What is it with cartoon-based children's games? For years, they could be counted on to be the direst examples of rote game design around; lazy attempts at profiteering off the powerful and undiscerning love that can only exist between a child and his favorite animated character. Games of this genre could be counted on to scrape the bottom barrel of quality. Then THQ started putting some real effort into their Scooby-Doo themed games, and getting some very good results. Now here comes Warthog studios with a decent Animaniacs game, all the more stunning because it's released right on the heels of a truly dire GBA title.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Animaniacs was a cartoon produced by Warner Brothers and Steven Spielberg's Amblin entertainment. In the spirit of Looney Tunes, it featured a variety of original characters in various comedic sketches. Chief among those characters are the Warner Brothers (and their Warner sister, Dot), three adorable dog/cat hybrid creatures who caper about the Warner Brothers film lot, bedeviling security guards and studio heads alike. Again in the Looney Tunestradition, they provide entertaining wackiness suitable for the children, and knowing winks to keep the parents entertained. It is to the game's greatest credit that it manages to retain the show's sense of style and humour. Like the show before it, the game is legitimately funny, as it pokes fun at the films it parodies as well as the 3rd person platform games that it resembles.
Perhaps the developers had extra time to devote to the Animaniacs content simply because the 3rd-person platformer content is so relatively easy to do well. A few moving platforms, a couple of scenes of being chased by a giant rolling rock, some inventive boss fights, and platforming fans will be happy. Animaniacs offers all of those things, and while the gameplay may not have been revolutionary, it was certainly as entertaining and mildly diverting as one could expect it to be. It's very forgiving, as well. Even before they start getting power-ups, the Warner siblings have access to a triple-jump as well as a hover command, giving players plenty of chances to make even the trickiest jumps.
There are a few problems, though. In order to pad out the game's length, the developers included one of the most egregious examples of pointless collecting I've ever seen. On each film set they visit, the player has to find 300 tchochkes, many of which require multiple trips back to the level to discover. Unfortunately, the levels are big enough, and the item placement sparse and random enough, that tracking them down can get unbelievably frustrating.
Worse is the jump-shadow situation. Ever since platforming games moved into the third dimension, developers have acknowledged that figuring out exactly where jumping characters were going to land was going to be a bit of a problem. Their solution? A jump shadow—a little dot of black that lets the player know exactly what the character is hovering over. Realistic? No, but entirely necessary. As graphics and lighting effects have gotten better over the years, it's become possible to simulate shadows being cast off characters in realistic ways. This is a nice idea in theory but death for a 3D platformer, which is the main problem here. As one of the Warner sibs jumps, his or her shadow flies off to the side. Realistic? Yes. Playable? Not so much. The tricky jump shadow situation is what made me thankful, as a player, that I had access to three consecutive jumps rather than the industry-standard two.
Even with these problems, the game still manages to be an above-average platformer, and a credit to its source material. It's not the best platformer of last year, nor does it break any new ground. Still, there's something here for just about everyone. For fans of the show it's a wonderful new piece of new Animaniacs content. For everyone who isn't lucky enough to have seen the show, it's a solid piece of gameplay along with an opportunity to connect with some really wonderful comic characters.