Parents and children in search of quality game software haven't had an easy time despite the industry's recent boom years. There's no shortage of inane titles lining shelves with only a cartoon license or television character as the selling point, but these kinds of shovelware aren't acceptable. If a game is too simplistic and boring, its hard for parents to maintain interest in their child's activity. If the game isn't very good to begin with, or if the difficulty level isn't keyed in to young ones, the child will get frustrated by the gameplay. There are many other factors that go into what makes preteen software engaging and appropriate, but overall its a challenge to find something that provides a real opportunity for bonding. Thankfully, Stuart Little 2 steps in to help fill this large gap, brought to shelves by Sony and Magenta Software.
Stuart Little 2 is a 3D platformer featuring the eponymous white mouse who recently starred in movie theaters across the country. While I haven't seen the film, the premise of the disc appears to follow closely. (Or so my son says.) The gist of the plot is that Stuart is a tiny mouse that lives with a regular human family. He befriends a yellow bird named Margalo who is being forced to steal jewelry by a nasty falcon, and decides to help end her enslavement. Your quest is to recover and return the pilfered jewelry to its rightful owners, and eventually put the falcon in his place.
The game is played from a third-person perspective. The games viewpoint is adjustable by moving the Dual Shock 2's right analog stick. Movement can be handled either by the digital pad, or the left analog. The game takes a fairly nonviolent stance from the start and limits offense to throwing small objects like pebbles or Lego blocks at hairy spiders, irate seagulls or toy robots. Besides a good pitching arm, Stuart's other abilities include spinning to use his tail as a defensive shield, flicking it to give him a double-jump, swimming, climbing and even a cute little first-person viewpoint in tunnels or in crawlspaces. Also worth noting is that the game features several mini-games spread throughout the adventure. Skateboarding, flying a model plane and target shooting, among others.
While this adaptation isn't going to win any awards for break-through design or mind-expanding content, I'd like to recognize it for filling a niche that needed to be filled, and doing it quite well.
The games free-roaming levels are large, yet they remain very user-friendly by having clearly delineated areas that are easy to categorize. By breaking things up into sections, it prevents players from being overwhelmed with the multiple possibilities that a "grown-up" platformer might present. As an example, in Stuart's house area there's a bathroom, bedroom, dining and living room all separated by cracked-open doors. The boundaries are highly visible without preventing access, and help encourage short-term achievable goal-setting. This strategy is also supported by a clear menu screen that functions as a checklist for each stage.
The bulk of the action revolves around simple item-collection tasks. Things such as cat biscuits, golden keys, hidden rings and other various items are scattered high and low throughout the over-sized environments. Thorough searching of the nooks and crannies present will reward diligent gamers. In case there's any difficulty, the developers offer ample assistance. All in-game prompts feature clearly spoken instructions accompanied by text, and Margalo lend a helping wing by doing visual fly-bys of the hard-to-reach items. Lives and health are also in plentiful supply, so frustration levels should be minimal.
Beside the easy-to-grasp layout and extremely approachable difficulty, the game is just a lot of fun to look at. The art design is colorful, inviting and friendly. In fact, Stuart Little 2 is home to the cheeriest, most well-lit sewer level I've ever seen in a videogame. At no point would a child be scared by dark alleys (there are none) or put off by any oppressive scenery. It must also be said that much of the appeal is that your main character is mouse-small in relation to the games people-sized environments. There's just something fascinatingly magnetic about traversing rooms and furniture that wed typically see on a daily basis with the scale magnified by ten times. A CD tray becomes a stepping-stone to a high shelf, a potted plant becomes a ladder and a bunk bed becomes a skyscraper. One man's mundane is certainly one mouse's adventure.
Stuart Little 2 is the kind of game that has its priorities clearly set, and does not deviate from them by adding superfluous elements or things not consistent with the overall philosophy. If players can accept the fact that it does not try to revolutionize or innovate, there's hardly anything to criticize about the game besides the fact that its running on the dated PlayStation hardware. Its far from being "ugly", but people used to playing the newer boxes might have a bit of trouble going back to a lower graphic standard. The objects and structures aren't as solidly constructed as we typically expect on the PlayStation 2, Xbox or GameCube, and the pop-in horizon for items is too close for my taste. Still, despite the lack of horsepower, everything's basically in place and the camera isn't bad at all.
One other thing to be aware of (as it is with practically all 3D platformers) is that some jumps and pathways to travel in later levels might present a bit of challenge for gamers of a very young age I'd guess below ten years or so. Leaping from one lofty clothesline to the next or making a spatial-perception connection between the broken park bench and the kite string dangling above it takes a bit of mental and physical sophistication. I'd advise parents to be nearby in order to provide the occasional helping hand or bit of guidance here and there.
All in all, I'd like to commend Magenta Software for producing a game that avoids the stereotypically gutter-low level of quality signifying a movie-license game, and also dodging the child software ghetto of inane tasks and shallow design. Stuart Little 2 is clearly targeted for a younger audience, but remains a great game not only appropriate, but enjoyable for children, parents and game critics alike.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway