Version tested: Xbox 360
Variety. It's the spice of life, or so someone once said. I think it was Jamie Oliver. When you see a game based on an animated kid's movie, your immediate assumption tends to be that it's a platform game of dubious innovation and passable gameplay. And that's why Surf's Up gets off to a good start. Based on this week's summer holiday movie of choice (plot: penguins surf!) this is a dedicated sports game with nary a match-the-buttons mini game or conveyor-belt-filled-factory in sight. It's simply a surfing game aimed at the under 10s, rather than the usual Tony Hawk crowd.
There are twelve courses in all, spread across five locations lifted from the film, with ramps, rocks, slides and barriers and an inexorably rolling wave crashing in from either the left or right. This wave is your best friend and worst enemy, offering endless opportunities for leaps and tricks, but also capable of crushing you into the scenery if you time things badly. Each course has various objectives, with success unlocking trophies and shells, which in turn open up new levels, characters, surfboards and accessories.
The most obvious challenge is to beat the target score by performing tricks. Once you're airborne, either by hitting a ramp or surfing up and off the top of the wave, the A button triggers a quick and easy stunt for 150 points, B launches a more advanced trick which nets you 400 points, while X is used for grab tricks where the points keep racking up as long as you keep the button held down. There are also rails to grind along, and you can earn points by riding the crest of the wave in a similar manner. As in every other extreme sports title, you have to land the trick to earn the points, but this is fairly easy thanks to the game's generally forgiving nature.
Each successful stunt adds a little more to your energy gauge. This energy can then be used for a speed boost, handy for smashing obstacles or reaching a gate or power-up before the relentless wave swallows it, or you can let the meter reach the top and go into Stoke Mode. Things slow down a little when you're "stoked" and the Y button can be used to pull off even bigger tricks, worth a whopping 3000 points each. When you consider that most of the point targets are around the thirty to fifty thousand range, it's clear that canny use of this feature is the way to beat those targets.
There are various multipliers that can be picked up to assist you, doubling, tripling or (counts on fingers) quintupling the score for each trick. Naturally, if you can combine a 5x multiplier with some stoked action, you'll cruise to victory with indecent ease. Indeed, it took me all of one afternoon to unlock all the tracks, all the characters, and around three quarters of the game's available Gamerpoints. How disappointing, right?
Let's stop and consider the difference between games for kids and games for adults. Many of us who grew up in the 80s were weaned on games that were phenomenally difficult. Stupidly difficult in many cases. We'd sit patiently and wait for them to load, and then fail - again - to get more than five screens into the game. And again. And again. Yet we still had fun, because the novelty of "computer games" was still fresh. For today's youngsters, that novelty doesn't exist. Controlling a little man on-screen isn't going to compensate for the frustration of watching him die thirty six times in a row.
Some games - such as TMNT - go too far in the opposite direction, and come up with something so devoid of challenge that even the most attention-deficit youngster can sleepwalk through it. Surf's Up, while simple enough to blast through, does at least require you to get better at the game in order to triumph. Later levels, set amid furious volcanic eruptions and howling thunderstorms, display a definite learning curve from the idyllic early sections, even if that curve is gentle rather than fierce. That's why judging such an experience from an adult perspective is fairly pointless, since kids play games differently to us.
It's here that the deviation from the platform game norm proves especially useful. By separating itself from the restrictions of narrative, Surf's Up automatically offers more replay value than its peers. While most of the game's content can be accessed within a few hours of (experienced adult) play, to ace all the courses and win all the trophies requires a little more patience and skill. Even when every last target has been exceeded, there's still life in the thing since zipping around the waves, doing tricks and leaping off ramps is an instinctively appealing proposition. For younger players this sort of repetition isn't really a problem, so long as this immediate appeal is maintained. Heck, my five-year-old son has belted around the same Motorstorm track, in the same car, literally hundreds of times and doesn't look like he'll be getting sick of it any time soon. At that age it's not about some definitive moment of completion, but a purely fun experience that can be returned to over and over. And, on that level, Surf's Up does the business.
Seen through adult eyes, it's a sweet but slender surfing game that's consistently amusing. I thoroughly enjoyed the day it took to milk dry and, as a rental costs about the same as a Live Arcade download of similar entertainment value, I'd say it's still worth a temporary punt even if you've passed the puberty barrier. Or at least give the demo a spin. However, viewed in context as a game designed for a specific audience and tailored to their skills, it's a rewarding and waterlogged Tony Hawk Jr with the potential to stay in rotation after other movie games have been traded in and forgotten. Well done, penguins.
7 / 10