There’s an unwritten rule that decrees that most current video games based on movies should be of the most pathetic, poorly-designed drivel to ever be unleashed upon the masses. When some gamers see that some Hollywood film has been adapted for the gaming industry, they tend to cringe and shake their heads in pity and disdain, ignoring the humble little title in hopes of finding something more appealing. Hey, who can blame them? With games like Batman Forever, Charlie’s Angels and Catwoman, it’s no wonder why movie games get such a bad rap. And if some brave and foolish soul attempts to purchase and play one of these abominations, chances are that the game will end up returned, used as a drink coaster, or flung into the shadowy abyss of the closet. It’s a truly sad fate for these games, to be so hated throughout their lifespan, only to face a dismal future of owner contempt. Thus we are presented with Madagascar, the latest in a long line of video games based on something playing in theaters everywhere.
As the summer sun rises over the New York City Zoo, a lone zebra named Marty wakes from his slumber and begins another day of entertaining the countless tourists that routinely visit his holding pen. This wisecracking African import has lead a docile life for the past ten years, coming of age in a world of humans and the cold concrete of his enclosure. However, Marty isn’t content with simply laying around the zoo for the rest of his life. He yearns to be free of human oppression, to run aimlessly through the untamed wilderness of his forefathers. Enlisting the aid of some highly capable penguins, this striped beast manages to escape the zoo that he knows so well, venturing forth into the mysterious outside world and facing whatever obstacles laying along the way. However, he won’t be alone. A lion, giraffe, and a hippo have come along for the ride, taking along quirky personalities and emotional baggage with them. This fellowship of animal brethren must band together to for a common goal, to attain an almost unreachable freedom.
It’s got the makings of a typical family-friendly adventure. You’ve got the stand-up comedic hero, the slightly oblivious but still good-natured sidekick, the tough and independent heroine, and the cowardly and whiny fourth supporting character. While these personas are among the current standards for most kids’ movies, their video game counterparts sink below what we have come to expect with our game characters. The traits of these four animals are well pronounced and decently developed, but the characters still seem like mindless automatons. The dialogue is chock full of comedy, yet none of the lines are delivered with any recognizable emotion. It’s as if the actors behind these characters did their jobs while half asleep, merely reading their scripts without any real effort. Thus the characters come off as not only stale and boring, but also the pale imitations of their silver screen counterparts. The fact that the game doesn’t have much in the way of plot development doesn’t help the appeal, either. Instead of following the storyline, we are immediately thrust from scene to scene, leaving out plenty of plot aspects and explanations as the process. How did Marty manage to maneuver throughout the streets of New York unscathed? How did the other animals escape from the zoo? The gaming world will never know.
As the not so epic quest unfolds, you’ll be given the chance to play as all of the different animals that make up your group. You’ll able to strut around the area as Marty, finding pickups, taking out enemies and solving minor puzzles throughout the levels. If you feel like getting in touch with your carnivorous side, you can give Alex the lion a try. While his other feline brethren were lounging around the zoo, this mighty king of the urban jungle has been trained to jump through hoops, giving him decent amount of platforming abilities. If raw speed and power are your thing, Gloria the hippo is able to sprint at short distances, allowing her to outrun and plow through just about anything that has the misfortune of crossing her path. But if you’re in the need for something a little more tedious, Melman’s obscenely awkward hovering abilities will leave you stunned, mildly frightened, and pondering how a fully-grown giraffe could levitate its way though some conveniently designed levels. You’ll even get a chance to play as one of the elite members of the penguin team, going on supposedly covert ops missions and sneaking through facilities a la Metal Gear Solid style. And if stealth isn’t your thing, it just takes a quick penguin flipper chop to send the baddies into a coma.
But while the lineup of characters offers a rich variety of gameplay, Madagascar still lacks the one aspect common to any enjoyable game: challenge. Sure, the characters all have different abilities and playing styles, but they’re so poorly implemented that the game grows stale within minutes. It’s great that Alex can jump through hoops and platform to his lion heart’s content, but the level designs don’t provide any real challenge or technical handling. The same could be said about Melvin’s platforming, Gloria’s pathetically easy track runs, and Marty’s mindless puzzle solving. Hell, even the penguin stealth levels could have been cool, but the lack of difficulty and simplistic gameplay take any joy that could have been reaped from this game. While sneaking up on enemies and administering some penguin punishment sounds awesome, the inept baddies make this mission both a breeze and a failure to impress. Even though the quest is sprinkled with minigames, they don’t make up for the lacking adventure. Thus the lesson in disappoint continues, all the way through the gang’s journey to ultimate freedom and salvation.
If the actual gameplay wasn’t horrid enough, the presentation just makes it even more pronounced. The game is based on a film by Dreamworks, a company hailed for its occasionally brilliant artistry. Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation from the movie to the video game. While the movie versions of Marty and his companions are drawn with some finely tuned computer graphics imagery, their gaming counterparts lack the same kind of polish. The characters are all blocky and seem a little out of focus, a definite difference from their silver screen brethren. The same goes for the levels, which offer a wide variety of colors, but not nearly the same amount of detail that we’ve come to expect on our PS2 games. If the questionable graphics weren’t enough, the voice acting brings the game to a higher level of poorness. Never mind the glitchy animation issues; the conversations for this game are among the most tedious and boring ever seen. It’s this true breakdown in communication that brings this game to its ultimate failure.
It could have been awesome. Really, it could have been a force to be reckoned with. The game comes with a decent variety of characters, each with their own inherent abilities and playing styles. It’s a shame that the concept was implemented so poorly, an example of sacrificing quality for mindless movie-licensed mush. With the absolute lack of difficulty and simplistic design, it’s a real wonder as to what Activision was expecting when they unleashed this game upon the masses of unsuspecting gamers. Did you know that some retailers are still selling this for $40 USD? If you’re in the need for some film-based gaming goodness, look elsewhere. See the movie, skip the game.