Monday, June 22, 2009

Over The Hedge

So the Wolverine game has prompted the usual round of "a licensed game that doesn't suck" or "licensed games always suck" talk. But allow me to put in a word for something even rarer than a licensed game that doesn't suck---a licensed game that doesn't suck on the Nintendo DS!

I know, this is hard to believe. Not even the world of cell phone games is so crammed with undercooked mediocrity as the DS movie game world, where developers with little time and less motivation crank out shameful crap on the assumption that it's all going to be bought by clueless moms who'll never play it anyway. The technical limits of the DS further encourage laziness on the part of developers---since your game isn't even going to look good enough to be on your studio's showreel, why bother making it anything other than an object in a box, the box being what sells anyway? My heart sinks a little every time I see my little brother-in-law's game collection---in the front, the first-party titles he saved his allowance for, in the back, the terrible Transformers and Disney games his mom bought him (and that he, bless his heart, it too polite to melt down).

Which is why Over the Hedge is such a stunner. It's not that it's such a fantastic game, but it's actually got a good concept going for it, and in the movie-game world, that's like getting an Audi from your office Secret Santa. It's not an original concept, but it's a great one-liner: Metal Gear Solid with raccoons. I can only imagine the design session where they looked at the plot of Over the Hedge---woodland creatures infiltrate suburban homes---and someone had the brilliant idea to apply the stealth-game template to the antics of nature's sneak thieves.

Though the game gets repetitive pretty quickly, it's executed with some impressive technical skill. I particularly liked the contrast between the top screens 3-D view, and the overhead view on the bottom, a use of the DS's unique properties that makes big console games seem... almost lacking. And you play as a number of non-raccoon-Americans, each with unique abilities.

But ultimately, this is a game made worthwhile by its idea---it's like the digital equivalent of a Warhol film, but shorter. The promise of the DS was always that its technical limitations would inspire developers to compete on the level of ideas, and this is one of the rare times where they did (and blew the console versions of the game out of the water, a definite first). I'd love to see more of this kind of meta-wit applied, not just to licensed games (interestingly enough, the other similar title I can think of was the very funny Simpsons game, another licensed title), but to all titles---sufficient in-jokey decadence can be a good way to stumble across originality, if only by making the unoriginal funny.

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