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Goosebumps HorrorLand (DS)

Rated: 7+.

Story: You find a ticket to HorrorLand, a new and terrifying theme park. Once you're inside, however, you're trapped for all eternity. The only way to escape is to master the rides and, er... play crazy golf.

Gameplay: This is a mini-game collection dressed up as an adventure. You get to wander the theme park, talking to people and collecting tokens, then play the mini-games. There are bronze, silver and gold challenges in each mini-game and beating them earns 'Frights'. (Frights can only be earned once per challenge.) The more Frights you have, the more games that are available.

The mini-games are a varied bunch. Among other things, there's a deathmatch on the dodgems, an on-rails shooter, target practice, a mine cart ride, games of skill and timing, and the crazy golf. There are thirty mini-games on offer but only around twenty of them are unique, with the numbers being made up by variations and harder levels of what's gone before.

Nothing's very scary.

Save System: Regular automatic saves.

Comments: Goosebumps is a strange game. Certain parts of it, such as the cut-scenes and music, have received plenty of care and attention, while others appear to have been thrown together without any thought. Take the plot and structure as examples. A mini-game collection is perhaps the least ambitious genre choice possible and the spooky theme park justification for it all feels tired before the gates have even opened. Initially, everything points to a hastily-produced mess.

Then Goosebumps throws in a surprise - the mini-games are actually good. They're much more substantial than in most similar collections and are generally rather enjoyable. Some of them take several minutes per shot, involve plenty of skill and employ graphics at a level that I'd forgotten the DS was capable of. It's all much more shocking than anything the story ever throws up.

Given the quality of the mini-games, however, it's rather peculiar the enormous lengths which Goosebumps goes to in order to prevent you from playing them:

You have to collect Frights to unlock new areas of the theme park, only to discover you have to collect yet more Frights to unlock half the games in these areas. Even when the games are unlocked, you still need to pay tokens to play them. When the tokens run out, you either have to go and play the dullest mini-games on offer to win more or you have to wander the park searching the bins. (Really.) This just isn't much fun. Even when you have all the Frights and tokens you need, getting from one ride to the next is a tedious traipse through the park that's confusing and fiddly despite the map being permanently on the top screen. There are occasional people to talk to and there's a little exploring but it's mainly mind-numbing padding. Perhaps the original plan was for a Zelda-like adventure. Unfortunately, all that's in place is lots and lots of plodding through atmospheric scenery in a zoomed-out third-person view.

It could be worse, though - at one point, a plot twist reduces your walking speed by about half. It's like plodding through atmospheric treacle. By the time that's over, the normal traipsing feels like bliss in comparison.

The game is also hard. Getting to the end of the story requires the accumulation of well over two-thirds of the Frights. Considering that acquiring the bronze award in some of the mini-games is challenging, this means plenty of perseverance (and rifling through bins). Sprog1 (who's 9 and a hardened videogame veteran) started to struggle about halfway through.

That said, the mini-games are addictive and I kept coming back for more. It's just a shame that the rest of the game is so laborious.

Conclusion: Fun and frustrating in equal measure. Should keep children in the 8-12 age range busy for a while, though, even if they're not familiar with the books.

Graphics: Impressive despite looking rough round the edges. Many of the mini-games are in full 3D and the design is suitably spooky.

Length: Short.

Rating: 3/5.


Ultimate I Spy (Wii)

Rated: 3+.

Story: You've found a mysterious contraption. The only way to power it up is by solving riddles.

Gameplay: The game consists of a series of scenes, such as a science display in a classroom and a fish tank in a kid's bedroom. There are ten scenes and each one has four riddles to solve. Each riddle is essentially a selection of things to find by moving the camera angle around using the d-pad (or thumbstick) and then clicking on them. Some objects instigate a mini-game which needs to be completed to cross the entry off the list. These are mostly pretty basic affairs involving a bit of wiimote waggling.

Ten of the mini-games are slightly more involved and have a high score challenge separate from the main game.

Save System: It's possible to save progress and quit at any point. There's also an auto-save after the completion of each riddle.

Comments: You're probably not going to believe me but this game is brilliant.

I know it's called I Spy and sounds about as much fun as searching your lounge for a lost piece of LEGO. I know it's a budget game on the Wii. I know it gives the impression of being vaguely educational. I know all these things mean it should be rubbish. That doesn't matter. Ultimate I Spy is great.

What's hard to get across about the game is the fantastic design of the scenes. Items are so well hidden in plain sight that it's possible to still be discovering new objects even after half an hour of peering at a collection. Despite this, the scenes are beautifully arranged and never seem unfairly jumbled. Solving the riddles is a case of learning to shift focus between different levels of depth and detail and to question assumptions about everything from size to colour. Sometimes just working out what to find calls for lateral thinking. Each scene requires more concentration and brainwork than most games do in their entire length. It all goes to show just how lame and unimaginative the 'puzzles' are in things like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil.

Every session of Ultimate I Spy is a chance to discover and explore and slap yourself on the head for not spotting the 'obvious'. It'll give you a better mental workout than Brain Training. It seldom becomes frustrating, though, and it's always possible to progress with a little perseverance.

The game is ideally suited to the Wii since it's so easy to point at things using the wiimote. That said, it does feel like the developers' first experience of the hardware, thanks to the copious motion-sensing and rather excitable use of the wiimote speaker. For every inspired sound-effect and moment of enjoyable controller waggling, there are five pointless cranks to turn and twenty bizarre noises coming from your hand. This isn't a major problem but some of the mini-games can be quickly tiresome.

The real issue is the game's length. Play it in a determined fashion and you'll become used to the devious tricks employed by the designers, whistling through in around five hours. Theoretically, children will take much longer but they're liable to either ask for help or work together, so the time increase isn't as large as it might be. Nonetheless, the quality of what's on offer and the budget price ensure decent value for money. (There are also the high score challenges if they happen to take the kids' fancy.)

Overall, Ultimate I Spy is an excellent game. Your children may not be convinced initially but if you sit playing it in the lounge, anyone who passes by will be sucked in. Eventually, everyone in your entire household, no matter how young or old, will be staring at the screen, muttering to themselves as they look for 'four jacks, a hen, a bed; a fox on blocks and a marble that's red'.

Conclusion: Ties with House of the Dead: Overkill as the most fun I've had on Wii this year. Strange but true.

Graphics: Beautiful.

Length: Short.

Rating: 4/5.


Knowing (DVD)

Starring: Nicolas Cage & Rose Byrne.

Rated: 15.

Story: An astrophysics professor, who is struggling with the randomness of the universe after the death of his wife, stumbles upon predictions of impending disasters. In trying to figure out what's going on and how it can all possibly be true, he finds purpose, a love interest and some big explosions...

Comments: Knowing is a strange mix of genres: one moment it's a science fiction extravaganza, the next it's a thriller and sometimes it's a ghost story. Unfortunately, although it flits between these subplots with style and ease, it's never very good at following all three at once. Each strand is tense and intriguing but the way they tie together at the end is very unsatisfying. The premise of a mysterious list of numbers warning of catastrophe is great but it ultimately turns out to be a very elaborate scheme to solve a simple problem. Like a mousetrap involving cuckoo clocks, marble runs and toy yachts, it's entertaining to watch but doesn't necessarily seem that useful.

The film feels as if it's trying to say something about the nature of belief and hope but the bizarre conclusion confuses it all. The professor's personal path to faith is providentially laid out before him, showing him exactly what he needs to see, but as with many Damascus road experiences in real life, it's perhaps not very convincing for anyone else.

Still, the acting is passable and the plot is gripping for most of the film's length. It just doesn't make much sense. The end result is both riveting and underwhelming at the same time.

Conclusion: A scenic route to a mundane destination.

Explosions: Occasional but enormous.
Weird blokes who lurk in the woods: Several.
Spooky stones: Thousands.
Scenes involving frantic paint-stripping: One.
Captured mice: None.

Rating: 3/5.


Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games (Wii)

The Mario and Sonic family bobsleigh experience.

Rated: 3+.

Story: The eighth Harry Potter book - Harry Potter, Star Wars, McDonalds, LEGO, Rock Band and the Shameless Marketing Cash-in of Doom - fails to materialise due to various legal wranglings. Someone somewhere comes up with the next best thing...

Gameplay: Choose from one of twenty Nintendo and SEGA characters and then compete in twenty-five chilly Olympic events. These include skiing, snowboarding, ski jumping, curling, ice hockey, figure skating, the bobsleigh and speed skating. In most events, control is achieved by tilting the wiimote to change direction and flicking it to pull off jumps and tricks. Unlike the previous game based on the summer Olympics, frantic wiimote waggling is kept to a minimum, restricted to short activities like pushing off the bobsleigh and sweeping the ice in curling.

Events can be played individually or as an extended 'festival' of challenges to find the overall Olympic champion. There are also three party modes where success in events leads to an advantage in some other form of competition, such as trying to capture more squares on a board than your opponents. All these modes can be played solo or multiplayer.

When played individually in single-player, about half the events can be controlled using the Wii Balance Board.

Doing almost anything earns Star Tokens which can be spent on outfits and equipment. On top of that, dozens of emblems can be unlocked as rewards for achieving specific goals.

Save System: Achievements are automatically saved after every event. Quitting the multi-event festival on the event selection screen allows progress to be saved for the next session.

Comments: It's hard to get excited about another minigame collection for the Wii, even one where you can control a bobsleigh with your bottom. While the console's selection of first-person shooters and role-playing games is almost non-existent, there's already a 'wealth' of titles featuring a random assortment of wiimote-waggling tasks tied together in a perfunctory fashion. Unsurprisingly, most of them aren't that good, so I tend to approach a new one with more fear than anticipation...

Fortunately, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games has a couple of things going for it, namely... Mario and Sonic. I can't imagine my boys (7 and 9) opting for a figure skating simulator under normal circumstances but with the addition of a portly plumber and a blue hedgehog, they were all over it. More than that, Mario has a reputation to maintain for only appearing in decent games and so MSOWG features a good sight more polish than the average minigame collection.

The main irritation with the game is the enormous numbers of menus, cut-scenes and loading screens which need to be navigated between each contest. Skipping through them as fast as possible can still take forever. It's particularly bad in the short events like ski jumping where it feels as if you're spending more time watching Wario do his victory dance than actually playing.

There's a reasonable variety to the games (given the source material) and the motion controls add to the fun rather than getting in the way. Much effort has also been made to increase the longevity of the experience. Winning gold in each event isn't that hard but there are plenty of modes and collectibles to reward those wanting more of a challenge.

That said, although there are officially twenty-five events, many of them are merely variations of the same thing, such as different distances of speed skating. Disappointingly, events like the bobsleigh and downhill skiing have only two courses - a real life one and an outlandish Nintendo or SEGA themed one with power-ups. If you're not fussed about breaking records or buying your Mii a Santa outfit, it's possible to try most of what the game has to offer in a few hours (much of which is reading instructions and watching victory dances).

It's initially a surprise that there's no use of Wii MotionPlus but it would appear that this is a very deliberate design choice rather than laziness. All the games can be played with only a wii remote, making them more accessible and greatly reducing the equipment required for 4-player matches. (The nunchuk can be used in a few events but it doesn't add much more than something for your other hand to hold.)

If you're looking for innovation and complexity, Mario & Sonic isn't for you. It's much more a game for kids to teach to their gran. It's got recognisable characters and objectives, plenty of content and simple controls, making it a safe bet for some family entertainment in front of the telly at Christmas. (If you can stop the children fighting over whose turn it is...)

The Mario and Sonic Wii Balance Board experience.
NOTE: This isn't me. My kids only look this pleased when I mess up the ski jump and plant my face in a snowdrift at 100 miles an hour.
Conclusion: Who knew that a curling simulator could be such fun?

Graphics: Pretty good.

Length: Obsessive collectors and multiplayer fans will be kept busy for ages.

Rating: 4/5.


Toy Story in Digital 3D

Starring: The voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, a fantastic script co-written by Joss Whedon, and some newly added depth perception.

Rated: PG.

Story: Disney decides that it's simply impossible to have too many 3D computer-animated kids' movies released in one year and sets Pixar to work adding a third dimension to its back catalogue.

Some time later, small children up and down the land scream and swallow their magic glasses in terror as Scud the dog leaps out of cinema screens at them.

Comments: If you're old enough to be able to read this, then you've probably seen Toy Story. If you haven't, then rush out to see it now. It was the first full-length computer animated movie and it's still one of the best. Pixar's output in recent years has become rather ponderous and overblown but Toy Story maintains a fast pace and has excellent dialogue with something for both adults and children. It truly is a classic.

Believe me - I've seen it dozens of times.

When my boys were small, it was their favourite film for a month or two. They watched it at lunch-time and tea-time every day. Over and over. Five years on, however, they couldn't remember anything about it but I heard every line in my head before it came out the speakers...

Without having any real need to pay attention to the words or plot, I was able to concentrate on the 3D effect:

Looking at the screen normally, there's a mild fuzziness to the picture. Putting on the polarised glasses brings everything into focus and introduces an impressive amount of depth. The effect works best on fairly stationary, close-up shots, appearing very convincing. Fast action is quite blurred, though, and landscape shots tend to be divided into distinct planes. It's a huge, full-colour improvement over the old red-and-green glasses, nonetheless.

The 3D is certainly cool but I'm yet to be convinced it's the future. I found it hard work figuring out where to focus at times and wearing the polarised glasses over my normal specs was initially uncomfortable and remained slightly niggly throughout. It will be interesting to see what film-makers achieve with the technology once they've really got to grips with it. Then we'll discover whether it can add some depth to their vision, not just the picture.

As for Toy Story itself, the boys (aged 7 and 9) loved it but Sproglette (aged 5) was less impressed. She could probably have done with some stronger female characters (not to mention some fairies and a mermaid). It didn't help that she refused to keep her glasses on and that she's scared of dogs. Ho well. Even with her sitting whining next to me, it was still great.

Conclusion: Toy Story in all its glory and in your face.

Explosions: A couple.
Quotable lines: Scores. ('We need more monkeys!' is a solution worth suggesting in the face of almost any problem.)
Dodgy 3D moments: A few.
Flying toys?: Two or three (but they're really just falling with style...)
What does 'To infinity and beyond!' actually mean?: Er...

Rating: 5/5.


Fantasy Hobby Horse

A hobby unicorn.

Cost: £5.

Description: What every little princess needs - a unicorn on a stick! Yes, it's a hobby horse with a pink, sparkly head and a small horn. As an added bonus, squeezing its ear produces a lengthy galloping noise and some neighing. The entire monstrosity is approximately 85cm from the tip of the horn to the end of the pole.

Comments: They had a whole tub of these at our local Instore and Sproglette fell in love instantly. She had one picked out and named before I'd even realised what they were. There was no choice but to buy it in preparation for her birthday and then walk home with a fixed grin on my face and a decapitated unicorn sticking out of the top of my backpack. I had to pretend I was off to put the frighteners on Fairytale Barbie...

There's a slight wonkiness to the way the head is attached to the pole but the general quality of the construction is surprisingly good. The short reins are sturdily attached and the stitching is decent. The battery compartment can be reached via a Velcro-sealed opening, allowing the two AA batteries to be easily replaced. (The compartment itself requires a screwdriver to open.) The pole is strong but is covered with material and has enough flexibility to ensure it can't be used as a serious weapon. As a test, I bashed myself over the head with it a couple of times and barely felt a thing. (That said, the neighbours now think I'm a bit crazy.)

A hobby unicorn.
DS for scale.

All in all, the 'horse' is frightening to behold unless you're female and under seven. Sproglette is immensely pleased with it, though.

Conclusion: A little girl's dream (that may give others strangely fuchsia nightmares).

  • The perfect steed for a small girl with princess delusions.

  • Replaceable batteries.

  • Not dangerously long and solid.
  • Loud.

  • Pink.

  • Surface wash only.

  • Can be used for martial arts.

  • Everyone you describe it to will ask if it has a wheel and seem disappointed when they find out it doesn't.
Rating: 4/5.