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PlayStation Kids’ Titles: From Sublime to Second-Rate

The most common question readers ask me through e-mail is which system to buy. Sony PlayStation or Nintendo 64? It’s a tough question, but my pat answer has always been that if the recipient is under 10 or 12, the buyer should pick up a Nintendo 64.

For the most part, the cartridge-based N64 is more rugged, and its library of games caters to a younger crowd. PlayStation, on the other hand, boasts a huge catalog of titles, most of which target a much older player--or at least one sophisticated enough to know that it’s not OK to shoot up an alien-infested strip joint.

But the problem with pat answers is that they never turn out to be completely true--at least not for very long. As Nintendo 64 matures, games like “Rogue Squadron” and “Turok 2: Seeds of Evil” make the machine anything but a host for kiddie titles. At the same time, more games for PlayStation are aiming for younger players.

The results have been mixed.

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At the top of the heap are games like “A Bug’s Life.” With Walt Disney and Sony--two companies known for quality--behind “A Bug’s Life,” the game is just what parents and players expect. It’s a big, bright, beautiful game in which everything works as it should--even if it feels a little sterile sometimes.

“A Bug’s Life” follows the story of the movie. In fact, the opening credits of the game are the opening credits of the movie. Or is it the other way around? In any case, scenes from the movie are spliced between each level and move the story forward as players battle bugs and the terrain to save their colony.

Players meet Flik, the four-appendaged blue ant who puts his colony in danger by destroying its offering of food to the lazy and mean-spirited grasshopper hordes. It’s up to Flik to help fight off the angry grasshoppers.

The game is one giant cartoon. Most of the environments offer at least the impression of being completely three-dimensional. In fact, though, most follow a fairly linear track. In the first level, for instance, players can explore the terrain around the anthill and find seeds and other surprises, but they basically have to follow the course to the end.

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Not that it matters. The levels are diverse and engaging, offering varied scenery and a wide range of play. “A Bug’s Life” offers more than just jumping around. Players catch a ride on a dandelion spore, run from birds and pummel grasshoppers with fruit seeds.

The levels are easy enough that younger players--or their parents--won’t get frustrated. But there’s enough depth to challenge players who want to unlock all the secrets. And the game offers the ability to save progress after every level. That’s a nice touch, considering most ants have longer attention spans than most kids I know.

Like “A Bug’s Life,” “Lucky Luke” offers a variety of different play modes. Problem is, none of them are very fun. Lucky Luke is an Arizona lawman on the trail of the nasty Dalton Brothers, a band of siblings who all look a lot like Snidely Whiplash.

The problem with “Lucky Luke” is that the game seems to move with all the speed of life in a desolate 19th century frontier town. With the exception of the cinematic sequences, the screen is often fuzzy and characters don’t have nearly the clarity or definition they should. In some levels, it’s not even clear what the signs that supposedly offer helpful hints are advocating.

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Programming variety into a game is admirable. When done properly, it takes a game beyond a single genre and keeps play fresh. When done the way it was in “Lucky Luke,” it just offers a bunch of different so-so games tied together with a central character.

“Rosco McQueen Firefighter Extreme,” on the other hand, sizzles because it tries to do just one thing. Of course, that one thing is saving the world. Players strap on a portable water tank and brave the flames as they fight off Sylvester T. Square and his army of robots.

With a sidekick named Digit, the gargantuan-chinned Rosco works his way through various fire hazards. The trick lies in knowing when to use the hose to fight a fire or the ax to fight off encroaching robots.

Play unfolds in a three-dimensional world that moves smoother than most. And although most of the environments are fairly simple, the game is anything but. As fires get more persistent, players must monitor their water consumption. And when they see Rosco’s health fading, they need to find some milk and cereal. It’s that kind of good-natured wholesomeness that makes “Rosco McQueen” a title that parents and kids can appreciate together.

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But show me the parent who appreciates--no, even understands--"The Great Beanstalk,” a game featuring the characters from the “Tiny Toon” cartoon show. Players guide Buster Bunny and Plucky Duck through an adventure to find stuff stolen by a giant.

To do that, players have to find the pieces of various keys scattered throughout themed lands with names like “Beat-nick Lounge” and “Mother Hubbard’s Kitchen.” To its credit, “The Great Beanstalk” is a beautiful game. It looks just like a cartoon.

Unfortunately, it also plays like a cartoon. There’s a lot of action but almost no forward motion. Some parts of the game offer little more than a static screen in which players click on various doors, windows and openings to see a little cartoon or hear a bad joke.

I can see how very young kids might think this is a scream.

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All I wanted to do was scream--a sign, I think, that I just don’t get it.

I’m sure it will be very popular.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

ESSENTIALS

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Title: “A Bug’s Life”

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment/Disney Interactive

ESRB* rating: Everyone

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Price: $39.95

Bottom line: Life inside a cartoon

Title: “Lucky Luke”

Platform: Sony PlayStation

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Publisher: Infogrames cq

ESRB rating: Everyone

Price: $39.95

Bottom line: Don’t be unlucky enough to buy

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Title: “Rosco McQueen Firefighter Extreme”

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Psygnosis

ESRB rating: Everyone

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Price: $39.95

Bottom line: Clever and fun

Title: “The Great Beanstalk”

Platform: Sony PlayStation

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Publisher: NewKidCo

ESRB rating: Everyone

Price: $39.95

Bottom line: A digital activity center

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Next Week: “Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle 3,” “Loony Tunes Carrot Crazy,” “Loony Tunes Twouble “

Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to aaron.curtiss@latimes.com.


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