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Mario remote control car

Mario remote control car.

Price: £10

(Yoshi and Donkey Kong also available).

Comments: Imagine being able to recreate games of Mario Kart around the kitchen table, little remote controlled cars cornering tightly as Donkey Kong and Mario race to be the first to complete three laps without smashing into the bin or skidding through a patch of spilt juice and wiping out. Wouldn't that be fantastic?

Now imagine it where the karts can only turn while going backwards.

Not quite as good, is it?

Worse than that, the reality in this case is that the karts in question can either go straight forwards or they can go backwards and to the right. Racing isn't really an option. Trying to get one of the flipping things to go anywhere without lots of spinning round in backwards circles and/or crashing isn't even much of a option. It's more like playing a frustrating level of Super Monkey Ball than Mario Kart.

The karts do go reasonably fast but this just increases the chance of a crash and they really aren't built for crashes. The flashing tail-pipes snapped within minutes of our one coming out of the box. The batteries jolt out of place unless a tissue is crammed into the compartment with them. Actual wires jolt out of place given the chance. In fact, about the only thing that doesn't feel in danger of coming loose at any moment is the battery in the controller - I had to prise that out with a knife in the end.

It could be argued that the kart has had some rough treatment but it's not like it has inadvertently gone down the stairs or anything - it's just gone through the kind of handling you'd expect from children. No one's even stood on it. (Although I've been tempted...)

Still, it is a working model of Mario and that has to count for something. Sprog1 doesn't really care that it doesn't work that well - he's just pleased that it exists and that it's his.

Conclusion: It might look cool on a shelf but it's really not for playing with.

Durability: Low.
Manoeuvrability: Low.
Speed: Medium.
Frustration: High.
Battery Death: Imminent.
Explosions: Sadly, none.

Rating: 2/5.

Family Guy - Series 1 Volume 1 (DVD)

Starring: The disembodied voices of some Americans, plenty of excellent visual gags and one-liners and a bunch of rejected plots from The Simpsons.

Rated: 15

Story: This is an animated sitcom about the Griffin family - fat, oafish dad (Peter), hard-working, well-to-do mum (Lois), insecure teenage daughter (Meg), idiot teenage son (Chris), evil genius baby (Stewie) and their talking, Martini-drinking dog (Brian). They live in the suburbs in an obscure part of New England. Each episode is a separate scenario with no ongoing story. And, yes, it is a bit like The Simpsons.

Comments: This show is still in production despite having been cancelled twice. Having now watched a few of the early episodes, I can see both why it got canned but also why plenty of people bought the DVDs and brought about its resurrection. Family Guy has moments where it is hilarious but they leap out unexpectedly in the midst of something which is patently a wannabe of The Simpsons, except wackier and not as clever. Since there are already about a million episodes of The Simpsons, a knock-off isn't going to get anyone excited. It is funny, though. Basically, it's the kind of thing you wouldn't turn on specially but that's a real score if you're flicking channels while sitting up late with a grouchy baby.

The best bits are always the brief flash-back and 'what if' scenes that pop up frequently, introduced by lines such as, "I'm not so sure that's a good idea, remember the last time I did the laundry..." These provide nearly all the laugh-out-loud moments. (Some of the references are overly American, however, and some are out-of-date now).

In contrast, the actual story-lines affirming that lazy, idiot dads are really heroes can be tedious. We've seen it all before. Family Guy is far better when things revolve around Stewie's plans for world domination. With luck, later episodes feature more of Brian and Stewie while making the other characters a little more memorable.

That said, watching an episode of Family Guy is a better way to spend twenty minutes last thing at night than hunting around on Teletext for something interesting because you can't be bothered to go to bed. Just remember not to end up doing the Teletext thing as well... It's never pleasant waking up up on the sofa at half-seven in the morning with a small child sitting on your head playing Mario Kart.

Conclusion: I'll rent the second disc at some point but I'm in no great rush. It might even be better just going straight to season four and seeing if the show ever really finds its feet. If you're desperate for some American comedy, try My Name is Earl first - it's consistently funnier and more interesting. Or you could just set your Sky+ box to record repeats of The Simpsons. That will keep you busy for awhile.

Explosions: Occasional.
Jokes about President Clinton: Some.
Brilliant comic characters: Two.
Generic comic characters: The rest.
Similarity to The Simpsons: Obvious.
Chances of a Family Guy fanboy slagging me for daring to suggest any similarity to The Simpsons whatsoever: High.

Rating: 3/5.

Crank (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham, Amy Smart (The Butterfly Effect)

Rated: 18

Story: Chev Chelios, a hitman, wakes up to discover he has been poisoned. The only way for him to stay alive long enough to exact some revenge is to keep his body pumped full of adrenaline. He goes about this by driving very fast, shooting lots of things and having some very public sex. Sometimes in combination...

Comments: This is, in essence, Grand Theft Auto the movie, complete with plenty of swearing, gory violence, shooting, stealing cars for convenience, videogame references and running to the next mission when nothing decent to drive has spawned nearby.

Like GTA, there's also a dark sense of humour but here there's more of a point to it all. Chelios rushes around leaving destruction in his wake as he searches for the next thrill, the next chance to be alive. He is so intent on reaching his destination, he never stops to think where he's going or what he's doing. He never has a chance to enjoy it. Crank is life on fast-forward with the parental safe-guards turned off. It's a call to take stock of who we are and of what we're doing to ourselves and other people in pursuit of gratification.

Or maybe I've spent so long trying to extract philosophical meaning from Teletubbies that I'm giving a tacky action film too much credit. It's certainly not without flaws. It's sometimes hard to tell whether the film's being ironic or serious. Sometimes the shock factor of the scenes can get in the way of the message. For instance, Crank pokes fun at the media for delivering us up-to-the-minute violence and yet it is, itself, a film that entertains through immediacy and violence. Then again, perhaps the whole thing just wouldn't work if it wasn't all so extreme.

On a more mundane level, the characterisation is poor and the dialogue merely serviceable. Statham reprises his Transporter role as a likeable, conflicted villain. He's obviously found his niche and is very effective. He's helped by the fact that the script tends to gloss over the fact that his character is a cold-blooded assassin. Smart is onto a loser from the beginning - her character is an idiot. No one else sticks around for long.

Conclusion: It's trashy and confused but there's genius in there somewhere. The more I think about it, the more I liked it.

Explosions: None.
Pace: Fast.
Outrage: High.
Ending: Slightly rubbish.
Statham's hospital gown: Flappy.
Suitability as a birthday gift for your gran: Low.

Rating: 4/5.

Pokemon Trading Card Game 2-Player Starter Set

Pokémon Trading Card game starter set.

Price: £5-£10

  • 30 card 'fighting' pokemon deck.
  • 30 card 'fire' pokemon deck.
  • 10 glass pebbles for use as damage counters.
  • 1 holographic card that's not much use unless you go out and buy more cards.
  • Starter rules containing the basics to get you going.
  • Rulebook containing clarifications and some extra rules (most of which don't apply unless you go out and buy more cards).
  • List of all the basic pokemon cards (most of which you won't be able to tick off until you go out and buy more cards).
  • The creeping feeling you may have to go out and buy more cards.
Gameplay: Beginner rules: Each player has a deck containing pokemon cards, energy cards and trainer cards. Players have one active pokemon that's currently fighting and up to five substitute pokemon 'on the bench'. These are all laid out on the table. Players also have cards in their hand which they can use on their turn. Energy cards power up pokemon to make stronger attacks available; trainer cards allow things like healing. Active pokemon get one attack per turn and do damage to the opposing active pokemon. If a pokemon accumulates more damage than it has health, it's knocked out and has to be replaced by a substitute.

There are a few complications, like being able to swap injured pokemon for substitutes on your own go, but the basic rules aren't too complicated.

Object: To be the first to knock out three opposing pokemon.

Game length: Fifteen minutes (including set-up).

Number of players: 2

Age: Officially 10+ but my seven-year-old and five-year-old have happily spent hours playing this. I had to talk them through the first couple of games and it's good that at least one of them can read the instructions on the cards but the basic rules are really not much more complicated than Junior Monopoly.

Comments: Sprog1 is pokemon mad. Forget falling through a wardrobe and ending up in Narnia, he wants his own Pikachu and the freedom to wander the land zapping inept bad guys with Thundershock attacks.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should probably move along now. Nothing to see here. These are not the cards you are looking for...

He's played various computer games, watched the TV series, read the books, bought the annual and I made him the t-shirt. It was probably only a matter of time before he learnt about the card game. He went round to a friend's house last week and ended up playing it.

Except they didn't play it. Not really. They just had a couple of nine card booster packs and made up some rules. This offended my Warhammer-playing sensibilities. I hunted around online that evening and ordered this. On being informed of my purchase, my son was somewhat excited - he woke me up at seven the next morning to ask if it had arrived yet.

There are a lot of different packs and sets out there to make the whole thing as complicated as you like but the basics were simpler than I was expecting. There's not much else to say really - any child who is into pokemon is going to love this. If the cartoon series doesn't make them talk gobbledigook about Bulbasaurs and Vinewhip, however, (or they can't read) then it's probably worth leaving alone.

  • Pokemon.
  • Easy to get into.
  • Involves a mix of strategy and luck so younger players have a hope of winning.
  • I just know I'm going to be buying more cards before long...
  • Nowhere near enough damage counters.
  • This particular set may be hard to find. (The website I got it from no longer has it in stock). Good luck!
Rating: 4/5.

Night at the Museum (DVD)

Starring: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino (the parole officer in Sin City), Dick Van Dyke, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Audrey from 24, huge amounts of CGI and a monkey.

Rated: PG

Story: Larry (Stiller) needs a steady job to impress his son and placate his ex-wife. All he can get is a night guard post at the Museum of Natural History. To his surprise, however, all the exhibits come alive at night and he has to keep the peace while making sure he doesn't get eaten. Some mildly amusing situations ensue...

Comments: I feel some condemnation with faint praise coming on. How about:

I managed to persuade the boys to watch this at teatime one day and it was a lot more enjoyable than the old Pokemon episodes they really wanted.

Yes, I think that covers it.

The first twenty minutes or so of scene-setting and character development are pretty superfluous. This film is really all about walking museum exhibits causing chaos and it doesn't get going until Larry starts his first shift. After that there's a decent mix of the kind of action and humour that fills TV schedules on bank holiday afternoons. The special effects are excellent but, then again, we expect nothing less these days.

The cast is full of famous faces padding out their CVs with a family film. Stiller puts in a commendable amount of effort but just is slightly irritating. Gugino does her best in an extremely generic love-interest role. Dick Van Dyke is simply glad to have some work. Coogan and Gervais are as annoying as always. Robin Williams is now made of schmaltz. The monkey out-acts most of them.

Not that the kids cared - they really enjoyed it. Sproglette needed some cuddles to see her through some of the more 'perilous' moments, though.

Conclusion: A decent film for children of primary school age but not a classic.

Explosions: Tiny.
Dinosaurs: Skeletal.
Plot: Slim.
Technical wizardry: Plenty.
Pokemon: None.

Rating: 3/5.

Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters (PSP)

Rated: 7+

Story: Ratchet is a big-eared, furry humanoid and Clank is a small robot who rides on his back. They are inter-galactic superheroes. (Well, they can jump quite high and use very big guns, anyway). The evil emperor of the technomites decides to create a clone army of Ratchets and take over the galaxy. Ironically, only Ratchet can stop him...

Gameplay: This is really a third-person shooter with a bit of platforming thrown in. There are also a few side-quests involving such things as duelling big robots, leading little robots through obstacle courses or racing on a glorified hoverboard.

Ratchet's arsenal can be increased by spending bolts collected from smashing crates and killing enemies. Each weapon also gains experience with use, becoming more powerful over time. Weapons include the usual suspects plus a few extras like the Suck Cannon which sucks up small enemies and then fires them back.

Save System: Auto-saved checkpoints.

Comments: If I never get round to buying a PlayStation 3 then I'm not going to miss playing Metal Gear Solid 4. I just can't be doing with the unending cut-scenes that are likely to fill it nor with the nonsensical chats with advisors back at base that are bound to be so inane they will make me want to crush my controller in frustration. I won't miss playing a host of Japanese RPGs for similar reasons. I certainly won't miss SingStar (and nor will my neighbours). I won't even miss EyeToy games - it's not like I've had the energy to play half the ones I have on PS2 yet.

Sadly, the games that are most likely to entice hundreds of pounds from my wallet are the latest editions of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. Both series peaked with their second installments which provided balanced mixes of shooting, racing, exploring and platforming. Since then, Jak has been more about racing, Ratchet has been about the shooting. Platforming just isn't cool anymore. The gameplay in the two series is still usually varied and entertaining, however, and I'm fond of the characters. I always think I can't entirely be bothered with another one of their adventures but then I end up really enjoying them.

Well, until now that is.

Size Matters has a ton of issues. The levels are very linear and the camera can be unhelpful. The system of using the analogue nub to move normally and the D-pad to strafe works reasonably well most of the time but can make aiming erratic. The mini-games are rough round the edges and often not that fun. There are interesting gadgets to be found but they're seldom needed to progress and it's absolutely obvious when they are. The cut-scenes are less amusing than normal.

Size Matters is also very short compared to other R&C games. The main story would only last four or five hours if it weren't for a sudden, sharp increase in difficulty about two-thirds of the way through. Enemies become tougher and more numerous, checkpoints are further apart and instant death is always a possibility. A lack of bolts also means having to re-do earlier levels in order to afford the best weaponry (i.e. the Shock Rocket and Stasis Barrier) if you've wasted cash on useless stuff earlier in the game (i.e. the Suck Cannon, the Crossbow Thingy and the Kill-me-now-while-I'm-standing-still Laser). The boss battles are particularly, teeth-grindingly frustrating.

The whole thing just isn't up to the usual design standard of Ratchet & Clank. It's like this is a spare game put together by summer interns that someone at Sony found knocking around at the back of a cupboard and decided to shove out on PSP.

It's not a total disaster, however. The basic R&C gameplay is still there underneath and still fun despite various attempts to kill it. Nonetheless, Sony have dropped the ball again. The PSP really needs good, exclusive titles if there's any hope of it challenging the Nintendo DS. Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters doesn't deliver. It also sullies the name of one of the key franchises that Sony will be promoting to help to sell the PS3.

It's almost like they're trying to turn away my custom...

Conclusion: A poor entry in a fantastic series results in an OK game.

Graphics: Amongst the best on PSP. (Apart from the dream level - that's just migraine inducing. By happy fortune, I already had a migraine while playing it and all the flashing lights mostly cancelled each other out. You probably won't be so 'lucky'.)

Length: Short.

Frustration Level: High.

Rating: 3/5.

Casino Royale (DVD)

Starring: Daniel Craig. I think there are some other people in it but none of them are around for enough of the film for me to remember. Oh, hang on, Judi Dench definitely crops up and, er... some girl who will doubtless never be in anything else again, and... Nope, I've forgotten...

Rated: 12

Story: Er... Now you come to mention it, what is it about?

Bond tracks down some villain who is doing some evil stock-market manipulation. He then plays poker with him at length. Then he takes a holiday. And then he sinks a house. Then the film ends.

I'm not making this up.

Comments: Die Another Day was dreadful. The plot made no sense, the jokes were desperate and the stunts were ludicrous in their search for novelty. It was like the latter days of Roger Moore. (Shiver).

Casino Royale is a new direction. Dispensing with all that has gone before, it has Bond beginning his career as an '00' agent. Moneypenny, gadgets and secret bases in volcanoes are no more. The film finally recognises that Bond is a self-centred git who uses everyone he meets for his own ends. He's charming and gets the job done but he's also arrogant, unpredictable and dangerous. Fortunately, this is a vast improvement on smug and brings new life to the franchise.

The first half of the film is fantastic. Daniel Craig takes command of the role from the start and there are a couple of excellent chases. The plot also seems to be heading somewhere. After that, however, there's a long section involving poker that's somewhat mystifying to the uninitiated and when that's done the whole thing goes off the rails. The plot fizzles out, there's some unlikely romance, Bond does some even less likely soul searching and the final action sequence is totally forgettable.

Ho hum. Maybe the next one will be better...

Conclusion: A step in the right direction for Bond, quickly followed by a stumble and a nasty fall down some stairs.

Explosions: Too few.
Poker: Too much.
Plot: Too little.
Villain: Too soft.
The beer I drank: Too cold.
Bond: Just right.

Rating: 3/5.

The Brothers Grimm (DVD)

Starring: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Lena Headey

Rated: 12

Story: The Brothers Grimm travel 18th Century French-occupied Germany hiring themselves out as freelance witch-hunters. A French general enlists their help in quelling trouble in the small village of Marbaden where girls are disappearing in mysterious circumstances involving wolves, witches, red riding outfits and gingerbread.

Comments: This is probably the film I was anticipating Pan's Labyrinth to be. It's a fantastical tale which throws a stack of folk stories into a pot, adds a touch of alternative history and gives everything a good stir. In reality, the Brothers Grimm were college professors. Here, they are shady adventurers in a fairy tale about fairy tales.

As you'd expect with Terry Gilliam directing, the visual style and attention to detail are arresting. Some of the characters are a little silly and some of the accents are a little improbable but that's OK - fairy tales are supposed to be outlandish, concealing nuggets of truth within a preposterous but mesmerising story. Gilliam does an excellent job of capturing this essence, creating an entertaining movie which is mainstream but also a little bit unusual.

Matt Damon isn't even annoying. Bonus.

Conclusion: Clever, funny, creepy, beautiful and surprising. Unmissable.

Explosions: Not many.
Fantastic sets: Lots.
Dodgy accents: Some.
Moving trees: A forest.
Memorable moments: A multitude.
Unexpected uses of snails: One.

Rating: 5/5.