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June 30, 2005

REVIEW: SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom

  • Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, GameBoy Advance
  • Current Price (new): $20
  • Amount of Game Played: 100% (we finished the game, though we still have to round up a few stray Golden Spatulas)
Kids are an easy target for licensed games, kinda like they are for licensed breakfast cereals. As long as their favorite character is on the box, they're going to be thrilled when you bring it home. The question is how happy they'll be after the proverbial "first bowl."

These days, when a licensed game is released, many of us approach with skepticism, having been burned by bad licensed titles so often. The problem being that when so much cash goes into the license bucket, that leaves a lot less for the "let's develop a quality game" bucket.

In this case, rest easy. This is one of the best licensed kids games to come out in the last few years.

So basically, it all comes down to personal preference. If your kids like SpongeBob, they'll love SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom. If they don't like SpongeBob, they won't be quite so thrilled.

In our case, my kids like the show, and they love the game.

It's a fun, whimsical game, with many inside jokes from the TV show. There are many colorful levels, and while there are certainly goals to be achieved (Golden Spatulas & Patrick's socks - see? whimsical!), your kids can just run around and explore as they see fit. And they can jump in and out of any level they've already completed, which is great, because the kids love to play their favorite parts over & over again.

Other than fellow Northwestern alum (Go Cats!) Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), whose understudy does a pretty good job, all of the voice actors from the TV show are present and accounted for in this game, which makes a big difference.

The game is easy enough that your younger kids shouldn't have that much trouble picking up the controller and playing right away. But there's also enough challenge to keep your older kids interested as well.

Finally, this is a fun game for the family to play together. Of course, parents need to like (or at least tolerate) the TV show, too, or else they won't want to play for very long. I had a great time playing this game with the kids.

Favorite Levels:
    • Sand Mountain
    • SpongeBob's Dream
    • Robo-Patrick
That's it for my first thumbnail review. It's a little longer than I intended, but what are ya gonna do?

EDIT (7/3): After some quiet reflection, this will actually be the default length of my future reviews.

June 29, 2005


Are you impatient?
I sure am.

Do you hate waiting?**
I sure do.

Especially when it comes to waiting for information I need.

That said, I've decided to add a new feature. While I'll still do full-length reviews of video games for kids every few weeks or so, I'm going to start doing quick thumbnail (1-2 paragraph) reviews much more often.

That way, you won't have to wait 2 weeks to find out about a new game. There are so many games that we've already played & enjoyed together, and while I didn't just want to throw a list of game links up on the right side of the page, I didn't want to feel like I was "holding out" on the parents out there who need a variety of choices more than they need a Magna Carta-length review. So I figured this was a good compromise. I'm all about kaizen. :o)

I'll try to post the first few thumbnail reviews in the next day or two, then keep chugging from there.


EDIT (7/3): After some quiet reflection, thumbnail reviews (as described in this post - 1-2 paragraphs) are no more, but the default length of my future reviews will be approximately the length of the SpongeBob review, which is approx. 10-12 paragraphs.


** FYI, that's a quote from The Princess Bride.

Inigo Montoya: I donna suppose you could espeed things up?
Westley: If you're in such a hurry, you could lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to do.
Inigo Montoya: I could do that. I have some rope up here, but I do not think you would accept my help, since I am only only waiting around to kill you.
Westley: That does put a damper on our relationship.
Inigo Montoya: But, I promise I will not kill you until you reach the top.
Man in Black: That's VERY comforting, but I'm afraid you'll just have to wait.
Inigo Montoya: I hate waiting. I could give you my word as a Spaniard.
Man in Black: No good. I've known too many Spaniards.
Inigo Montoya: Isn't there any way you trust me?
Man in Black: Nothing comes to mind.
Inigo Montoya: I swear on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya, you will reach the top alive. Man in Black: Throw me the rope.

June 26, 2005

Have Clank, Will Travel

My daughter loves to draw.
Anything & everything.
All the time.
She just loves to draw.

So I asked if she might like to draw some of her favorite video game characters for GameFam. Here's her initial reply, in 2 parts...

1. Clank

On the last day of E3 last month, I was supposed to meet a friend from Kellogg. She works for SCEA in finance, and she was on duty in the Ratchet area of the Sony booth.

I had promised to show her the Clank drawing, so I had a copy of it in my bag. When I arrived, however, my friend was nowhere to be found. So I passed a little time getting thoroughly trounced in Ratchet Deadlocked multiplayer.

After collecting a cool Ratchet t-shirt to compensate for my abject, yet enjoyable humiliation, I looked for my Kellogg friend again. Denied. But I got a helluva consolation prize, none other than Ted Price, founder, large cheese & head honcho of Insomniac Games, creators of Ratchet & Clank.

Ted Price

Since I already had Clank riding shotgun, I figured Ted might get a kick out of it. Before I could even get my bag closed, Ted saw the Clank drawing, halted his conversation, and came over to check out my daughter's work.

I spoke to Ted and Ryan Schneider (Insomniac's Marketing & Communications Director) for a while, including my plan to launch GameFam after E3. A good time was had by all. Then I gave them the drawing to take with them, since it was a copy (my daughter used the orignial for a collage, and would not have been happy if I gave that away).

When I followed up with Ryan recently, he told me that the drawing was hanging in Insomniac's kitchen (as you can see in the photo (below) he was nice enough to send). How cool is that?

I told my daughter the news, she beamed with pride, and I got a little ferklempt. She thought it was very cool that the people who created Clank liked her drawing enough to put it on display. How's that for a serendipitious E3 warm-fuzzy?

2. Gish

No cute story here. We've played the free demo of GameTunnel's Indie (Independent) Game of 2004 together a buncha times, and my daughter thought it would be cool to draw him (uh... it?). So she did. That's it. That's all I got for ya. Really. Alas, I didn't get to meet the good folks at Chronic Logic. Maybe next year.


Stay tuned for more exclusive drawings.

I'll review both games (the Ratchet & Clank series and Gish) in the coming weeks.


When I went to Insomniac's website to get a photo of their kitchen, I nosed around for a while, and came away thinking that it looked like a pretty damn cool place to work. As it turned out, the Great Place To Work Institute agreed, making Insomniac the "first video game company named to the "50 Best Small & Medium Sized Companies to Work for in America" list," ranking it #3 on the small companies list.

* end Insomniac infomercial * ;o)

Seriously, though, at a time when quality of life issues (or at the very least, some well-publicized claims thereof) are plaguing** the video game industry, it's pretty interesting that the first company to be recognized for exactly the opposite is an independent developer. Given my imperfect knowledge on this topic, I'm not making a judgement here. I just thought that it makes for an interesting jumping off point for a discussion on work-life balance in the industry. I realize that there are different issues for programmers & artists as opposed to marketing/strategy folks like myself, but either way, as driven as I am to succeed in my career (very much so), you can probably guess by now that work-life balance is a very important issue for me.

** "plaguing" may be too strong a word, but it sure fit well in the sentence. :o)

June 23, 2005

Hail to thee, Kamp Kowsky...

...by the shores of Big Snake Lake...**

This is only day #8 in my nascent blogging "career," and I'm pretty sure you're already getting the idea that I loves me some o' that Simpsons. Best... written... satire... EVER!!

But I digress.

In my first post, I wrote about finally being healthy after 2 years of back hell, and while I'm currently enjoying teaching about video games, it's definitely more a means than an end.

I'm actively looking for a marketing or strategy position in the video game industry, and when I eventually get hired, I'll have to... y'know... go to work full time. During the school year, it won't be as big a change for the kids, but in future summers, we're simply not going to have such a block of time together as a family.

As a result, my wife and I decided to get the most out of our waning family togetherness, and take advantage of this unique opportunity. So instead of signing the kids up for day camp for the entire summer, we turned the first half of summer into a veritable cavalcade of family fun. My wife has found a lot of great activities, starting with the Justin Roberts concert at the Printer's Row Book Fair, which got us off on the right foot.

Today, we took the kids to the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, Illinois.

With such a conservative, nondescript facade, it was very tough to identify the building as a place for kids. * makes exaggerated winking motion *

One bubble...

...two bubbles.

(mmmmmmm... Bubblicious )

The giant, acrylic Lite-Bright wall, avec blacklight

Self portrait

Don't pick your nose!

The wall of joy. Or, the way it looks in this photo, the wall of sushi rice.

There's even a video game connection. On the 2nd floor, we stepped off the elevator, and this sculpture was the first thing we saw:

Sure enough, the kids ran up to it and exclaimed with glee, "Daddy, it's Jake!"

As you can see, a good time was had by all. It was better than both the Kohl Children's Museum in Wilmette, and the Chicago Children's Museum (at Navy Pier), which used to be brutal, but has improved.


** For those of you who thought I was gonna leave you hangin', shame on you:

Hail to thee, Kamp Krusty,
By the shores of Big Snake Lake.
Though your swings are rusty,
We know they'll never break.
From your gleaming mess hall,
To your hallowed baseball field,
Your spic n' span infirmary,
Where all our wounds are healed.
Hail to thee, Kamp Krusty,
Below Mount Avalanche.
We will always love Kamp Krusty,
A registered trademark of the Krusty Corporation,
All rights reserved!


June 21, 2005

NOT FOR KIDS: Conker: Live & Reloaded

He's cute...

He's cuddly...

He's... someone you should keep as far away from your impressionable little gamers as possible!

If this is insultingly obvious, then I apologize. Off you go, then.

But just in case your kid's thumb was strategically placed over that "M" in the bottom left corner of the box (and the other thumb was covering the warning label in the bottom right corner), and all you saw was a quick glimpse of a fuzzy squirrel on the box before your other kids did something to steal your attention away, then this warning is all for you.

Conker: Live & Reloaded was just released for the Xbox yesterday (6/21), by Microsoft & legendary British developer Rare. I'm not going into a lot of review-style detail here, other than to say, "Don't bring this extremely violent, profane squirrel home to your kids!"

This is not a review of whether or not this is a good game for its intended audience (17+). If you want to get it for yourself to play after the kiddies are snug as bugs in rugs, swell. Knock yourself out. But if you're still on the fence as far as your kids are concerned, take a gander at these screenshots:

Allrighty, then?

Note: In my first-ever post, when I wrote "The character is fuzzy & cute, so the game is good for kids, right?", this is the game I had in mind.

June 18, 2005

REVIEW: Dog's Life

Current price (new): $20

Amount of Game Played: 95% (we collected 111 bones, but the last level is a little tricky, so we never officially "finished" the game)

What the…? Is that a "T" in the lower left corner of the box? T as in Teen? As in not for kids under the age of 13? Can someone at the ESRB please explain the logic behind this decision? Because I think one of y'all fell asleep at the ratings switch. Dog's Life is a great game for kids!

More about video game ratings at the end of the review. Now to the game...

If you base your evaluation of Dog's Life on the traditional criteria (graphics, sound, etc.), then this game won’t end up with a high overall score. However, if you judge it based on what is most important to young children (i.e. IS IT FUN TO PLAY?), then you’ve found yourself a winner.

To illustrate the difference between these 2 evaluation philosophies, go to Metacritic’s Dog’s Life page, and you’ll see a significant gap between the average critic rating (64) and the average user rating (9.5).

So why the disparity between the critics and us regular folk? I think that the critics spend so much time concentrating on traditional ratings criteria that they no longer see the forest for the trees. They forgot to ask whether the game passes the fun test, which this one certainly does.

What's so much fun about it? Well, how 'bout this... Dog's Life is like a Fantasy Camp! No, you can't "plunk" Joe Pepitone and "pop" Mickey Mantle during a Yankees baseball camp brouhaha, or learn "the art of crotch-stuffing" from Lenny Kravitz at Springfield Rock 'n Roll camp, but you get to experience life as a dog! What kid wouldn't like that? Or, for that matter, what dog-loving, dog-liking, or even dog-tolerating adult?

You control Jake, a happy-go-lucky pooch who’s either a very big beagle, or a very small fox hound. So let’s split the difference and call him a harrier for the time being (please forgive my houndular hair-splitting). Either way, he’s a cute “everydog” or “dog’s dog.” For the sake of comparison, here's a coupla pix of our beagle, Count Dogula ;o)

In the opening scene, Jake's carefree ways are brought to a screeching halt. His gal Daisy is kidnapped my mysterious men in a red truck, and he spends the rest of the game trying to collect bones and track them down so he can save Daisy. This (the kidnapping) is where the "grownup" world intrudes on our happy little doggie romp through the countryside. There are intermittent, non-specific references to the nefarious plans of the bad guys, but not much else that should concern parents.

Speaking of parental concerns, let's talk about where that ridiculous T rating may have come from. By pressing the correct combination on the D-Pad (the directional pad on the left side of the PlayStation 2 controller), you can make Jake poop & fart. Clearly, it's lowbrow potty humor, and if that bothers you, that's certainly your parental prerogative. But kids think it's hilarious. In addition, the pooping isn't completely arbitrary. You can only make Jake "do his bidness" after he's eaten something.

Which brings me to hunger & fatigue. If Jake hasn't gotten his snack on in a while, he'll get tired, his head will droop, his tail will stop wagging, and he'll start moving a lot more sluggishly.

So the game is less fun to play when Jake isn't well taken care of. Hey! How 'bout that! Not only do the kids have fun, but they learn some responsibility as well (I'm half-joking on that one).

The game has 2 main points of view when you play. 1) Third person, where you are slightly above and behind the dog you’re controlling, and 2) First person, which they call “Smellovision,” a fitting term.

Third person is the best way to enjoy watching your dog move around, but Smellovision is our family's favorite. Smellovision is a graphic representation of how we might see the world if we had the amazingly powerful sense of smell that dogs possess. The colors in the world of Smellovision are muted (which mimics a dog's colorblindness), except for the multicolored scents that rise out of the ground as you explore your surroundings. Each smell represents a different task or mission. For example, orange usually means means a person or another dog, unless the scent is emanating form the ground, in which case you've found yourself a buried bone (score!). Find all 50 pinks, and earn a bone. Sniff all 8 blues, and have a bone-digging race with another dog. All 8 yellows bring on... you guessed it... more potty humor in the form of a territory-marking contest (do I have to spell it out for ya?). There are also tug-of-war competitions, biscuit-trail-following races, doggie trick contests, and individual challenges. If you have young kids, you may have to help them with some of the more challenging ones.


Once you defeat the other dog in a contest, you get to control that dog for a limited time, during which you're supposed to perform a task that Jake couldn't accomplish. For example, small dogs can fit in small spaces (duh), fast breeds can catch the goose that stole Jake's bone, etc. In general, the graphics in Dog's Life are nothing special (more below). However, that’s probably because all of their time and effort went into making sure Jake & the other dogs looked great. Each breed not only looks like it’s supposed to, but also moves the right way. Controlling the big ol' mastiff doesn’t feel like controlling the fast-twitch Chihuahua. And since the main goal of the game (being a dog) is enhanced, then the other issues tend not to bother you too much.

My kids loved the Chihuahua mission best. The Chihuahua'a owner runs a fancy schmancy restaurant, and he needs his little "pixie frou-frou" (his words, not mine) to help get rid of the rats that have overrun his restaurant. You have to chase down and catch each individual rodent, then jump-shoot it into a trash can. FYI, the "331.9" in top right corner of the photo is the number of seconds remaining in the mission, not the number of rats he has to catch. Just in case you were wondering.

The kids were laughing so hard, I recorded the moment for posterity on my mp3 player, which makes it easy for parents to record life's little moments, without making the kids self-conscious.

So just what is it that the ESRB saw in this game that I didn’t? What did they see that’s so harmful for children under the age of 13? That the main character says “that sucks” a few times (I'd certainly rather he didn't, but I just explain to the kids that it's not a nice way to talk)? Or that in one of the opening scenes, a kid says “how’s it hangin?” Could it be the dreaded "Running of the Rodents?" or, horror of horrors, the performance of bodily functions on cue? Say it ain't so, Jake! Say it ain't so!

Dog’s Life is certainly not the slickest game around, which is probably why the critics rated it so much lower than everyone else. For example...
  • Gameplay: While the game is very easy for kids to pick up and play, the controls are imprecise and glitchy. This can be frustrating when you have to perform tasks that require precision. For example, during a timed mission where you get to control a bulldog, you have to collect newspaper fragments from several henhouses before the clock runs out. But the controls have a frustrating inertia to them, so you can't "shift-on-the-fly" or "turn on a dime." Unless you take your time to set up your lines exactly right before you start moving, you'll waste a lot of time going close to, but not exactly where you want to go. However, this is one of the more extreme cases, and it usually isn't that bad. And not all the glitchs are annoying. The kids love it when they try to make Jake walk onto the ski resort's gondola, and he suddenly starts to levitate for no apparent reason. Gets 'em every time.

  • Graphics: As I mentioned above, except for the dogs, the graphics are no great shakes. For example, the shadows are so pixilated, I kept having Intellivision flashbacks.

  • There is clipping aplenty. FYI, clipping is where one 3D character or object passes through another. This isn't necessarily so bad, though. One of my kids' favorite parts of the game is "hiding" Jake inside one of the sheep he's supposed to round up in one of the early missions.

  • There are many invisible walls (just what they sound like). When kids see a concrete wall in a game, they understand that they can't walk through it. But when all they see is a lovely green meadow before them, they expect to be able to stroll over there, but that isn't always the case. Many games use invisible walls, all gamers hate it, and kids find it very frustrating, because they don't understand what they can't just go where they want to.

  • AI (artificial intelligence - how the characters in the game not controlled by the player act): The AI is very basic. Most of the characters Jake interacts with say the same things and make the same movements over and over again.

  • The voice acting is brutal, mainly because they have one voice actor doing a lot of multitasking. It would be one thing if he were so talented that you really didn't notice, or if the writing were so clever/quirky that you didn't care (e.g. the many characters voiced by Seth MacFarlane in Family Guy, and by Hank Azaria, Dan Castellaneta & Harry Shearer in The Simpsons), but neither is the case in this game. All of this guy's characters sound similar, and the writing is corny. The dreaded voice-over double whammy.

  • The final criticism I've read is that the game is repetitive and boring. For adults addicted to fast-paced action games like Halo 2 & Half-Life 2, that may well be true. But we're talking about kids here. When my kids find a game or activity they enjoy, they love to play it over and over and over and over (sound familiar?) and over and over and over and over... As long as they're having fun, they are obviously not bored.

    One of the most kid-friendly aspects of the game is the open-ended, non-linear gameplay. Sure, there are missions to be completed, foes to be vanquished, and bones to be collected, but if your kids just wanted to run around and explore aimlessly, switching from third-person to Smellovision (and back) on a whim, they are free to do as their little hearts desire.

    Both kids love Dog's Life, which they call “the Jake game.” We've spent hours and hours playing it TOGETHER. Even my wife, who is at most a casual gamer, enjoys playing this game. Bottom line, it's one of the kids' favorite games.


    ESRB, continued...

    In general, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board is recognized as a very good internal (i.e. non-governmental) rating system. In fact, Senator Joe Lieberman, who chaired the 1993 hearings (along with Senator Herb Kohl) that led to the very creation of the ESRB, has said that the ESRB is “the best entertainment rating system in the United States.” And as a parent of 2 young kids, I was thrilled when they recently created the new E10+ rating, to differentiate between games for my kids, and those more appropriate for pre-teens. On the surface, the ESRB seems to do a good job, and many times, they give games the ratings they deserve.

    However, they are far from infallible, and they occasionally give a game a confusingly incorrect rating. Dog’s Life is one such mistake.

    In fact, the entire continent of Europe agrees with me. Instead of the ESRB, Europe uses PEGI, (Pan-European Game Information), and if you compare the North American box and the European box side-by-side, you'll notice that while the North American version (left) has a "T" rating, the European version (right) is rated "3+".

    Is it logical to anyone that European kids have a 10-year headstart on American kids in terms of maturity?... umm... Europeans aren't allowed to answer that question. ;o)