60 Second Gamer – Episode 50 – An American Tail (PS2)

Podcast available at www.randomstoat.com

Yes, they even made a game based on An American Tail. Who are “they” you might ask? Obviously, it’s Blast Entertainment with another very cheap, very badly coded video game. I really do wonder what goes through their mind every time they purloin a new licence – Beverly Hills Cop? Sure, let’s get the series and character names and set it in the 80s. Thunderbirds? Let’s make them save the meat processing factory. Captain Scarlet? Yeah great, let’s make sure you have no sense of speed and zero control over the Spectrum Patrol Car! (In this instance, Spectrum isn’t so much as green, more like a blood red smear on the side of a mountain).

So, An American Tail. Directed by Don Bluth who also gave us The Land Before Time (before it suffered from a stupid number of sequels) and Dragon’s Lair. This film in particular? Stone cold classic. The animation is top notch, the story is entertaining and a little bit dark, just on the verge of being inappropriate for younger audiences, and certainly much darker than the sequels that followed – I’ll allow An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West to remain as a valid sequel. If not for the presence of John Cleese as Cat R Waul, then for the inspired Western setting and James Stewart as the burnt out old sheriff. This has nothing at all to do with the video game based on the first movie though, so I’d best move on.

This is your typical Blast! release – the front cover art is deceptively good, implying that the game is going to meet your expectations. I mean, it’s An American Tail! How can it go wrong? In the hands of Blast!, it’s the gaming equivalent of a tragic bus crash. Across 6 “huge” missions, playing as Fievel you rip off the Monkey Ball series on a pirate ship (huh? Don’t remember that being in the film), fly into New York Harbour on the back of a very slow moving pigeon, scuttle through the streets of New York, scramble through the sewers (that’s a two part level, shock horror!), leading to the final showdown with The Secret Weapon. Analysing each of these levels, Level 1 goes by the title “All Aboard!” and sees Fievel rolling around in a soap bubble trying to reach the goal. The Monkey Ball game mechanic on this first level is clunky and unpleasant – the soap bubble, ironically, feels heavy and unresponsive, and is made all the more irritating when you find yourself trying to edge round a corner and then suddenly find yourself plummeting into the ocean.

Level 2, “Taking Liberty”, sees you flying into the harbour on the back of Henri the pigeon. Henri moves as if he’s meeting heavy wind resistance, ponderously flapping his wings avoiding ducks, rocks and boats, and flying through what I assumed was yellow sponge but is in fact bird seed. The seed isn’t completely pointless as it boosts Henri’s energy meter, which reduces gradually over time. The colour pallet used on this level is hideous – it’s all mucky browns, coppers and more browns. What should be an exciting view of New York on the near horizon actually looks like it was created in Microsoft Paint.

Level 3, “New York Minute”, has Fievel moving around the streets of New York, avoiding horse and carriages, the general folk of New York and er, open manholes. I don’t think it’s obligatory (the manual seems to say as much), but there are also 16 pieces of cheese to locate throughout the level. I suspect you wouldn’t get anything for collecting all 16, and similarly you won’t be penalised if you don’t even try.

Levels 4 and 5 take place in the sewers. We didn’t really get too far into these as the controls, or lack thereof, began to cause us problems and a slight feeling of motion sickness. Basically, your role is to follow Digit throughout the sewer and making sure you don’t fall too far behind. Difficult enough if you had a straight line to follow, but they throw obstacles and all manner of things into your path to slow you down. Most vexing. The second half of “Sewer Rat” sees you escaping from Warren T Rat on a roller skate. Your job is to make it out without being caught by the cats, and without colliding with any obstacles. Easier said than done.

The final level, “The Secret Weapon” sees you take control of the giant mouse-shaped secret weapon and scare the cats away. You have to avoid hitting obstacles and not fall in the water. Hmm. To add further difficulty, certain areas won’t support the weight of your flaming death machine, and the booklet even suggests you try scaring all 17 cats by moving the weapon near them and making them jump into the water. If it’s not a mandatory element of the game, then I’ll pass thanks.

It gets worse – the 4 bonus levels see you rolling around again in a soap bubble, avoiding lines of washing as you veeeeeeeeeeeerrry slooooooowly float towards the ground and spend even more time in the sewer as you try to reach the bottom without being steamed to death. Very loosely inspired by the movie, and lacking all the charm that film provided. On the subject of lacking charm, the same can be said for their use of clips from the film between some of the levels. Clearly the budget wouldn’t spread to acquiring the soundtrack to the clips, so there’s no dialogue and badly dubbed music to tide us over. The booklet says that, before each level (or “mini-game”) you get to “watch a classic clip from the movie to fill you in on the story”. We played through just over half the game before throwing in the towel, and we only saw a couple of clips. In retrospect that might be because we played three of the bonus levels, so I think the clips are limited solely to the 6 “main story” levels, for want of a better term. Even so, there isn’t much context provided for each clip and the lack of dialogue doesn’t help link the separate mini-games into any coherent story. We struggled with it and we’ve seen the original film. What happens if someone completely new to the franchise tries playing it? It won’t make a lot of sense.

Based on the review that Ant put together, I’m inclined to agree with him in many respects. Whilst Don Bluth might spin in his grave about this game when he does eventually pass on, I can’t help but think that he would have had at least some sort of creative control over whether his classic animated film be turned into a video game. If he didn’t then fair enough, but otherwise it’s yet another cynical cash-in.

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