A long-running gag in the Peanuts comics and cartoons has been Snoopy's fascination with World War I air battles. Specifically, Charlie Brown's pet beagle likes to imagine that he's a famous flying ace engaged in dogfights against the legendary Red Baron. Now, thanks to Namco-Bandai Games, that gag has been made into a video game. Snoopy vs. the Red Baron is a lighthearted take on the air combat genre that lets you take control of the Sopwith Camel and other aircraft, go on missions that primarily involve shooting down swarms of enemy planes, and watch a charming wartime story unfold that features familiar Peanuts characters in the starring roles. Of course, there isn't any sort of "blood and guts." Instead, everyone parachutes to safety when you blow their planes to bits. But don't let that kid-safe tint fool you. Snoopy's game is loaded with intense shooting action that players of any age can appreciate.
In a nod to the comics and cartoons, the game opens with a scene showing Snoopy asleep on top of his doghouse. Charlie Brown and Lucy walk by and wonder aloud what Snoopy might be dreaming about. When Snoopy sits up and makes rat-a-tat noises, Charlie Brown suggests that he was probably dreaming about being a famous World War I flying ace. As it turns out, that's exactly what Snoopy was dreaming about, and the purpose of the game is to take you on a firsthand journey through Snoopy's fantastic dream. You control Snoopy, as the WWI ace, and go on a campaign of 22 missions for the Allied army, which is struggling to free Europe from the tyranny of the Red Baron and the Central Powers. The game isn't set in the Peanuts gang's hometown--as Snoopy's imagined skirmishes take place in six different locations spread across Britain, France, and Germany--but that doesn't mean the game isn't thick with Peanuts flavor. Familiar Peanuts characters assume the roles of Snoopy's commanding officers and wingmen. They fight alongside him during gameplay and act out the story during the animated video scenes that appear at the end of certain missions.
You won't find anything particularly new or innovative while you're playing, but as air combat games go, this one does a good job with tried-and-true concepts. The campaign comprises 22 missions that are split up into multiple segments. In one mission, for example, you have to retrieve a set of plans from a retrieval robot, take the plans back to base, and then escort a blimp carrying Rerun and Linus to safety. Despite the varying goals, missions generally involve shooting down countless numbers of enemy planes and blimps and sinking whatever gunships you come across. Each mission also has a number of secondary goals, such as destroying a certain number of enemy vehicles or collecting a certain number of balloons. The flight controls and combat are best described as easygoing. Snoopy's Sopwith Camel has a primary machine gun with unlimited ammo, as well as a secondary weapon with limited ammo, which you can outfit with bottle rockets, balloon bombs, and other comically inspired weapons. Shooting at enemies is a simple matter of locating them in your gun sight and pressing one of the attack buttons. While you're flying, other buttons let you kick in the turbo or air brakes or perform evasive maneuvers, like a roll, loop, or Immelman turn. You'll be shot down if the Camel takes too much damage, but enemies frequently leave behind root-beer items that you can grab to regain armor. The skies are usually littered with enemy planes, and more appear to replace the ones you shoot down, so there's always something to shoot at.
Getting through the campaign doesn't take very long, but it's a good ride while it lasts. You can reach the final mission in the better part of a day. There's some incentive to go back and replay missions a few times to increase your rank and to find all of the letters that let you buy more pilots at Pigpen's store. Beyond that, it's fun to replay missions because the combat is exciting and satisfying.
Another satisfying aspect is the game's overall look and feel. There's some mild cel-shading afoot during combat that helps give the action a crude look similar to how Charles Schulz might have animated the game if he were still alive. Seeing Snoopy in the cockpit of the Sopwith Camel and watching the Red Baron and his army fly by in propeller planes from the early 1900's is quite a thrill for a Peanuts fan. Outside of combat, it's amusing to see the shy Marcie running a flight school or Pigpen selling weapons out of a carnival stall. Peanuts fans will especially appreciate the intermission scenes that appear between missions. The characters look and sound just like they do in the cartoons, and they often chime in with trademark quips, such as Sally referring to Linus as her "Sweet Baboo" or Lucy saying "Good grief" every time Charlie Brown gets into trouble. During missions, the music is dramatic and serious. At the campaign hub and during intermissions, however, the soundtrack is a close replication of Vince Guaraldi's score from the original Peanuts animated features. In the technical sense, the game doesn't flex the graphical horsepower of any of the systems it's on. Nevertheless, the scenery and aircraft are reasonably detailed, the frame rate is generally smooth, and the screen is often littered with dozens of planes and their assorted exploding bits. All of the accompanying sound effects for the various bullets, missiles, and explosions are also sufficiently loud.
Since the game is currently available for the PC, PlayStation 2, and PSP, some people will likely be concerned with bringing home the best version. There really isn't a clear winner in that comparison. All three are roughly identical in terms of graphics, audio, and the contents of the campaign mode. The PC version looks sharper, since it can render the graphics at a high resolution, but its free-for-all mode doesn't support any kind of multiplayer configuration. The PS2 version looks just dandy on a TV, though, and it also lets two players duke it out split-screen style. The PSP version, meanwhile, is missing the snazzy smoke and cloud visual effects that the other two versions have, and you'll notice that there are fewer enemy planes in the air at any given time, but it offsets those shortcomings by letting as many as six players compete in any of six different match types. On the PSP, players can fly solo or in teams to see who can rack up the most kills, who can hold territory the longest, and who can capture the most flags. You can also play a rousing game of midair tag. No matter which version you bring home, you'll probably be satisfied if the idea of an air combat game based on Snoopy's fantasies is a concept that appeals to you.
All told, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron is a good example of the right way to produce a video game based on a licensed property. The underlying gameplay provides a nice mix of tried-and-true concepts from the air combat genre, while the integration of the Peanuts characters and situations is handled in a way that's faithful to Charles Schulz's original stories. When you play the game, you really get the idea that you're the famous World War I flying ace piloting the Sopwith Camel to victory against the nefarious Red Baron.