Animated Behavior: 'Toon-Based Games

Paramount Pictures' Barnyard - 2005
PARAMOUNT PICTURES
Remember when computer animation seemed like a novelty? It was barely a decade ago when "Toy Story" first dazzled audiences and changed Hollywood's approach to cartoons. Now it seems like there's a new animated feature film every other week — and, to judge from the blasé response that greeted "The Ant Bully," there may be a glut.

Accompanying those movies has been a flood of video games, no doubt targeting the same parents who are desperate to keep the kids busy during the long summer months. One such game, THQ's adaptation of "Cars," was released in seven different versions and has become one of the year's best-sellers.

Most 'toon-based games are fairly enjoyable, and parents can be confident that young players won't be exposed to any cursing or graphic violence. But it's hard for a grown-up gamer to get excited about a game based on "Monster House" or "Barnyard." Then again, you might be surprised by how good some of these games are.

  • "Monster House" (THQ, for the Game Boy, $29.99): The "Monster House" game published for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube is a mildly diverting adventure with a few spooky surprises; I'd give it two stars. It didn't prepare me for "Monster House" on the Game Boy, which is one of the most enjoyable releases for Nintendo's aging handheld in a long time. It's more like a role-playing game, with the haunted house serving as a giant dungeon. On each floor of the house you're attacked by possessed household objects, which you can fight with your water gun or stun with your camera flash. Each of the three kids from the film has different talents — DJ can climb, Chowder can lift heavy things and Jenny can squeeze through tight spaces — so you need to switch among them to progress through the house. Fans of the original, 2D "Legend of Zelda" will feel right at home with this game's puzzles, in which you have to discover the secrets of each level before moving to the next. A warning to parents: The Game Boy "Monster House" may be too difficult for younger players. Three stars out of four.
  • "Barnyard" (THQ, for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, $39.99): It's hard to dislike a game that lets you play as a bicycle-riding cow. In "Barnyard," you are the new cow on the block, the latest addition to a freaky farm where the critters walk on two legs, talk, play practical jokes and indulge in other humanoid shenanigans. There's not much of a plot; instead, characters from the movie ask you to help out with their chores, whether they're chasing off raccoons, rounding up baby chicks or harassing the mailman. If you get stuck on one mission, you can skip it and go find another job or just ride your bike around the farm for a while. With such free-form gameplay, it's kind of like "Grand Theft Tractor." The graphics are crisp and colorful, the controls are easy to learn and there's a ton of stuff to do. Don't use "Barnyard" to teach your kids about biology, though; the bulls here are called cows and have udders — which they use to shoot milk at coyotes. Three stars.
  • "The Ant Bully" (Midway, for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, $29.99): The premise seems better-suited for a game than a movie. A brat named Lucas is shrunk to the size of a bug, and has to learn the ways of an ant colony before he can return to normal. That could be the starting point for a playful, skewed-perspective romp like "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" or the Nintendo game "Chibi-Robo." Instead, "The Ant Bully" is a drab, repetitive bore in which Lucas fights the same pill bugs, spiders and wasps over and over again. More irritating is the constant hectoring of the ants, who are always nagging you about the importance of teamwork even though you're the only one who's getting anything done. They're so annoying that you wouldn't blame Lucas for becoming an exterminator once he grows up. One and a half stars.

By Lou Kesten