Yes, it's Christmas again and time for that yearly staple: CGI movies featuring moral messages, cuddly, talking animals and - of course - spin off games. 2006 is no different and, in order to fully cash in on the immediate success of the movie, Happy Feet is being released on a half dozen formats to best get the kiddies and girlfriends vote. No surprise there, and no surprise that the game's not bad, but not great, either.
So... tap-dancing penguins. No, that's not a typo. Based on this year's big pre-Christmas animated movie, Happy Feet follows the adventures of the little tone deaf penguin, Mumble. A dip in the freezing Arctic waters while in his egg means he wouldn't know a note if it came up and bit him but, boy, can he tap dance. Problem is, for emperor penguins, tap dancing is just not cool and despite adversity on all sides, little Mumble does his best to fit in and learn his Heartsong, the inner song which will attract his destined mate.
The game itself is essentially divided into three different gameplay styles: rhythm action, belly racing down icy crevasses and swimming. It sounds a little limited, but your Inner Child just might love it.
Each level's success rate is measured in terms of bronze, silver and gold medals, although it's really not too hard to score a gold in every level. The difficulty can be selected but this only affects the rhythm action sequences and choosing hard ... well it is hard but not impossible, and the catchy tunes make it a lot of fun. These levels use the d-pad and its often easier to hold the controller at an angle so the buttons can be accessed with both hands but if you're proficient with the Dancing Stage-style games, then it should be a cinch.
The racing levels are essentially toboggan rides down slippery slopes, some levels require you to beat a fellow penguin such as Mumble's best friend Gloria and others require you to collect musical notes or just get to the end before the time runs down using speed boosts. These types of level are quite odd as obstacles (snow drifts) do not slow Mumble down, and collecting time bonuses and speed boosts doesn't actually require you to run into them - they are collected as long as they are within the perspective of the camera, which is a little too forgiving.
These levels are probably the most visually impressive of the bunch and a lot of fun to play as Mumble slips and slides through stunning tunnels and ravines. There are dangers in the form of crumbling ice, but it is impossible to get hit by these. Meanwhile, other hazards like spiked rocks will slow down your progress but won't do the penguin any major harm - it's evidently a game designed to keep the little 'uns happy with frustration levels non-existent. Challenging, it is not.
If you fancy it, Mumble can even pull off some nifty tricks. Pressing X launches him into mid air and pressing the button again initiates the stunt. Given enough time in the air, it's possible to pull off stylish combos, with perfect landings gaining you kudos and sparkling lights. Sparking lights I tell you! It won't be troubling the Tony Hawk crowd any time soon.
The underwater levels, meanwhile, are even more pointless as the game's lack of camera controls mean the route is pre-programmed and Mumble just has to avoid swimming into the odd ice shelf and drowning. Actually drowning is nigh on impossible as Mumble comes equipped with an air meter that drains over several minutes. This can easily be refilled by swimming through streams of bubbles which appear every couple of seconds so it's actually pretty much impossible to ever die. What did you expect from a kid's game?
Each level is sandwiched between typically movie-esque cut scenes which explains the plot and helps advance the story, but these are nowhere near as impressive as they could be. For example, Mumble doesn't have his computer-generated fluffiness and the in-game engine makes the environment seem a little flat and lifeless. The PS2 is definitely capable of much better, and the whole look smacks of laziness.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said for the excellent voice-overs, with Elijah Wood and Brittany Murphy making a welcome appearance. However, there's no sign of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson or - shockingly - the vocal talents of Robin Williams, though Dan Castellanetta provides a decent consolation. Despite the omissions, it 's good to see another game being given access to some A-list voice talent. More of it, please.
Ultimately Happy Feet is another safe, derivative, formulaic movie tie-in that's lacking in the graphical department and is way too easy for all but the youngest gamers out there. But if you've got a child who's charmed by tap-dancing penguins then this is an unchallenging and mildly diverting accompaniment to the movie. The rest of you, though, can safely give this a wide berth.