - if you've got a really expensive TV, by the bye, that art will be in actual pop-out 3D too - and you control Tintin as he jumps around from platform to platform in a series of teetering split-level environments, finishing off baddies and collecting trinkets.
Tintin can fight, but that's not really the way to get the best out of him. Instead, as in the books, you should be trying to out-think your enemies, watching their patrols, dropping down behind them, and then stealth-lamping them, or using elements of the environment to get rid of them in other ways.
On a level set aboard the Karaboudjan - a ship I have been dreaming about exploring since I was six years old - this often amounts to lobbing stuff. Tintin can pick up objects and throw them -you aim with a glowing trajectory line, like Gears of War or Worms - and that means you can bowl your foes over with oil drums or flatten them with crates.
There's a lot of variety to the system, however. Throw a pot over somebody's head he'll go on a clumsy cartoon rampage, possibly punching out some of his own team. In a boss fight against Allan, Captain Haddock's villainous first mate, you'll need to race back and forth across the screen and trick him into accidentally blowing up stacks of fireworks that will work as little homing rockets, before sending him crashing into a wall with banana peels when he starts to give chase. (Bananas may seem to be taking the whole Donkey Kong homage a little far, but in Tintin's defence he was using the trick back in Cigars of the Pharaoh - classic bedtime reading since 1934.)
It all works very well, by the looks of it: the levels are smartly laid out and filled with little secrets to uncover, there's an enviably tactile sense of cartoon violence to every punch and every bullet, and the detailing shows that real attention has been paid to the source material.
Enemies flatten themselves against banisters in a spindly Thompson Twin-esque tangles of limbs, the punching animation is right out of the books - one arm back at a right angle, the fist of the other one pointed straight up - and the way that Allan's body shakes as he fires his machine-gun is so perfect you can almost see the "rat-a-tat-a-tat" emblazoned across the screen in neat little writing.
Even better, Tintin actually looks pretty good. In the forthcoming movie, from what I can tell, he is a grubby and dead-eyed homunculus. He's horror in a sweater, and he wears his skin†like someone who has just put it on in a basement, perhaps as a prelude to a night spent licking tombstones and sneezing on the bible. In Ubisoft's game, however, you get to focus on the entire figure rather than just the face, and the whole thing works a little more convincingly.
The developer's promising a campaign of over ten hours, with plenty of different locations and familiar faces along the way. On top of that, there's also a co-op campaign that is, brilliantly, set within one of Captain Haddock's dreams. It uses the same mechanics as the main game - you're still exploring complex 2D environments, beating one screen at a time, and making it to the exit - but there are a couple of smart differences.
The first is that the environment is now filled with surreal touches - ship railings that lead past floating fireplaces, doors that hang in the air like something out of Magritte - and the second is that you can team up with Haddock himself.
Both characters have their own special skills: Tintin has a grappling hook, and Haddock has super strength - the super strength, I like to think, of alcoholism - and as these skills converge, the levels become far trickier to navigate. There are traps within traps, puzzles that have to be untangled from both ends, and the obligatory moments where you're transformed into Snowy and get to sniff out treasure. Good old Snowy, eh?
Little vignettes like this, along with the levels' stylish forced perspectives and quick animations, suggest that Tintin might ultimately be more suited to a game than a film anyway - even if the film in question is directed by Steven Spielberg and co-written by Joe Cornish. Ubisoft may not have gotten the font right, then - and I'm genuinely ashamed that that should irritate me as much as it does - but it's handling a lot of far more important elements with real style. This is shaping up to be that rarest of tie-ins: the one that truly shows an understanding and appreciation of its subject matter.