Games 8/3/10: Kid Adventures: Sky Captain, Despicable Me: The Game, Dive: The Medes Island Secret

Kid Adventures: Sky Captain
For: Wii
From: Torus Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Though not backed by a popular toy or movie brand — and, sadly, condemned to be overlooked for that very reason — “Kid Adventures: Sky Captain” is exactly the kind of summertime title parents are searching for when trying to find a well-made game that tailors to kids without treating them like idiots.

To wit, after a tutorial that introduces basic flight controls and runs maybe two minutes long, “Captain” hands players the keys to an entire island as well as their first plane. An entry-level crop of missions scatters itself around the island, and players are immediately free to select whichever missions they please or simply fly around the island and explore for as long as they like. For a game so squarely aimed at kids, the complete liberation players so quickly receive is startling and extremely refreshing.

Though an overriding storyline introduces a rival pilot who challenges players to be the island’s sky captain, “Captain’s” world is rather saccharine. Crashing planes bounce on the ground like plastic toys before the game returns players to the air with little consequence, and the game employs water balloons instead of bombs when missions call for some kind of target shooting.

But the cheerful exterior works just fine, and because “Captain” has such harmless substitutes as water balloons in tow, the game is able to devise multiple mission types without resorting to aggression and turning off parents. (An early water bomb mission, for instance, has players firing at a building in hopes of helping extinguish a fire.)

The best news about “Captain’s” controls is that there isn’t really any news at all. The Wii remote is all players need, and controlling the planes is as simple as tilting the remote right and left to steer and back and forth to ascend and descend. Getting used to the tilt sensitivity might require a little acclimation, but the controls perform exactly as they should, and the game makes it very easy to dive, roll and navigate through narrow spaces around the island.

Though there are only 40 total core missions, “Captain” gives them replay value by attaching gold-, silver- and bronze-medal scores to each. The game further sweetens the pot with an experience system that rewards points for completing missions, fulfilling optional achievements, performing dangerous stunts and flying through stunt rings scattered all over the island. Those experience rewards translate into new planes and additional paint jobs for existing planes, giving completists and fashionistas alike plenty more to do than the mission count initially suggests.

Though “Captain’s” two-player splitscreen mode is about as basic as can be — it allows two players to explore the island separately and take on missions competitively — it’s a great choice in practice. Players can freely race each other and dream up their own competitions in addition to playing any of the challenges from the single-player mode, and the freedom to switch between structured and freeform play is a luxury kids’ games rarely receive. The horizontal splitscreen presentation is a bit constricting, particularly with this being a flying instead of driving game, but that’s more a byproduct of logistics than a fault of the game.

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Despicable Me: The Game
For: Wii
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

There’s a perfectly valid argument to be made in favor of “Despicable Me’s” opening tutorial level, which holds players’ hands at a pace that can generously be described as agonizing. The primary gameplay — straightforward 2D running and jumping — needs no introduction, but Gru’s weapon (a multifunction raygun whose functions can be combined) and minions (those cute yellow guys, who help Gru solve puzzles and reach previously unreachable areas) justifiably merit some explanation.

By the end of the 20-minute tutorial, though, all the unskippable stopping and explaining is enough to make seasoned players wistful of the days when games had no scruples about dropping kids into a gauntlet and daring them to figure it out themselves.

Don’t worry: Those days make a fierce comeback in level two.

Almost instantly, “Me” transforms into a beast, trotting out a string of platforming challenges that amp up the difficulty so quickly as to be unrecognizable by comparison. The game immediately asks players to demonstrate a mastery of running, jumping and raygun shooting finesse that all work in tandem, and the demands are daunting enough to rightly challenge the seasoned players who scoffed at level one. “Me” is generous with checkpoints — there’s one between every platforming challenge, so players won’t have to repeat something they cleared after failing whatever follows — so it speaks to “Me’s” ruthlessness that it’s a nasty game even with this generosity taken into account.

The same holds true for the minion portions of the game, in which players aim the Wii remote at the screen and “fire” minions into the level in ways that activate switches, form bridges and otherwise allow Gru safe passage to the exit. The demonstrations of this trick in the tutorial are completely banal, but the first real challenge necessitates thinking about the problem in a way the tutorial didn’t even present as necessarily fathomable. “Me” makes yet more concessions by scattering hint cards that reveal the solutions to the truly hopeless, but even these don’t always paint the whole picture for those who can’t think a bit critically.

The shock to the system that is most of “Me’s” post-tutorial content — a few flying segments, while a nice change of pace, feel a bit half-baked by comparison — will likely feel like found gold to players who crave a fierce challenge and never expected to find it here.

But that speaks to “Me’s” problem: It’s a game that has an identity complex and is ultimately catered to people who will never know it’s for them. The subject matter and early handholding make it entirely easy to dismiss as fare for kids, but just about everything else appears designed to send those same kids into the arms of a demoralizing temper tantrum. Even parents who attempt to assist their kids might come away defeated by something that, if presented without the family-friendly license, would almost certainly be embraced by the hardcore crowd.

So while “Me” is the arguable diamond in the summer movie game rough, it’s also completely impossible to recommend to the very specific audience that might seek it out — unless, of course, parents want to give their kids a taste of the way kids’ games were when they grew up.

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Dive: The Medes Island Secret
For: Nintendo Wii via Wii Shop Channel
From: Cosmonaut Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $10

Anyone pining for a contemporary equivalent to Sega’s “Ecco the Dolphin” games might want to take a chance on “Dive: The Medes Island Secret,” which, like “Ecco,” is a very pretty sidescrolling action game centered around deep-sea diving instead of running and jumping. “Dive” stars players as a scuba diver instead of a dolphin, and the objective — plunge to the depths of the sea and recover valuable treasure forgotten by time — is pretty pedestrian. The execution, however, is not: “Dive” uses a cursor-based control scheme instead of traditional D-pad or joystick movement, with players “pulling”
the diver around with the cursor. That unusual approach will potentially annoy those who steadfastly prefer time-tested 2D controls, but they allow for some surprisingly fluid swimming motions that perfectly complement the pace of the game and the measured speed of both the diver and the hostile sea creatures he either must tranquilize or evade. “Dive’s” most valuable asset is its emphasis on exploration over high-octane action: Like a good “Metroid”-style game, it offers multiple pathways through which to discover additional secrets, and an upgrades shop allows players to purchase equipment that lets them plunge deeper into the sea. Along with a set of achievements that should appeal to players who like to pick a game clean, there’s much to do beyond simply taking “Dive’s” main roads.