Version tested: Wii
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
Initial impressions of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy are surprisingly rather favourable. It's an instantly enjoyable combination of Power Stone and Guardian Heroes elements, with a generous garnish of Itchy and Skratchy cartoon-style ultra-violence. In short, it's the kind of multiplayer comic book-style carnage we rarely see on console in an age where roaming beat 'em ups seem to be exclusively reserved for in-game musclebound gangsta types to settle their rap-based differences.
Gameplay is extremely straightforward and is all the better for it - players are dumped into the cartoon surroundings and the objective is simple: to smack the living daylights out of the opposition until they have been pummelled into complete and utter submission. Making matters easier (or more difficult, depending on your opponents' skill level) is the inclusion of treasure chests that yield a vast range of bonus weaponry. Swords, clubs, guns and even flamethrowers appear at random and boost your offensive prowess. Levels are crammed with items that can be picked up and thrown at your foes, or else used to smack them over the head. Mojo energy orbs also issue forth from the chests, allowing you to build up a reserve of special power that is used to perform brutal combo strikes on your foes - essential in finishing off an otherwise defeated adversary.
Adding to the sense of absolute chaos is the fact that the environments themselves are out to get you. Toxic green slime, red hot lava and spike-pits are just some of the hazards that crop up in the game's first levels, but as the action progresses the environments and their traps get evermore wackier. This is one of Billy and Mandy's greatest strengths - the amount of variety across the game world is very impressive indeed, and there's always a new danger heading your way in addition to whatever your opponents have planned for you. The sense of variety is further strengthened by the range of characters available - up to 15 are available for combat duties.
The only real problem with this Grim Adventure is that it's excessively short. The Story Mode requires little effort to master, and the Mission Mode simply throws you into one of 45 different battles, each of which has a bizarre/obscure objective to achieve during the brawling. Versus mode is by far the best element in the game, allowing you to set-up the match of your choice against bots or human opponents and indulge in a wealth of different game-types. This would be excellent were it not for the fact that the actual combat system used in this game is so ridiculously simplistic. The root of the problem is that each character has just a handful of moves, so therefore there's little strategy - it's only a matter of time before you reach the inescapable conclusion that the game is just a one-note button masher.
This complete lack of depth is not helped by the 'exclusive' Wii enhancements. Graphically, it's not much different compared to its siblings on current gen consoles (to the point where the game runs in 4:3 with no 480p option) and its meagre support for gestures does little to make it any better than playing the game on PS2 or GameCube.
It's such a shame because the initial Power Stone/Guardian Heroes nostalgia rush made me realise just how much I miss those great games, and how brilliant next gen versions of them would be. As it is, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is best sampled as a rental for Wii owners looking for a multiplayer party game that'll last a night or two. I can't even recommend it as a full-price purchase for kids - while the extra lure of the Cartoon Network characters might be worth an additional point, repetitive gameplay is simply a massive turn-off no matter how old the player is.
SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab
In what is becoming a distressingly familiar turn of events, this latest SpongeBob SquarePants offering is essentially exactly the same game as the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions, with a casual dusting of Wii-specific features that includes an all-new Wiimote control method and support for 480p widescreen.
Gameplay switches between two different styles. For the most part, you control the eponymous absorbent cleaning implement through generic cartoon-style platform environs, collecting collectables, subduing foes with SpongeBob's flailing arms, and solving ridiculously simple mini-puzzles. Once that's out of the way, it's on to the driving and flying sections - ultra-generic, playable enough, but devoid of originality. Then it's back to the platforms and the pattern repeats itself.
Where developer Blitz Games does deserve credit is in its handling of the Wiimote controls - on the platform sections at least. While basic directional work is nunchuk by the numbers, when the motion sensor is used everything is perfectly logical and rather fun - charging at enemies is performed with a vicious forwards swipe, and winches are turned with circular movements of the controller. The balance between stick-work and motion sensor is excellent - Blitz Games has played to the controller's strengths and relied on good old fashioned analogue control where it's needed.
If only the same could be said of the driving and flying sections. Here, the Wiimote takes centrestage: the controller is flipped horizontally and steering is 100 per cent tied to the motion sensor. This causes many problems. The first is that the nunchuk is now in the way all the time, so you really need to manually disconnect it and put it aside. And secondly, there's simply zero correlation between the control of a car or rocket and wobbling a rectangular bit of plastic about. It's entirely counter-intuitive, almost totally devoid of feedback and just doesn't work.
So SpongeBob SquarePants: Creature from the Krusty Krab is very much the archetypal game of two halves. Aside from being just a tad too repetitive and too long, the platform levels are well-presented and plenty of fun. The vehicular sections could've been the same where it not for the illogical controls, but even here the wacky cel-based graphical style and solid update help to make it look a cut above the average Wii port. But there's just no sense of imagination throughout this game, no surprises to keep you entertained, and for the SpongeBob fans out there, very little aside from the main character that is actually tied to the TV show. Overall then, an average game that has just about earned its average mark.
Barnyard is a somewhat bizarre conconction, combining a selection of distinct child-friendly mini-games with a touch of Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox gameplay. The essential idea behind the game is to defend the farm and its livestock from marauding coyotes and other hostile wildlife, but Barnyard tosses in so many little tasks to do over and above the basic missions that it's more like a 'simulation' of cartoon life on the farm. It's as much about making apple pies, churning milk, playing golf, dancing, racing bikes and wallowing in the mud with the pigs as it is about performing heroic duties.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Yes indeed, it is another in a long line of enhanced GameCube conversions. But much thought has been put into using the Wiimote effectively (and crucially not over-using it), especially in the mini-games. Over and above that, there is a strong sense that the game actually looks a fair bit better than its current gen brethren, with more detail, and a much more solid update thanks in part to its LCD display-friendly 480p graphics option.
The game kicks off with the player defining the appearance of their bovine avatar - gender along with markings and name are chosen - then you're dumped off in the titular Barnyard where the inhabitants do all they can to settle you into the environment and the mission/mini-game structure. Much effort is spent on getting you up to speed with your one offensive weapon - milk squirting. Weirdly, in the Barnyard universe even the males have udders, capable of issuing Peter North-alike levels of creamy ejaculate that are enough to take down anything or anyone intent on disrupting life on the farm. You can even direct the blast using the IR capabilities of the Wiimote.
Then it's simply a case of exploring the Barnyard environs, helping out the inhabitants with their myriad problems (usually to do with finding lost items), engaging with them in their mini-game based pursuits and then taking on missions that sees the game open up its map, giving you more territory to explore, and yet more tasks and mini-games to undertake. Missions are tied to helping out a particular animal on the farm and it's here that your character's mobile phone is put to use - you can explore all you like, safe in the knowledge that a quick glance at your mobile and the in-game map puts you back on the right track should you stray too far.
It's difficult to put your finger on what is actually appealing about this game. One thing's for sure - it is spectacularly easy. Indeed, the hardest thing about it is navigating the sub-menus with the Wiimote (an unnecessarily complex gestures system is employed here). Perhaps it's because the game crams in so much variety that the interest level is sustained - always a bonus with a game primarily aimed at a younger audience. The fact that Barnyard does such a good job of replicating the look and feel of the original movie is another major plus point.
Overall, Barnyard is a strangely compelling, if completely non-essential, diversion for adults and definitely a recommended rental for the youngsters. However, I just don't buy into this concept that kids' games need to be stupidly easy and my money is on any games-savvy brat breezing through this game with no problems whatsoever.
The Ant Bully
Yet another CG movie makes the leap from celluloid to silicon, as Warner Bros' The Ant Bully gets licensed for gaming duties by the conversion-smiths at Midway. The plot of both movie and game is fairly straightforward: schoolboy sociopath-in-waiting Lucas gets his kicks by terrorising an innocent ant colony, but one day he mysteriously finds himself reduced to the size of an ant. Taken in by his erstwhile six-legged victims, it's Lucas's task to become a model citizen in the colony and only then will the secrets of returning to his normal size be revealed.
And so begins what is essentially a platform game by the numbers. Running and jumping gets you around the clichéd environs, and liberal use of a sharp pointy stick is initially enough to subdue the many insect predators that threaten the colony. Gameplay is split fairly evenly between combat and fetching items, returning them to their proper place within the lair of the ants. As gameplay progresses, a number of slightly more interesting developments kick in - Lucas gets hold of better weapons including bombs and silk squirters, and the game opens up a little, allowing you to choose the tasks you want to tackle next. Finding the parts to assemble weapons, locating food, defending behemoth caterpillars - The Ant Bully offers plenty of variety, for sure. Unfortunately, it's only the combat tasks that are truly entertaining, thanks to fairly entertaining use of the Wiimote's motion sensing controls and the implementation of each weapon.
Also of note is how Midway has attempted to completely simplify the controls. Control is achieved via the analogue stick on the nunchuk and you can adjust the game camera by tilting it left and right. Combat moves are essentially gesture or point-based, with the Z button allowing you to lock on to individual foes. An Ocarina of Time style jump system is also employed, whereby Lucas leaps about based on the game reading your intentions - something initially very confusing as jumps are only 'allowed' at key points; points the game makes no attempt to inform you about. Other in-game activities such as climbing are all achieved using the A button, its use changing depending on the context. At least here the game tells you when the button becomes active.
Once again, in terms of audio-visuals and basic gameplay, this is essentially exactly the same as the GameCube version, right down to the horribly interlaced graphics (no 480p here folks - I got a skull-rendingly bad headache playing this on my LCD TV). Indeed, it's so close that there's much to be said for buying the Cube game and running it on the Wii instead, thus saving yourself a few quid. Whilst the Wii controls work out pretty well, in no way are they worth any kind of additional premium over the Cube rendition of the game.
It's a moot point though because the truth is that neither version is particularly worthy of your hard-earned - to the point where even the cash spent on a rental would be best diverted towards your next Virtual Console purchase. The Ant Bully is simply too generic in pretty much every way, a collection of ideas done hundreds of times before in other games, offering nothing new to excite or surprise the player. A wholly unremarkable and totally avoidable game.