When Disney Universe first reared its cute, over-sized head, the comparisons to LittleBigPlanet were immediate. Considering both platform games feature incongruous craniums, amusing collectible costumes, and four-player multiplayer, it certainly wasn’t a large leap to make. However Disney Universe has a lot more in common with the LEGO video game series (LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Batman, etc) than with Media Molecule’s effort.
Although lacking the genius and creativity of LittleBigPlanet, Disney Universe is a perfect equivalent for a much younger audience. It’s fun, colourful, humourous, and offers a decent mix of thumb-bashing and brain engaging gameplay - without the frustrating aspects of its rival. And with the entire Disney catalogue on hand, including Pixar Studios, there is wealth of inspired visuals to draw from.
The premise is loose, but then you don’t hear much about LittleBigPlanet’s epic storyline either. The basic thread of the game serves its purpose admirably and quickly brings together a staggering cast of characters with little time wasted, that kids will digest easily.
Imagine a Disney Universe, a sprawling virtual world built from classic Disney movies located in the ether. It’s sort of like a Nirvana for our beloved animated pals like Nemo and Wall-E. In charge of the Disney Universe is a charming anthropomorphic little blue cube, known as VIC (an abbreviation for the sadly unimaginative, Virtual Information Cube). I could almost hear Stephen Merchant’s voice in the background.
As you can imagine, the Disney Universe is a pretty sweet place to hang out. However this tranquil and crazy world is thrown into chaos when it is attacked by a malevolent, much more evil little cube (you can tell because this one is red and black). This malicious block sets out to wreck havoc on poor old VIC and his realm of animated madness and it’s up to a team of manically grinning wee ‘dudes’ to restore the peace.
This is where you and your mates come in, taking control of each of these coloured critters as they explore the insane mischief of the Disney Universe. Soon you’ll be running, jumping and screaming your way through levels inspired by Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Lion King, Tron, Aladdin, Monsters Inc, Alice’s Wonderland and plenty other memorable and recognisable locales.
One surprising feature is that you are free to explore these worlds in pretty much any order you like. It's rare to find any children's game that’s not linear these days and the freedom of choice will mean that many kids will start off with movies they are familiar with.
The gameplay is fairly simple, involving combat, jumping from platforms, and occasionally solving puzzles along the way. The main component is pretty much a button masher sort of affair and depending on what suit you're wearing (or what character you're dressed as) you'll have appropriate attacks and special moves on hand. For example, while dressed as that little sh*t Stitch, you will whack enemies with your trusty ukulele and as the blue guy from Tron, you’ll throw a laser disc.
The game is obviously forgiving and easy for younger players to pick up and play. A lot of it is repetitive, but thanks to the ‘Cute Factor 4000TM’ and odd-ball antics on screen, it’s still rewarding and mesmerising for those under fourteen years old. It was even pretty entertaining for a couple of dudes in their late twenties.
Despite the simple combat mechanics though, there were still a few strange things afoot. Sometimes the collision detection engine and consequent health meter appear to be seriously broken. Quite often you'll receive damage for no reason and invisible projectiles will kill you from out of no-where. But nearby respawns and infinite lives means the game remains fun and highly accessible, allowing any gamer to get to the end without throwing any kiddie tantrums.
The puzzle solving aspects are along the same lines as the LEGO franchise, but without the charming 'brick building' animations - obviously. The humour isn't quite so clever as its plastic block equivalent either, but numerous visual gags retain that same sense of comedy that viewers of all ages will at least be able to grin over. It usually depends on the subject matter, with levels inspired by the brilliant Monsters Inc. for example, packed full of comedy gold. The Alice in Wonderland levels on the other hand are disappointingly mediocre despite the potential assets on hand.
The platforming aspects - where players have to jump gaps and collect items - are well thought out. Even when you have up to four players on-screen for co-operative madness, the camera does a decent job of tracking all players without the anguish of ‘running out of screen’ issues many of these games tend to suffer from. It's here in the fun, casual multiplayer that this game excels.
Of course there is a competitive nature to the multiplayer too, where players will often race to grab more items or kill more baddies. You can even grab fellow team-mates and fling them around the screen. A sinister, yet fun aspect that must have been inspired by the cheekiness of LittleBigPlanet. Occassionally you’ll need to fling teammates to solve puzzles, but I’m sure it’s mainly there to annoy your mates.
Overall, this game was impressive and polished. Although the graphics aren’t anything to exhume Walt Disney over, the colourful world of his legacy is brought to life in a modest, but appropriate and colourful fashion. What really surprised me though was the amount of decent gameplay that Disney Universe delivers for a children’s title. There are dozens of crazy costumes to unlock, as well as gold medals and other collectibles hidden around the different worlds.
The selection of suits inspired by Disney classics are probably charming enough to keep addicted players coming back for hours. Running around in a Jack Sparrow outfit or looking like the green eye-balled Mike Wazowski is nearly worth the price of admission alone. Naturally the original cast of Disney chums appear in costume form too, with the likes of Goofy, Mickey and Donald able to be unlocked. But I wonder how many kids care about these guys now? When was the last time we saw old Goofy on the big screen? And what’s the deal with Goofy anyway? He’s a dog, just like Pluto – except he wears clothes, stands upright on two legs and talks [Gawsh - Ed.]. Meanwhile Pluto is just Mickey’s stupid canine pet? Anyone!!?
Ahem. Anyway, Disney Universe is probably not a game for anyone born too far before the millennium. But it is sure to bring some joy for younger players this Christmas. For the price-tag, parents will also be pleased to hear that the game can produce up to 12 hours game time for kids with decent attention spans. Perfect for those looking to sit back and have some quiet time to themeselves on Boxing Day, perhaps. Beats having to install those childproof cages anyway*.
* NZGamer.com does not condone housing small children in cages, however if you are interested - please contact us for a friendly, no obligation quote.