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Sunshine (DVD)

Starring: Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, The Human Torch and an assortment of other faces you'll struggle to place.

Rated: 15

Story: The sun is dying. A group of astronauts are sent to drop a special bomb into it to give it a jumpstart. They bicker, they chat, they do astronaut kind of things and then they stumble across the remains of the first ship sent to do the job. Rather than getting on with the task in hand, they decide to investigate.

Take a wild guess as to how well that goes...

Comments: A few years ago, a couple of films about astronauts traveling to Mars came out at about the same. I think they were called Red Planet and Mission to Mars but I'm not entirely sure and they were so forgettable that I can't even be bothered to check. They've pretty much blended together in my head. Looks like I'm not the only one that's happened to, though, because mix those two movies with a touch of The Core and a dash of 2001, and you'd have the first half of Sunshine. Throw in a little Sphere and a portion of generic slasher movie and you'd have the second half.

Yep, it starts off familiar and almost interesting and ends up familiar and rather silly.

What with the journey taking months and all the talk of heat-shields and such, the set up is obviously supposed to be more NASA than Star Trek. I somewhat suspect, however, that if NASA had a computer which controlled everything on one of their ships, they wouldn't stop it overheating by sticking it in an OPEN pool of liquid coolant. I hope that someone would think, "Hang on a minute... What happens if the artificial gravity stops working, or there's a depressurisation in the computer room? Maybe we need to look at this again. And while we're at it, let's send enough oxygen with the ship to last for the entire journey rather than faffing with putting a garden in there. Sure, the oxygen will be heavy but, since the bomb is THE SIZE OF MANHATTAN, who's going to notice a few extra gas tanks? And maybe we should teach all the crew members how to set off the bomb. You know, in case something happens to that physicist guy. We could even make it so there's a handy control panel or something rather than requiring a selection of bits and bobs connected together with crocodile clips. And..." The list goes on. (And that's not even examining the plausibility of the central plot device).

Apparently, scientists were brought in to consult on the movie but, as with Deja Vu, they were asked the wrong questions. The details of the bomb are of no interest whatsoever - all the audience needs to know is that it's a bomb that has to go into the sun. That way, it's essentially magic, and we can get on with watching Rose Byrne and some explosions. It's the details of everything else that should have been checked out.

I have to imagine that the primary audience of Sunshine is people with a scientific background. Even the kind of teenage boy who's going to watch this movie is liable to have some clue about space travel. Thus, having a spaceship full of ludicrous design choices is something of an oversight. It's what everyone's going to talk about; it's what will put them off buying the DVD. (Well, actually, the rubbish plot that relies on people identifying danger but failing to call for back up before going to investigate might do that, too, but that's beside the point). It's these 'little things' that should have been run past some science graduates. I don't care how the faster-than-light travel happens in Star Wars or how the Death Star works - I'm happy to accept it. It's the use of 'parsec' as a measure of time rather than distance that grates every time.

Thinking about it, though, Sunshine has to be applauded for at least trying. There are hardly any recent science fiction movies set close to the present day and involving relatively realistic space travel. There's those two Mars films and another couple of movies separated at birth - Armageddon and Deep Impact. Unfortunately, despite the lack of competition, Sunshine still manages to come across as derivative.

I wonder if we'll ever get a space-based film set in the near future that doesn't involve aliens, a rescue mission or the end of the world.

Conclusion: You'd be better spending your money on some energy-saving daylight bulbs - they're great. Sunshine isn't.

Explosions: One or two.
Scientists involved: Not enough.
Similarities to other movies: Quite a few.
Number of crew members whose names you'll remember before they die: Not so many.

Rating: 2/5.

Wii Zapper & Link's Crossbow Training (Wii)

Rated: 12+ but, to be honest, this seems to be more to do with the controller being vaguely gun-shaped than anything else. There's no gore and you don't get to shoot people - it's mainly shooting targets, goblins and skeletons. None of the enemies are scarier than the zombies you have to slap around the head using an EyeToy in Sega Superstars and that's rated 3+.

Story: Theory 1 - Nintendo are trying to hide the fact that their latest peripheral is merely a bit of plastic by packaging a game with it.

Theory 2 - Nintendo are trying to hide the fact that their latest game is very short and mostly recycled by packaging a bit of plastic with it.

Theory 3 - Nintendo are too busy counting money to bother hiding anything any more. This will all look like a bargain in a few months time once a motley bunch of other developers have knocked out a stack of full-price 'zapper compatible' games that aren't as good and don't come with a bit of plastic.

Gameplay: Shoot things! There are nine levels split into three stages each. Each stage is a minute or so long. Some stages simply involve pointing the cursor at targets and pulling the trigger. Some require you to turn on the spot to find targets by pointing off screen. Others involve using the control stick on the nunchuk to move about and hunt down targets. Holding down the z-button zooms the view; holding down the trigger charges up an explosive crossbow bolt. A bronze, silver, gold or platinum medal can be earned with a high enough total score on a level. Get a bronze medal and the next level is unlocked.

Save System: Automatic save after each level.

Comments: There are two ways to set up the zapper. The first involves clipping in both the wiimote and nunchuk, the second involves just clipping in the wiimote and holding the nunchuk normally. Neither is very good. Using the zapper with both hands, the trigger is too near the front end of the 'barrel' for the experience to feel natural, and it's not balanced properly for one-handed use, making aiming a constant battle against wrist strain. In both cases, the zapper is more unwieldy than holding the wiimote normally. It's also harder to reliably point at things. This is not a good start.

On top of that, the zapper doesn't work like a traditional lightgun. Rather than point where you want to shoot, you move the zapper to direct an on-screen cursor. There's a calibration screen in Crossbow Training that makes it possible to more closely match the position of the cursor with where you're pointing but it's not hugely convincing and is dependent on where you're standing. (I found I had to be a long way back from my TV). Unlike a lightgun, looking down the zapper to see what you're shooting is a complete waste of time. It's all about the cursor.

Essentially, the zapper doesn't feel like a gun, doesn't work like a gun and is less accurate than the wiimote on its own. You have to wonder what the point is.

Oh, and the plastic hinge on the clip that locks the nunchuk in place seems very flimsy.

If you've played Twilight Princess, then your first reaction to Link's Crossbow Training will be deja vu. Locations, enemies, sound effects and just about everything else have been entirely re-used. Considering how tired Twilight Princess felt at times, this is a problem. Unlocking new levels is a bit like opening your Christmas presents only to discover that they're last year's gifts that have been rewrapped.

Crossbow Training is also very short. Unlocking all the levels doesn't take much more than an hour. Getting a large haul of decent medals takes another hour. Obtaining platinum on every level will take longer but is liable to result in as much frustration as fun thanks to the scoring system. Shooting a target gives a set number of points but this is multiplied by the number of successful hits in a row. So, if there are 10 5-point targets, the first is worth 5 points and the last is potentially worth 50 points. One missed shot half way through a stage resets the multiplier and halves your overall score compared with a missed shot at the beginning or end of the level. This means platinum medals are as much about patience and memorisation as accurate aiming.

That said, Crossbow Training is enjoyable to play in quick bursts and the short levels make it addictive. The need to maintain a string of hits adds some depth, forcing constant balancing of risk versus reward. Is it worth trying for a difficult, distant target at the possible cost of a carefully built up x40 multiplier? As a demo game for the zapper, Crossbow Training is pretty decent. It's at least as good as Wii Play.

Wii Play is only an extra £5 on top of the cost of a wiimote, however. Since the Zapper/Training package costs £20 and the zapper doesn't really seem worth much more than a fiver itself, something doesn't entirely add up. True, the zapper can be used with other games but, if it doesn't work that well with this, what are the chances of it working much at all with anything more complicated? Most of the buttons on the wiimote are hard to get to and motion-sensing would be a real pain. (Apparently, these are issues even with the relatively basic Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles.)

Conclusion: Link's Crossbow Training is mildly fun for an hour or two but the zapper doesn't add much to the experience and is pretty uncomfortable.


Graphics: All the locations are ripped wholesale out of Twilight Princess. Everything looks nice, but way too familiar.

Length: Very short.

Rating: 2/5.

(Does the link suggest you spend more than £20? If so, just laugh and move along. Oddly, you might do better searching in the shops than online.)

Balloon Lagoon

Price: £15

  • Board.
  • Musical merry-go-round timer. (Requires 3 AA batteries - not included).
  • 4 fairground games.
  • 4 playing pieces (duck, submarine, whale & boat).
  • 72 scoring balloons.
Gameplay: On their turn, each player spins the merry-go-round and plays the fairground game it points to. Pressing the big button on top of the merry-go-round starts a tune and the player has until the tune stops to complete the game. Depending how well they do, they receive between zero and four little plastic balloons to stick in their playing piece.

The four fairground games are:
  • Letter Lake - Choose a word from a flipbook and then attempt to fish the correct letters out of a container using a magnetic rod.
  • Snack Hut - Drop six dice into the top of the hut. Keep some and put the others back in an effort to get four of a kind.
  • Frog Pond - Tiddlywinks with plastic frogs.
  • Tumble Tides - Choose a picture from a flipbook. Then press levers to spin wheels to try to match all four sections of the picture.
Object: To be the first player to fill their piece with balloons.

Game length: Somewhere between five and ten minutes per player.

Number of players: 2-4

Age: 5+, according to the box. This is probably about right - younger children need help to play. On the other hand, a four-year-old playing a five-year-old will be a more even match than a five-year-old against an eight-year-old. The games involve just enough skill to ensure an older child or adult will almost always win if they try.

Comments: All the fun of the fair without the risk of winning a goldfish.

Well, maybe. More like all the fun of a village fete.

A small village.

Where it rains a lot and they've run out of candyfloss. I grew up in rural Norfolk - trust me on this...

Balloon Lagoon has lots of colourful parts and interesting appearing pieces but there's really not much to it. There's no traveling round the board or interaction with the other players. It's simply a case of taking it in turns to play the fairground games. One of the games is basically rolling dice, one is a simple magnetic fishing game and one is a slot-machine with a lever for each reel. Given long enough, winning any of these three would be merely a matter of persistence. The time limit means that speed and a little concentration are essential. The other game, meanwhile, requires plastic frogs to be jumped into a pot and is vastly more difficult than the other games. Even adults need some practice to beat it and younger children find it impossible.

As with Scooby-Doo! Cyber Chase, the mini-game format is very attractive to children but the challenges themselves are somewhat lacking. Also, the single tune played by the timer quickly begins to grate. You could have more fun bouncing a ping pong ball into a jam jar or rolling marbles into a circle chalked on felt or dropping ten pences into a bucket of water in an attempt to cover the five pences at the bottom.

Conclusion: Looks more entertaining than it actually is. You know, like Great Yarmouth.

  • Kids see it and instantly want a go.
  • Mixes dice, fishing, buttons and jumping things. (All that's missing is pokemon and chocolate).
  • Cheaper than going to an actual fairground.
  • Less chance of rain than going to an actual fairground.
  • Doesn't include goldfish.
  • No real board game element.
  • Too easy for older children.
  • Too hard for younger children.
  • Tune makes you want to smash the game with a hammer after a while.
  • The balloons are fiddly.
  • Lacks longevity.
  • You could cobble together something more fun from random junk lying around the house (and you could hum The A-Team theme while doing it).
Rating: 2/5.

PlayStation Portable (PSP) Games Console

Price: £130 for the PSP Slim & Lite. You might be able to pick up the older, heavier version being sold off somewhere for a bit less but you'd probably be better going for the newer version anyway - it has quicker load times and can output to a TV.

Essentials: Memory Stick Pro Duo (required to save game progress and to store music and video) - £30 for 4GB or £20 for 2GB.

Alternatively, if you want to store several movies at once, can't be bothered to ever swap cards and have too much money, you could always go for 8GB at around £70.


  • Mini USB cable (for transferring files to and from PC or PS3) - £3.
  • Carry case - £10.
  • Screen visor - £5.
Comments: Christmas is almost here and my series of games console reviews draws to an end with the PlayStation Portable (unless anyone wants to send me a PS3... Anyone? Aw, go on...) The thing about the PSP, though, is that, judging by software sales, no one seems to buy it to play games. It's an MP3 player, movie player, internet browser and photo viewer that also just happens to run PS2 quality interactive entertainment.

I do wonder which features people are buying the thing for, however. On paper the functionality is fantastic but the reality is that the PSP is a bit big for everyday use as an MP3 player, movies have to be bought on UMD disk or somehow transferred to memory card in a suitable format, the internet browser is slow and requires a wi-fi hotspot and, as for photos, is anyone really going to bother?

So who's buying the console?

Gadget fans mainly, I suspect. The PSP looks great, has a superb screen, does all kinds of things and let's you play Grand Theft Auto on the bus (if there's not too much glare and you're not concerned about getting mugged).

I mainly play mine on holiday. It lets me take home console style games with me wherever I go. Far easier than lugging round a PS2 and TV. Of course, this means the PSP isn't much use when I'm actually at home - the style of game it tends to host is readily available for me to play on a big telly with a proper controller. Sure, it's handy just being able to pick it up and play when the kids give me a moment of peace but Grand Theft Auto doesn't work as well in five minute bursts as many of the offerings on the DS.

Short sessions aren't impossible, though. Like the DS, the PSP has a sleep function allowing games to be paused in a battery-saving mode which lasts several days. In normal use, the batteries last between four and eight hours, depending what you're doing.

Probably the biggest disappointment with the PSP is the movie playback feature. The picture quality is excellent but getting hold of something to watch is a problem. Buying a film on UMD rather than DVD means being restricted to always playing it on a PSP. True, the new Slim & Lite model allows output to a TV (with the right cable) but building a UMD collection seems as sensible as starting a music library on mini-disk. Putting movies on memory stick, however, is a real faff. Converting a commercial DVD would require the use of dubious decryption software and then some conversion software, such as PSP Video 9, to put the video files into a suitable format and resolution. Recording stuff off the telly onto DVD and then converting that is easier but time-consuming. Downloading films is less hassle but costs more than you might expect.

If you want to watch films on the move, you'd be as well to buy a portable DVD player.

Long-term, plenty of interaction between the PSP and PS3 is promised, with the PS3 streaming video over the internet to the PSP and the like. That might be good but would require proximity to a wi-fi hotspot. At the moment it's possible to download PSOne games for £3.50 each onto the PS3 or a PC and then transfer them to play on the PSP. There's only a small selection so far, however.

Original PSP with its rather chunky charger and a Joytech visor which screws into a couple of handy holes for attaching peripherals on the top edge of the PSP.

Where the Nintendo DS has something for everyone in terms of software, the PSP is aimed much more at experienced gamers. The best PSP games include:

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories - A proper, 3D Grand Theft Auto on a portable console! And, look over there, it's the Holy Grail as well!
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories - Oh, and another one...
Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow - Third-person spy action which uses lots of buttons.
Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness - Clever, witty turn-based strategy.
Crush - Puzzle platformer where solving problems involves switching between 2D and 3D.

Other good games include: Final Fantasy: Tactics, Silent Hill: Origins, Daxter, Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters, Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command, LocoRoco, Capcom Puzzle World, a vast selection of racing games and various retro collections (notably Sega Mega Drive Collection).

Notice, however, that most of these games are inferior re-hashes of PS2 franchises or have been ported to the PS2 themselves. Many of them suffer from the fact that the PSP has fewer buttons than a PS2 controller and a single analogue 'nub' rather than two analogue control sticks. First-person shooters really struggle on the PSP, for instance. On the PS2, the left stick would be used to move and the right to look around. On the PSP, the face buttons tend to be used for looking, which is clunky and inaccurate. Also, the PSP is much less comfortable to hold over an extended period than a PS2 controller.

The PSP looks cool, has many impressive features and plenty of decent software. It provides so many possibilities in the palm of your hand. Unfortunately, it seems that all of those possibilities involve some form of compromise. At any given moment, you'll find yourself wishing it was really an iPod, DVD player, PS2 controller or DS in your grasp.

Conclusion: A great machine that's still looking for identity and purpose.

  • Does everything - MP3 player, movie player, internet browser, PS2 quality games.
  • Large, high quality screen.
  • Plenty of good, cheap games.

  • Doesn't do anything as well as a dedicated machine would.
  • Awkward controls.
  • Lack of really startling software.
  • Getting movies onto memory stick is a pain and legally dubious (and you have to buy a memory stick!)
  • Not very rugged.
  • Playing one in a public place feels akin to writing 'Mug me!' on your back.
Rating: 3/5.

Screwball Scramble

Screwball Scramble box.

Price: £10

  • Obstacle course including tilting walkway, swinging crane, parallel bars, 2 mazes and catapult.
  • Timer.
  • 2 ball bearings.
Gameplay: Hit buttons, turn knobs and work little levers to guide a ball bearing round the course.

Object: To reach the end of the course as quickly as possible without the ball falling off.

Game length: Roughly a minute but it depends how much practice the player has had. Typically, grandparents will take all afternoon. As a kid, my record was twelve and a half seconds.

Number of players: Realistically, one. The instructions suggest taking turns to compete for the best time but that's almost certain to end in a scuffle if the players are children - they'll argue over what constitutes a turn and then accuse each other of cheating. No, this is all about one joystick ninja versus the machine.

Age: 5+ but even a six-year-old is going to have to put in plenty of practice before they make it all the way round. Playing it properly is probably beyond anyone much younger. They'll still enjoy hammering away at the controls to see what happens, though, and the game is durable enough to cope but you'll need to keep an eye on the ball bearings (choking and missile hazard!).

Screwball Scramble.

Comments: I had one of these as a child and really loved it. I suppose it's rather like a mechanical version of the platform games I was playing on my VIC-20 a couple of years later - simple, colourful and rock hard. Fortunately, however, it doesn't take five minutes to load off tape.

The boys, who have been born into an age of casual gaming and get impatient in the time that it takes a DVD player to spin-up, had a few goes at Screwball Scramble and then complained that it was impossible.

"Pah," I muttered and shoved them aside. "Impossible? I could do the whole thing in twelve and a half seconds when I was your age. Let me show you how it's done..."

Back in the day, I considered myself as something of a Screwball Scramble master. I rolled my shoulders, flexed my fingers and then launched the ball bearing on its way.

Well, sort of...

It turned out to be harder than I remembered. It was about a minute before I got the ball up the first walkway and, even then, I promptly rolled it right off the edge of the course and had to start again. I'm a little out of practice. The boys had wandered off to play Mario Party by the time I'd even made it to the second maze. I need to put in some serious training before the world championships.

My children do play Screwball Scramble occasionally - a loud toy with lots of buttons is always attractive - but, when I was young, the main draw was always attempting to shave a second off my record. I spent hours honing my skillz. Stupidly, however, the version we have now has no numbers on the timer and the divisions on the dial are obscured by the hand as it passes. This leads to confusion and a margin of error of two or three seconds. This takes away much of the incentive for repeat play.

Screwball Scramble timer.
Honestly... Imagine if they used one of these in Beijing next year.

It's the kind of game that kids are likely to ignore for months on end if stored on a shelf in its box but that will lure over the first child that passes if left lying out in the middle of the lounge floor. The second child that passes will then complain that it's their go and whack the first child over the head with it.

Maybe best reserved for an obsessive only child...

Conclusion: Fun for a little while but sloppy time-keeping wrecks Screwball Scramble's struggle for Olympic recognition. My dreams of gold medal glory are dead.

  • Oooh! Buttons!
  • Challenging.
  • Addictive.
  • Looks cool.
  • Doesn't need batteries.
  • Timer is hopelessly inaccurate... and noisy. You might want to buy a stopwatch.
  • Requires patience.
  • Liable to make you look more inept than usual in front of your children.
Rating: 3/5.

Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End (DVD)

Starring: Johnny Depp, his clone army, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy, far too much computer generated nonsense, a very large number of crabs and very little actual piracy.

Rated: 12

Story: Captain Jack Sparrow's friends must travel beyond the world's end to return him from the land of the dead. They need him to help release the sea goddess Calypso so she can defeat the East India Company who are intent on wiping all trace of piracy from the seas.

Obviously, taking away people's right to be pirates is an affront to liberty and something to be frowned upon. Well, it is in the PoC version of history, anyway, where it's the East India Company (Boo! Hiss!) who go around murdering women and children while pirates (Yo ho! Hurrah!) do little more than drink rum in a boisterous fashion and double-cross each other.

Comments: Die Hard 4.0 is a fantastic example of both the modern action movie and of how to maintain a franchise even once its original premise has worn a little thin. Some of the stunts are pretty unlikely but they're always spectacular and never appear totally beyond the laws of physics. The story keeps things moving along swiftly, isn't over-complicated, provides just enough character development and throws up a stream of in-jokes and one-liners. It's excellent.

Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End is a fantastic example of all that can go wrong with a modern action movie and of how to kill a franchise stone dead, bury it in merchandise and then set fire to it.

After the complex and meandering story of the second film, Dead Man's Chest, there were more than enough plot threads to see this one through to a climactic conclusion. Unfortunately, the movie is stuffed full of superfluous twists, asides and reversals. They're probably there to make it all seem clever and exciting but the actual result is closer to tiresome and dull. It drags on and on as all the characters compete to make themselves unsympathetic.

All this might be forgivable if the action sequences were any good. They're not. It was as if they were given a vast budget for stunts, just in case, but then felt they had to spend it all to avoid being given less next time. People walk through a maelstrom of explosions without a scratch, perform impossible acrobatics on ropes and dance their way through extensively choreographed sword fights. Usually in a storm. At sea. Up a mast. At length.

It's hard to care after a while. There ceases to be any sense of peril once it becomes apparent that the main characters are magically invulnerable. Harry Potter can get away with it because he is magic. John McClane at least makes jumping on the back of a fighter jet look feasible. Jack Sparrow just waltzes through the impossible, shrugs and then mumbles about sea turtles or something.

That's not even the end of the problems. There's lots of forced dialogue and dubious motivation to keep the unlikely love triangle alive. The sections where Jack struggles with madness make him seem more sane than usual. The ending's not great, the film's often not that interesting to look at and nothing holds together unless you can accept that, deep down, pirates are lovable rascals really.

All in all, it's such an overblown mess that it might make more sense if they'd lost any notion of self-control whatsoever and thrown in some aliens or dancing penguins or both or even dancing alien penguins. I don't know.

It would certainly have been worth cutting out more than a third of the film, however.

Conclusion: So bad that it has blighted the memory of the other two in my head. Makes we want to go and knock a point off my rating of the second one.

Explosions: Lots.
Plot twists: Too many.
Jokes: Too few.
Length: Too long.
Dancing penguins: None (sadly).

Rating: 2/5 if you've seen the other two, else 1/5.