Few children's-story characters have sustained as well and as long as Curious George. The perpetually inquisitive monkey has captured children's hearts with his good-natured antics since the early 1940s. Odd as it may sound, it has taken until 2006 for a full-length animated film based on Curious George to find its way to theaters. With the film opening this week, Namco has released a new game based on the film for every current-generation console and the PC. This game mixes in some of the animated scenes from the film with a healthy dose of platforming action and some goofy, rhythmic minigames. Unfortunately, as history has so often shown, platformers based on children's films tend to be overly simplistic, overly repetitive, and overly brief. Curious George is all of these things and fails to pull off anything beyond a middling platforming experience.
The plot of the film and the game seem to be woven closely together. The Man in the Yellow Hat (or Ted, as he's referred to here) is on a trip to Africa looking for a mythical idol. He thinks he's found it, but he accidentally stumbles upon a rather teensy replica of the supposed idol. Broken and dejected, Ted heads back to his ship to sail back to America in shame--but not without meeting a new friend first. A curious little monkey wanders up and beguiles the oddly dressed American. Ted tries to leave the monkey, but he follows Ted back to his boat and inadvertently finds himself on a journey to America. From there, as you might expect, wacky hijinks ensue, with Ted trying to keep George's arrival a secret, and George getting into all manner of trouble. The good news is that if you haven't seen the movie, the game won't spoil too much of it (although it does spoil the ending), as it only uses some disjointed sections of the film without much context. Unfortunately, this also makes for a fairly brief game, because the whole thing can be beaten in about three hours, and that's if you watch all the cutscenes without skipping around.
It's not that there's a dearth of content here--the game does feature about a dozen levels, each of which has a couple of different areas and challenges. The main problem is that every core component of the game's action is dumbed down to the point of oversimplicity. All the level designs are extremely linear, so there's really no measure of exploration, beyond a couple of nooks and crannies where there might be some additional collectible bananas. And there's not much challenge to the platforming itself, either. George can jump, double jump, swing, and slide around the different environments, but all the various jump puzzles are laid out in such a painstakingly easy way, that you can practically find your way to the end of a level without even thinking. In fact, some of the more challenging jump puzzles can be completely circumvented due to some broken physics issues where you can jump on and balance on seemingly invisible ledges that ought not to be there.
When you're not jumping around mindlessly, you're engaging in one of the game's minigames. There are a few different types, but they all pretty much revolve around hitting controller or keyboard buttons in time with some kind of rhythm. Button icons usually scroll one way or another across the screen, and you simply need to press the buttons at the right time. The problem with these games is that they, like the platforming, are idiot simple. Even at the fastest pacing, the buttons move at such a slow clip that it would be near impossible for anyone to mess them up beyond repair, and there's not much rhythm to the hits. They sort of fall on specific beats in the music, but it's loose, at best. Worse still, the game insists on pelting you with these games in long stretches, forcing you in some cases to go through up to nine rounds of the same game in a single level to advance. It's already a short game, but being inundated with overly repetitive minigames makes that already short length seem artificial.
The one thing Curious George does have going for it is graphics. The game uses a method of cel-shading that gives it an appropriately cartoony look, without going overboard on the outlining. George himself is quite adorable, and he and the other characters look pretty much like they do in the film. The environmental designs are a little blander than the characters. Textures are flat, and there's not much detail to be found in the game's worlds. But if nothing else, they're colorful, and they fit the themes of the game. Technically, the game is mostly sound. The frame rate holds up, and camera control isn't a huge issue, although it does have its annoying spots. Graphically there aren't any significant differences between all three console versions and the PC version of the game. In fact, the only real difference is the controls on the PC. You need a good dual-analog controller to play this game on the PC. If you have one, you're set, but if you try to play with just a keyboard and mouse setup, the camera movement becomes too annoying to deal with.
The game's audio is similarly decent. For the most part, you won't hear the real actors from the movie (including stars Will Ferrell and Eugene Levy). However, veteran voice actor Frank Welker lends his efforts to George's voice in the game as well as the movie, and Mr. Show cocreator David Cross is on hand as well. Welker's voice work is a treat (although the game overdoes it with some of the monkey-screeching sound effects), but Cross sounds kind of bored and disinterested with the whole process. Fortunately, he only shows up in one level. The rest of the voice cast is engaging enough to keep the story moving, and they sound enough like their film counterparts that it doesn't make the transitions between cutscene and gameplay dialogue too jarring. The game's music is appropriately cheery and inoffensive, though not exactly memorable.
Last year, a similar kind of platformer was released alongside the animated film Madagascar. That game was similarly simplified for the sake of appealing to a younger audience, but it managed to simplify things without dumbing them down to utter banality. Curious George seems to have no other goal than to be a game that has a cute, marketable monkey in it. It's not much fun, regardless of what age group you belong to, and there's just not enough of the actual story to make it legit. If your kids just can't get enough of that delightful monkey after seeing the movie, buy them a stuffed animal, a lunchbox, or anything else featuring that smiling monkey face. Just don't drop $40 on this dull, three-hour game.