Version tested: PlayStation 2
You may be a little depressed that this is currently the best selling game in our blighted isle, but pecker-up, eh? I went to the zoo last week and discovered a fascinating fact which is sure to lighten your day.
Where do you keep a duck-billed platypus?
Answer in the conclusion. Keep reading, monotremata fans.
Madagascar is the game version of the popular Dreamworks animated film about animals escaping from the zoo, travelling to the wild and discovering that there's no such thing as a Steak Tree. The game is pretty much exactly what you'd expect. A mixture of platforming sections and more novel one-off games, where you get a chance to play each of the film's characters, each who have their own abilities. For example, Alec the lion is the closest to the platforming standard, able to perform a double-jump and roar to scare away people. Alternatively, the radically hypochondriac Melman can't leap that far, but can spin his legs in a helicopter-blade fashion to slow his descent or be lifted up by jets of air. Marty the zebra can kick things, eventually do fairly enormous leaps and make wise-cracks in a Chris Rock style. Gloria the hippo is fat. The penguins can do something or another.
You get the idea.
Adventures and high-jinks ensue and... well, it's easy to be cynical about these things. Big dollars paid for a big dollar game-licence transformed into a lowest common denominator action game, a melange of well-proven game mechanics digestable to all. Sold in truck-loads to distracted parents. High in sugar, low in nutrition, high in company bank-balance. Where's the love?
Well, be damned, cynicism, and be thankful. All at Eurogamer, apart from the ever-fresh-faced Tom [and so he should be, aged 21 - grizzled Ed], fought in the eight-bit wars and still carry the scars of a stream of horrendous incredibly cheap-ass TV and movie conversions. Ridiculously cheap. Yes, Madagascar is based on a lot of tried-and-true elements, but back then we wrestled with tried-and-untrue abominations. No matter what it may lack in inspiration, it entirely makes up for it by working. This isn't a game that'll reduce the younger gamer it's aimed at to tears. They'll be perfectly happy.
And they've got every reason to be. While it has a particularly slow start (the first four levels or so are heavy on the cut-scenes and very low on the interaction), as the game opens up it becomes increasingly likeable. The levels where you're able to switch between the four characters depending on the challenge add some light puzzle-style interaction to the mix. Negatively, some of the mini-challenges are horrific. Particularly memorable is the challenge involving the tiny lemur Mort on bounce-pads. You're propelled towards falling fruit you have to either collect or avoid for one reason or other, but you're being lobbed up at such a rate you're incapable of manoeuvring swiftly enough to dodge things. You're forced to play the odds and chew on random failures. Fortunately moments like these are gone in minutes, and you'll be onto something else. It's an approach to game design which we could call anthology gaming, and what it lacks in depth it makes up in novelty.
Also, in terms of style, the writing is sterling. Having not seen the film, I've no idea how many of the wise-cracks come from the actual original text, but there's certainly a fair chunk of the material which seems game-specific. And it's funny. And it gets funnier. By the end, you'll have fallen in love with a couple of the bit-part characters. There's a Princess-Bride style playfulness with the genre tropes, as well as some sly self-referential nods towards the usual videogame hoops you have to leap through to progress. While it's unlikely to be a game you'd buy for yourself, if you find yourself playing it, much like a parent dragged along by screaming children to the latest family animation spectacular, you'll allow yourself an occasional snicker.
Did I just describe Madagascar as an "original text"? Sorry. Been hanging around with games theorists too much recently.
It also veers down the unlockable route, with cheats, character extras and mini-games available upon mastery. The Lemur Rave rhythm-action is particularly amusing, if only because lemurs raving is an admirable concept and just fun to write. Lemur Rave. Lemur Rave. You try it. (Quickly! To the comments!)
Which isn't to say it's brilliant, or should be excused because it's a kids' game alone. It's accessible and smart, but nowhere near as accessible or smart as - to choose an apposite example - Lego Star Wars. It has flashes of brilliance rather than a consistent run. And, y'know, you could always look over at whatever's fallen from Nintendo's fingertips to see how brilliant kids-centred family entertainment can be.
Also, it's a spectacularly slight game. I completed a run through in a particularly lazy afternoon's worth of play, with regular wandering upstairs to browse email, check web forums and download whatever new naked people have been uploaded to the ElectroPervOcean. While there's a degree of replay value, especially with the multiplayer mini-games, it's hardly something with huge lasting value.
Similarly, it's also terribly easy. I only became aware that it was possible to actually fail a level when I left the game running without pausing on the penultimate mission to go and speak to my girlfriend on the phone. Returning ten minutes later, I discover I'm back at the map screen having lost all my lives. I had lives? Wow. "Learn something new every day" and that.
Finally, and as much as this probably should be taken as read in any game with a third-person perspective, its camera is often another annoyance. Slow manual tracking on the right analogue stick mixed with the levels which have a tendency to form on tight spirals is an unnecessary bore.
Which leaves Madagascar as a charming, if flawed and anorexically shallow, kids' action game. Parents shouldn't feel bad about buying it. Kids won't feel bad playing it. Developers and publishers can look themselves in the mirror in the morning, knowing they aren't taking candy from babies. And the sort of gamers who read reviews on internet sites, if they find themselves playing, will be pleasantly surprised.
And, returning to the point, where do you keep a duck-billed platypus?
In a Platypussary, of course!
Zoos are amazing.
6 / 10