Version tested: Xbox 360
It was going to be so hilarious. You'll have to trust me on this. I had the intro all planned out. I was going to smuggle in some fantastic references to the Simon and Garfunkle classic, Mrs Robinson, but change the words to Meet the Robinsons, and then sniffily remark that I expended more mental effort thinking up those jokes than I did while playing the game.
Pure. Comic. Gold.
I mean, after all, it's a platform game for kids, based on this month's flash-in-the-pan CGI matinee money-hoover. It's not like the game could successfully occupy my superior adult intellect for very long, or offer enough variety and personality to keep me coming back for more.
Except...um...it actually did. Farewell then, my hilarious Simon and Garfunkle intro paragraph. I'll just have to try and work the joke in elsewhere, lest the comedy be wasted.
So, yes. Meet the Robinsons is a pretty good game. Not a great game, by any stretch of the imagination, but it bears surprisingly few of the scars usually associated with hurried cinematic tie-ins and is certainly preferable to lukewarm tat like Open Season or the various Shrek games. I found myself playing to the end not because it was my Sacred Reviewers Duty but because I was genuinely enjoying myself.
And there's much to enjoy. Imagine a four way cross between The Jetsons, The Royal Tenebaums, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future 2 and you'll have a pretty good handle on the storyline and setting. Wilbur Robinson is the youngest son in a family of eccentric geniuses, living in a wonderful future full of gadgets, flying cars and robot best friends. He's fond of using his Dad's time machine to jaunt through the temporal flux and have his photo taken with famous figures from history. Then the time machine gets swiped by a sinister figure in a bowler hat and the timeline gets all screwed up. Instead of the bright and peaceful cartoon world Wilbur knows and loves it's become a volcanic wasteland, ruled over by the Magma Corporation. Obviously the only thing that can put things right is lots of running, clambering and collecting objects to trade in for improved abilities.
Don't expect too much in the way of innovation. Although you can use transit points to shuffle back to previous areas to build new gadgets or farm more components, this is still a linear experience, and the expected platform adventure elements are front and centre. Giant spinning fans? Moving walkways? Boss battles with predictable attack patterns? Yeah, they're all here - though for many of the game's intended players, such clichés actually help keep things accessible.
That's not to say it's completely devoid of fresh ideas though. There's no jump button, for instance. You simply run at a gap or obstacle, and Wilbur will jump or clamber over it by himself. At first this feels utterly strange, and bad memories of Galleon start to gather, but it soon makes a certain kind of sense. This omission isn't too make things easier, it's just not what the game is about. Precision platforming isn't on the agenda - there are no levels that require too much climbing or navigating - so before long it just becomes second nature. Indeed, it even becomes something of a relief, knowing that progress won't be hampered by poorly timed leaps or badly designed obstacle courses.
Where the game earns admiration is in the way it takes its linear form and turns into something that rewards exploration. I mean proper grown-up exploration, not just hiding a few objects behind a tree. There are loads of collectables and unlockables to be earned and, after what I thought was a pretty thorough play through, I found I'd only earned a fraction of the secret action figures and had failed to find all the cheats, gadgets and blueprints required for maximum completion. It doesn't have the same replay value as a Lego Star Wars, so I doubt many seven-year-olds would be in a hurry to run through it again, but there's certainly plenty of game to be had.
Also deserving of a gentle ripple of applause are the mini-games and side-challenges. Usually the bane of games like this, where shallow tasks are lifted from the game and presented as some sort of wonderful bonus content, Meet the Robinsons manages to weave four such elements into its narrative in a rather seamless and rewarding way. Sometimes you'll have to play them, sometimes it's only necessary if you're chasing every last item.
The ones that play the largest role in the main gameplay are some Monkey Ball style races in something called a Protectosphere and a series of underground Boulder Dash puzzles. Both lurch between the simple and frustrating a tad unevenly, but break up the third-person stages at just the right times. Meanwhile Chargeball is a mixture of air hockey, Tron light discs and Breakout that is a touch slow, but packs a surprising tactical punch. Finally, and completely separate from the game, there's a shooting gallery where you use the Robinson's house security system to flip between rooms, zapping invading bowler hats.
The only thing holding Meet the Robinsons back from a more enthusiastic endorsement are the occasionally stiff controls, which are fine when exploring and adventuring but annoyingly obtuse when the time comes for fast-paced combat. The game would also benefit from something to point players in the direction of their next objective. Accessing vital information and maps requires navigating through several in-game menus and, as any good web designer will tell you, as soon as you make people click over three times to get basic information their patience begins to run out.
It won't change your world, but Avalanche Software - veterans of several Rugrats games as well as the forgettable 25 To Life - have delivered a game that is perfectly attuned to the capabilities and sensibilities of its tween audience, and filled it up with solid gameplay that assists or challenges them at just the right times. It's also good to see a game that celebrates intellectual ability just as much as physical force, both in the gameplay and story. So...ahem...here's to you, Meet the Robinsons. Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. A-woo-woo-woo.
7 / 10