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Iron Man (DVD)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr & Gwyneth Paltrow.

Rated: 12.

Story: Wise-cracking playboy and electronics genius, Tony Stark, is captured by a local warlord in Afghanistan while doing a demo of his company's latest missile technology. The warlord demands Stark makes him some of the missiles. Instead, Stark escapes by making a rocket-powered exo-skeleton out of a couple of bazookas and a tin can.

Irritated that his company's weapons are falling into the wrong hands, Stark builds a better suit to become a superhero and put things right.

Meanwhile, the original suit falls into the wrong hands...

Comments: Finally someone's heard my constant moaning about angst-ridden superheroes who spend all their time complaining and/or doing their laundry. Stark is arrogant, funny and the life of the party. Being played by Robert Downey Jr, he's also charming with it and entertaining to watch (unlike Hayden Christensen in Jumper). At last, a superhero who actually quite enjoys it and gets on with smashing things.

I've still got a couple of gripes, though:

1. Why does the first superhero film in a franchise always have to deal with how the hero became super? I really don't care. It's not like it ever makes sense anyway. Is it really possible to build advanced servo-systems in a cave in Afghanistan using a hammer and anvil while recovering from a major injury? I don't think so.

It would be much better if the whole issue was dealt with in a couple of flashbacks somewhere in the middle and the plot simply went straight for explosions and smashing. That worked well enough for Batman.

2. Superheroes fighting their evil alter-ego isn't very interesting. Lately, we've had Hulk vs Abomination, Spider-Man vs Venom and Iron Man vs ... er... Other Iron Man. Unsurprisingly, these battles between combatants with similar powers tend towards stalemate until the hero gets clever or desperate. They're never as much fun as fights between characters with diverse abilities.

Not to mention that the concept of equally matched adversaries was pretty much fully exploited in Superman 2 twenty years ago.
Still, Downey Jr is great and at least this is trying something different from yet another re-run of Spider-Man.

Conclusion: Not bad but it would have been even better if they'd just skipped this one and started with a sequel.

Explosions: Big and everywhere.
Quips: Frequent.
Unlikely science: Prevalent.
Totally implausible feats of engineering: Almost constant.
Angst: Thankfully absent.

Rating: 4/5.

Need for Speed Undercover (Wii)

Rated: 12+. According to the box, this rating is due to bad language but I can't say I noticed any. One thing I did notice, however, was having to constantly take out police cars by dropping scenery on them or nudging them into on-coming civilian vehicles.

Apparently, this is legitimate behaviour if you're an undercover cop...

Story: You're working for the FBI to infiltrate an international crime syndicate via the street-racing scene. This involves breaking pretty much every vehicle-related law known to man.

Gameplay: Lots of driving at high speed through urban environments and on freeways. There are standard missions, such as races and competing against the clock, but there are also others involving such things as outrunning the police, taking down bosses and delivering stolen cars with minimal damage.

It's possible to drive around town looking for missions but, thankfully, this isn't compulsory. A couple of button presses can take you directly to the next race.

The game supports the Wii wheel but you can still use motion-sensing to steer without it. If you prefer to use a control stick, the nunchuk, GameCube controller and classic controller are all supported.

Save System: Autosave after every mission.

Comments: At first glance, it's hard to work out who this Wii version of the latest Need for Speed is aimed at. The relatively mature content means that kids will be better off with Mario Kart. The ugly graphics mean that teenagers will complain it's not a patch on Burnout Paradise on their mate's 360. Anyone who's a fan of racing games in general is liable to laugh at the way cars bounce off corners and opponents seem to slow down to let the player past.

So who's left?

After careful consideration, I've decided it's dads who want an occasional shot of driving recklessly on their kids' console once they're all safely tucked up in bed. Particularly dads who've had a beer and really can't be bothered to use the brake button.

Need for Speed Undercover is a racing game for those who are easily bored or defeated by racing games. The brief races, easy difficulty and constant variation make it addictive. The daft plot, some simple car upgrading and a few live-action movie sequences involving Maggie Q add some direction. The result is simply more entertaining for those lacking commitment than other, more serious, games like Gran Turismo and Project Gotham.

That said, it's certainly not a classic game by any stretch of the imagination. The graphics are ropey and the free-roaming is mostly pointless. The artificial intelligence of the other drivers is simply bizarre - racers seem almost unable to drive while police cars somehow manage to keep up, no matter what you do, until you drop a pylon on them. In most missions, your car is ludicrously indestructible; in a few, a handful of scrapes mean failure. (This was hugely frustrating until I realised I could change to the 'Easy' difficulty setting at any time.) The script makes The Fast and the Furious look almost competent.

Still, if you want shiny, polished racers requiring skill and perseverance, you should go buy a 360 anyway. If you just want to waggle a Wii wheel about crazily once the kids are in bed, this is quite fun.

Conclusion: A racing game for those who like the idea of driving fast but simply aren't very good at it.

Graphics: Poor. This is partly so the game can cope with moving through the open city at high speed but it's not like there are any pedestrians or there's even that much traffic. The set-piece sequences where you destroy objects to throw off a chase look particularly creaky. It all suggests that this is a quick conversion of a PS2 game. The Wii can do better.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 3/5.

Switch 16

Cost: £10.

  • Plastic game hub with spaces for cards and a central area to roll dice.
  • 4 differently coloured sets of cards numbered from 1 to 16. (Red, blue, green & purple.)
  • 6 dice. (5 numbered, 1 'Switch'.)
  • Plastic 'Block' counter.
Gameplay: Each player has a set of cards piled in order from 1 to 16 with 1 at the top. Players take it in turns to roll the number of dice displayed on their top-most card. If one of the dice shows the number on the card, or any combination of the dice can be added together to give the number, the card is discarded. It's possible to discard more than one card with each roll.

If a player manages to discard a card in their turn they can have another turn. If they don't manage to discard any cards on an extra shot, however, they regain cards.

As an added complication, players have to roll the Switch dice whenever they roll the numbered dice. This can allow them to switch cards with another player of their choice, force them to switch with the losing player, do nothing or give them control of the Block chip. If held, the block chip protects a player from getting switched. If placed on another player's deck, it prevents them from discarding cards until it's moved.

Object: To be the first player to discard all their cards.

Game length: 10 minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 7+ officially. The main activity involves rolling dice, so young children can take part as long as someone playing is able to do basic mental arithmetic quickly. One player will need to be at least eight, though - working out whether it's possible to make 13 or 14 from some combination of 1, 3, 3, 4, 5 requires a surprising amount of thought.

Comments: The instruction sheet makes Switch 16 seem complicated but it's actually pretty simple once you've seen it in action. Essentially, it's a game of dice, counting and sudden reversals of fortune. It moves fairly fast and players are involved even when it's not their go, since everyone can see the dice and join in with trying to find suitable combinations of numbers.

Of course, older children (10+) might not want to help each other out but Switch 16 won't distract them for long anyway - they'll quickly slope off to their room to play online Poker and to hunt out strangers in chatrooms to befriend and then blackmail.

It's debatable whether all the switching adds much to the game. It's a faff swapping the cards around and requires some co-operation between the players involved to do efficiently. My kids tend to stare at the piles and expect them to magically move by themselves. Then they all reach for the same pile, bicker a little and forget whose go it is. If this happens for several turns in a row, it can become exasperating. The player who takes the most risks usually ends up winning anyway.

Conclusion: Once you get to grips with it, it's an entertaining game with a touch of maths.

  • Requires mental arithmetic.
  • Quick.
  • Has a little strategy but anyone can win.
  • The dice tray is sensibly lined with rubber to stop everyone getting a headache.
  • Swapping the piles over can be tedious.
  • A game can take a while to get going if no one rolls a 1.
  • You could play a similar game without any switching using only five dice, some paper and a pen. (That would be cheaper and almost as much fun.)
Rating: 4/5.

Mini Micro T-bar Scooter

Pink mini micro t-bar scooter.

Price: £40

Age: 3-5

Max Load: 20kg

Concept: A scooter specifically designed for small children to learn on. It's light-weight and has three wheels - two at the front, one at the back. The T-bar is fixed so steering is performed by leaning when at speed or kicking off the pavement when going more slowly.

Original Comments (3/5/07): Sproglette loves this. If she had to choose between me and the scooter then I wouldn't fancy my chances... I wasn't so keen on it to start with because it made us incredibly slow. It took us ten minutes to get to the end of the street because she could only go in straight lines. She'd scoot about a metre and veer slightly off path, then have to get off, line the scooter up with the pavement again and then get back on for another minimal amount of time. After about a month, though, she's suddenly got the hang of the steering and I have to walk fast to keep up with her.

It's small enough to be used inside but it's more than a toy. Sproglette managed over a mile along pavements the other day. If she hits a pot-hole or a raised edge of pavement, it's game over, however. The scooter pivots over the front wheels and she lands on her knuckles. Now she's going faster, a helmet is required. Free-wheeling down a hill is also pretty scary to watch - she's only two-and-a-half and it's going to be a while before she gets the hang of the back brake (which looks flimsy anyway). I try to stay in grabbing distance.

It's less cumbersome than other three-wheel scooters but doesn't require as much balance as a two-wheeler. It also stays upright when parked, allowing for a quick and easy getaway. (I can just see her and her pals holding up the cornershop and making off at speed with pockets full of Smarties).

Girl on a scooter.

Available in blue or pink.

Conclusion: An excellent progression from the buggy if you're not going far and you're not in much of a hurry.

Rating: 4/5.

UPDATE: Sproglette is now four and she still uses her scooter all the time. The buggy has been folded up and put away for weeks because she can scoot just as far as I'm willing to jog after her and we get places much faster than with her on foot. She's even learnt to hit bumps without tipping over.

The back brake is sturdy enough and she does use it fairly frequently, although she'd rather put her foot down on the pavement to slow up. When it's wet, this is probably a wise move, since the wheels have no tread whatsoever. We've had to drum into her the importance of stopping a long way before she reaches a kerb. Luckily, she has good road-sense so I'm not nervous about her getting a little ahead. If she was prone to carelessness or I wasn't able to run after her, a downhill journey might be more hair-raising, however. As it is, I always insist she wears her helmet.

All in all, the scooter is one of the best kiddie purchases we've made. The micro scooter has been in almost daily use for over eighteen months and other children are enthralled when they see Sproglette zipping past. There were two kids with little pink scooters in her gymnastics class at the beginning of term. Now there are five.

Updated Rating: 5/5.

A Cheese and Tomato Spider

By Nick Sharratt

A Cheese and Tomato Spider cover.

Story: Eleven pictures of everyday people and objects are transformed into some very unusual items thanks to each page being split in half. An exploding volcano and a grey-haired granny can become an exploding granny (or, indeed, a grey-haired volcano). Watch out for the birthday lemon, the wriggly pizza and the haunted fish!

Age: This book made my 4-year-old, 6-year-old and 8-year old all fall about laughing. Eight is probably about the upper age limit but at the lower end of the scale even very young children should appreciate it.

Length: This depends on the exact amount of laughing which takes place but there are 121 picture combinations so it can easily take fifteen minutes to get through them all - not bad for a twenty-four page book with only fifty words.

An exploding granny!

Comments: This is a simple idea which is astonishingly effective. Some of the pictures are amusing enough to make an adult smile, and kids love the absurdity of it all.

The repetitive nature and lack of story mean reading it to a small child could drive you quickly mad if they wanted it over and over again, however. Older children have a tendency to start bickering over which combination to do next. Still, there's plenty of fun to be had.

Oh, and take it home rather than reading it in the library - it'll be easier to contain your children as they roll around giggling.

Conclusion: Gets children in a wide age-range laughing together without you having to put You've Been Framed on the telly. Can't be bad...

Rating: 4/5.

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (DVD)

Starring: The voices of Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Rosenbaum, Lucy Lawless and Michelle Trachtenberg.

Rated: 12.

Story: The evil dragon goddess is intent upon conquering the world of Krynn and a motley band of adventurers must hunt out the necessary magical gizmos required to defeat her.

It's like The Lord of the Rings with dwarves.

Er, no, hang on... It's like The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious old wizard who falls down a deep pit.


With a very short thief? Nope. A forest full of arrogant elves? That won't do either...

I know! Dragons! It's like The Lord of the Rings with dragons...

...and, er, the worst animation this side of 1990.

Comments: I have fond memories of reading the original Dragonlance trilogy as a teenager. They're a fantasy epic involving plenty of battles, numerous imaginative locations and a set up based on Dungeons & Dragons. Discovering they'd made an animated movie of the first book promised a nostalgic return to my youth without the effort of actually having to read hundreds of pages of text.

Sadly, things didn't quite turn out that way...

Dragons of Autumn Twilight simply doesn't work as a film. Cramming the whole book into 100 minutes leads to a frantic scramble from one battle to the next. Having about a dozen main characters doesn't help either. Most of them barely get a line or two per scene and seem defined by a brief checklist of idiosyncrasies picked up from a quick flick through the novels. Flint the dwarf: Allergic to horses and gets teased about being old. Check. Tasslehoff the diminutive thief: Short and steals things. Check. Raistlin the magic user: Suspicious, sickly (cough, cough!) and stained yellow. Check. Etc.

Sutherland and Trachtenberg do a great job with voice acting but this merely emphasises how little their characters get to say. Lawless is stuck with some ropey dialogue. Rosenbaum gets a bigger role than the others (Tanis) but is unconvincing.

All this might be forgivable, or at least tolerable, if the film was a visual spectacle. Unfortunately, on a technical level, Dragonlance is an abomination. The animation is jerky and there's a blurriness to the visuals that would have made me take out the tape and shake it if I'd been watching on VHS. Meanwhile, the points where computer-generated 3D monsters turn up and interact with the (very flat looking) 2D of the rest of the film are laughably awful. It all gives the impression it was made in 1989 and then underwent a shoddy conversion from the North American NTSC TV format to PAL. That it was released in 2008 is unbelievable.

Rather than scratch the nostalgia itch, the movie just made me want to read the books again. I'd have been better off skimming through the synopses on Wikipedia...

Conclusion: If you loved the books, you'll want to watch this to the end. You'll wish you hadn't bothered starting in the first place, though.

Explosions: Quite a few but you could have something more spectacular up on YouTube in half an hour with only the aid of three matches, a webcam and a potato.
Dragons: Loads. These look slightly better than the explosions. (You'd need an entire box of matches and two potatoes.)
Redeeming features: Er... After this, they're unlikely to inflict the sequels on us.

Rating: 2/5 if you enjoyed the books, else 1/5.

Uno Stacko

Uno Stacko box.

Cost: £10.

  • 45 plastic blocks in various colours, each with a number or symbol on its ends.
  • Loading tray made of flimsy cardboard.
Gameplay: Yes, you've guessed it - it's a deranged game-splicing experiment fusing together the DNA of Uno and Jenga...

The blocks are stacked in rows of three to form a tower with the help of the loading tray. The first player removes a block from the tower and places it on the top, using only one hand. The next player must then remove and stack a block of the same colour or number. And so on with the next player.

There are a number of special blocks:
  • Reverse - reverses direction of play.
  • Skip - skips the next player.
  • Take two - the next player has to take two non-special blocks of the same colour as the 'take two' block.
  • Joker - the current player chooses the colour which the next player must take.
In a two-player game, reverse and skip blocks are treated like 'take two' blocks.

Uno Stacko.

Object: To not be the one who makes the tower fall over.

Game length: Takes a couple of minutes to set up each time and then lasts somewhere between thirty seconds and five minutes.

Number of players: 2-10 allegedly but it only really works with three or four players. More than that and not everyone will get a go; a two-player game, meanwhile, is heavily weighted in favour of the person going first.

Age: 7+. Anyone younger is really going to struggle. Even children older than seven will probably need to cheat and use two hands.

Comments: You can kind of see what they were thinking when they created this. (Jenga and Uno are both great games, after all.) Unfortunately, Uno Stacko just doesn't work. There simply aren't enough blocks of each number and colour and it's easy for someone to be stuck in a hopeless position after very few turns at all.

Worse, the plastic blocks can stick to each other a little, making them difficult to slide out of position. (They also clatter horribly.) To add to the frustration, the loading tray is nowhere near sturdy enough, increasing the set up time between games.

To be fair, the game isn't a complete disaster. The genetic material fused together to create it is very strong, so Uno Stacko has its moments. It's really not worth the effort, though. Play Jenga or play Uno; don't play this.

Conclusion: Coming to a charity shop near you soon.

  • Some of the matching fun of Uno.
  • Some of the tower collapsing fun of Jenga.
  • Can be used as a small set of building blocks.
  • Frustrating to set up.
  • Difficult to play.
  • Cheaply made.
  • Expensive to buy.
  • Can be over in seconds.
  • Easily disrupted by a passing toddler.
  • Takes up space in a cupboard that could be filled by something better. You know, like Jenga.
Rating: 2/5.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12

Story: The Force Unleashed is set between the prequels and the proper Star Wars movies and you play Darth Vader's secret apprentice, hunting down the few remaining Jedi in the galaxy to 'retire' them.

The plot takes in the origins of the Rebel Alliance and features the occasional familiar character. Ultimately, the George-Lucas-approved revelations aren't that startling but it certainly all beats Attack of the Clones.

Gameplay: Run through linear levels, fighting anything that gets in your way, in an effort to reach the boss and whack him/her/it with a big, glowing stick.

Besides carrying a light-sabre, you also gain various Force abilities as the game goes on. You can pick up objects and enemies with the power of your mind and fling them around, shoot lightning from your fingertips and blast enemies away from you, among other things.

There are hidden bonuses to discover and there's some leaping around platforms but it's hardly Tomb Raider.

Save System: Loading a saved game returns you to the last checkpoint reached. This isn't usually a problem since the checkpoints are mostly close together.

Comments: No matter how many sub-standard films, games and plastic figurines the Lucas empire churns out, there is a part of many males my age that will forever go misty-eyed at the mention of Death Stars and Princess Leia...

Thus it was with a certain amount of nostalgic hope (but not much expectation), that I put The Force Unleashed into the disc tray and booted it up. It speaks volumes about the quality of recent Star Wars output that I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a game of almost complete mediocrity.

Charging around with a light-sabre while throwing enemies about with psychic powers is always entertaining but the experience is constantly bogged down by linear levels, uninspiring design, dumb AI, repetitive combat and slightly awkward controls. Taking on an AT-ST or rancor beast is exhilarating the first time; by the fifth time it's somewhat tiresome. After a while, the game becomes something of a trudge as you return to locations that have already been visited in order to beat up yet more goons.

Thankfully there are only ten levels, so seeing the story play out doesn't take long. Plenty of areas can even be sprinted through without fighting, helping to get things over with.

That said, The Force Unleashed isn't awful. There are plenty of nice touches, including interactive scenery, great facial animation and an exhaustive database, but, in general, the game is rather sloppy. Fortunately, the warm glow of Star Wars saves it. If you're still struggling to focus thanks to my previous reference to giant space weapons and gold-bikini'd royalty, you'll probably be prepared to overlook some of the short-comings and simply enjoy indulging your inner Jedi.

Just bear in mind that there are plenty of better games to play first...

Conclusion: Don't expect genius but it's worth a rental if flinging Imperial storm troopers around with the Force sounds like fun.

Graphics: Pretty enough, although the locations are seldom striking and a couple of the levels are simply dull. The game judders a bit sometimes. (Try going misty-eyed again and you won't notice so much. Think of Ewoks or something.)

Length: Short, verging on the Very Short.

Rating: 3/5 if you're a fan of Star Wars, else 2/5.