"I don't like Curious George any more."
If you could see the look on my five-year-old son's face when he finally uttered this heart-breaking revelation, a scowl of frustration spoiling his innocent brow, you'd understand just what a misguided enterprise this monkey-themed game-of-the-movie-of-the-books adaptation is.
See, I'd just spent the best part of two hours trying to interest him, and a small group of his closest friends, in the joys of videogaming with a little help from our monkey pal. But long before we'd even got to the point where the little fella disowned all things Curious, I'd already been regaled with a parade of frowning interjections such as:
"I can't see where I'm going."
"He's not jumping properly."
"I don't want to go that way."
And finally: "Is George dead?", after our simian hero had tumbled into a bottomless pit, leaving my boy torn between morbid curiosity and an admirably vague feeling of guilt over his part in the accident. Rest assured, Curious George most certainly cannot die - ever - and was soon back on the screen, lurching around in circles and jumping on the spot as if nothing had happened.
So, my son and his entourage were not exactly blown away with his time spent in the interactive company of Curious George and this is quite a problem, given that they fall smack bang in the middle of the age group the character is supposed to entice.
Ape Shall Not Kill Ape
With each gaming generation, the move to new technology results in a lot of hand-me-down consoles being passed on to younger siblings as the older kids upgrade to something shinier and faster. Games companies swoop to make the most of this incoming demographic with a slew of kid-centric fare - witness the rise in games like Noddy for the PS2 - but, unfortunately, developers and publishers alike are still as hopeless as ever at understanding and catering for the younger gamer.
Objectively speaking, Curious George isn't really a bad game. It's just not a very good game either. None of its failings are too damaging to the overall experience provided you're of advanced years and know what to expect from a mid-level platformer, but, if you're five years old, seemingly trivial annoyances such as fussy controls and a wandering camera suddenly become more daunting obstacles.
Following the plot of last year's animated movie, the game does makes clear concessions to the younger gamer - there are no enemies, the path is linear to a fault and a velvet-voiced lady painstakingly explains everything you need to do. As mentioned before, no matter what you do to George, he just keeps on going. He's nicely animated too, with an expressive face and some endearing quirks that more than do justice to the old-fashioned 2D animation of the film.
Along the way, George will inevitably find objects that make him - hey! - curious. Interacting with these triggers a short sequence in which the hairy little tinker gets up to some mischief, and you earn 10 Curiosity Points into the bargain. It's a nice idea, encouraging the player to explore their surroundings and try things out. In execution, it's pointless, since the objects in question are drawn from a pool of about fifteen items, which recur throughout the game.
Apart from the points, which can be used to unlock some drab bonus content, there's absolutely no incentive to keep switching on lamps or shaking trees. Being curious is all very well, but if you're still intrigued by a suitcase after opening 47 of the damn things, then you're entering Forrest Gump territory. Had there been some genuinely interactive environments, and some more freeform opportunities for mischief, the game might do a better job of capturing the appeal of playing as a cheeky monkey. Still, it's a nice idea.
Damn Dirty Apes
However, all the noble concessions to the tykes are for naught, since the game also includes several poorly designed features that often tested the patience of this adult games reviewer, let alone my diminutive ad hoc focus group.
Stodgy controls are the first major bugbear, in particular a stiff double-jump which requires quick reflexes to successfully pull off. It's a hit and miss manoeuvre when there's really no need to even have a double jump - just let George jump higher, or make obstacles lower, so the kids can enjoy the act of simply moving him around the scenery without being punished for their nascent coordination skills. The camera is also inappropriate for a pre-school game. We may be used to constantly nudging the right stick to keep things in view, but try explaining that archaic tradition to a five-year-old. "Why?" is the response, and it's not an unreasonable question. A fixed chase-cam, coupled with better planned levels, would make the whole experience a lot more accessible.
An especially egregious example of these problems comes in the level where George must ascend to the top of a construction site. This requires a lengthy sequence of leaps and climbs that is always just the wrong side of difficult thanks to thin platforms and obscure viewpoints. Miss a jump, and you tumble back to the ground to start again. It took me the best part of twenty minutes to finally succeed due to a combination of blind luck and trial and error. My son, by this point, had wandered off to watch Wonder Pets on Nick Jr. I was quite tempted to join him, as it was the episode where the puppy needs a wee, and that's hilarious.
But let's be clear - Curious George is very much a pre-school character, like Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine. Pre-school kids, while quick to learn, just don't have the patience required to understand or adapt to the foibles of 3D platform gaming that we take for granted. Give them a couple of years and they'll pick it up, but their first taste needs to be simple, straightforward and attuned to their mindset. This is an age group better suited to the 2D challenges of the charmingly retro-styled V-Smile system, or the free Flash games on the CBeebies website. Expecting them to master complex navigation and pixel-perfect double-jumps in virtual three-dimensional space, especially when hampered by fudged controls and rogue cameras, is more than a little unrealistic.
As I found to my cost (Kinder Eggs are not cheap) any parent buying this faces an uphill struggle to keep their offspring from becoming sulky and frustrated, and the rewards for perseverance just aren't worth all that effort. The bonus content is simply movie clips, some hats for George to wear and four "press the correct button at the right time" mini-games you'll already have played during the game itself. Worst of all, when you reach the end of the game it just dumps you back to the menu screen with no fanfare, and no reward - an unforgivable sin in a kid's game. If it featured a character aimed at kids a few years older it would probably score higher, but a game that so woefully misunderstands its audience should only be purchased by those with precocious offspring or vast reserves of patience.