Reviewed: October 24, 2004
Released: September 27, 2004
The movie-making geniuses at DreamWorks have long since taken over the title that Disney held for so long in the realm of childrenís entertainment. In fact, only Pixar rivals their dominance. And developer KnowWonder has the lucrative position of translating the movie experiences of Shrek, Harry Potter and now Shark Tale into video game bonanzas.
Movie games are very hit or miss depending on how well developers translate the magic of the subject matter into an enjoyable facsimile for gamers. Like navigating your childís toy-littered room, kidís movies have their own set of pitfalls to worry about. You must balance fun with challenge in a way thatís idiomatic to the movie experience that is emblazoned in the childís mind.
KnowWonderís Shark Tale does this well enough, with the expected hiccups that only us jaded, older gamers would probably notice. Where the licensed is well used, as KnowWonder has done before with Shrek and Harry Potter, there are some problems that canít be ignored if youíre older than the target audience.
Shark Tale follows the adventures and exploits of young Oscar who runs afoul of the undersea version of the mob when he weaves a story filled with more exaggeration than a campaign speech. Naturally, the only way to get himself out of this jam is to engage in mini-games, right? While Iím just in charge of telling you about this game, I do find this story to be rather dubious in its main characterís materialism. You just canít be too careful with the messages you send kids even in such seemingly innocuous settings as a colorful video game. Okay, off the soapbox.
While Iím not unfamiliar with movie-licensed games (hello, Star Wars?), I donít often play childrenís games for obvious reasons. Thatís not to say that they are without their charm or even creativity. But letís see what we have here.
As one would expect, the movie tie-in is prominent and well-used in the menu system and interface. The colorful characters and the natural palette of the sea (or the Technicolor version of the movie at least) make for a pleasant visual ride into the deep blue.
The only nod to character building in Shark Tale is the current trend for collecting stuff for your pad. In this case, you can purchase items for Oscarís apartment Ė which eventually becomes a penthouse (see what I mean about the materialism?). Oscarís aspirations to quick fame and fortune and their associated problems are hopefully more complete in the movie, but again I digress.
Shark Tale doesnít rely on any single gameplay mechanic, instead opting for an array of extended mini-games - or would that be ďmaxi-gamesĒ? While there are no traditional power-ups, understand that this just isnít that kind of game. Because of the target audience, thereís an emphasis on seeing familiar characters and watching them move around, not executing a Stun Palm of Doom. Instead, thereís a minimum of such advanced techniques in favor of collecting jewels and such for the purchasing of additional marine bling. There is however also an occasional urchin pick-up that can be used to stun enemies, but thatís about as sophisticated as things get.
One mission involves escaping a mob henchfish in a fairly standard rails racer, avoiding obstacles that slow Oscar down and put him in the perilous path of capture. Another mission switches the gameplay to a Dance Dance Revolution type rhythm game that works surprisingly well despite the lack of a dance pad so familiar to DDR-playing console owners. Still another mission type takes a cue from older gamersí favorite gameplay of late: the stealth game. This is easily the most interesting mission type to said older gamers as sneaking Oscar through the map while avoiding flashlight-wielding crabs and Barracuda guards is much more exciting. I wonder how well any child under 10 years old would handle the more complex nature of those levels however.
Thankfully, familiar characters make their obligatory appearances in this game without becoming nuisances or an obvious attempt to mine the license for all its worth without consideration for narrative. While kids donít think much of it, us adults choke on such obvious milking.
I do have to point out that load times are surprisingly long for a PC game. Unlike their console counterparts, where hard drives are not a foregone conclusion, a game like Shark Tale should be able to run off the PCís hard drive and not the disc.
Graphically speaking, Shark Tale hits all of the marks in terms of the smooth, colorful character models youíd expect from the film that inspired it. Strangely though, you barely get the idea that it takes place in the ocean save for the fish that fly around the screen. What I mean by that is take away the fish-shaped characters, and the bluish sheen to the environment, and nothing but a smattering of bubbles from time to time announce the location of this pelagic playground. Would it hurt to throw in some flowing seaweed, or the particulate matter of a typical ocean scene? Donít these guys watch the Discovery Channel during shark week? Perhaps itís a small consideration when you consider the target audience.
And that target audience seems happy to play these particular movie-based games in the vein of KnowWonderís popular Shrek title. Never underestimate the power of a wildly popular license, and since DreamWorksí games for the PC historically get the short end of the production assets stick, itís not unreasonable to see little extras like the aforementioned esoterica left out.
One thing that helps tie a game to its cinematic namesake is the sound. Hereís where KnowWonder doesnít necessarily drop the ball so much as fumble it a bit. Thereís a noticeable lack of ambient ocean sounds for a game set in the ocean. Iím not asking for whale song, but aside from the soundbytes of the characters and the bubbles that remind you that youíre underwater and not flying in colorful outer space, thereís not much going on in the sounds department.
The anemic audio wouldíve been bolstered if any of the actors from the movie had been used for the game, but sadly thatís not the case. Thatís right, people who sound like famous people are experiencing a gold rush in the voice-over industry. Maybe I should polish up my Ian McKellan impression. The voice actors do a more than competent job at recreating the characters from the movie, so it all washes out.
But as far as the use of popular dance music in the rhythm sections of the game goes, you canít ask for much more than the likes of Outkast, Young MC and even MC Hammer (whoís probably thanking his lucky stars every time he goes to his mailbox for that ďCanít Touch ThisĒ royalty check). All in all, itís a nice collection of relatively harmless music in the more edgy genre of hip-hop with the compulsory remix thrown in for nostalgiaís sake.
Fittingly, the length of time it takes to finish this game represents the target audience once again as only a few hours are needed to conclude this maritime adventure. While that might mean less on the replay value, I suspect that another game will quickly take its place in a young gamerís heart as worthy of their time. Ah, youth.
Not to be misunderstood, this is a well-done game. While itís not on the level of EAís Lord of the Rings franchise offerings, it is after all targeting a different age group. Under the enchantment of DreamWorksí CG extravaganza, itís easy for young minds to be satisfied with what this Shark Tale offers, even if it falls a little short of an older audienceís expectations. The varied gameplay of each mission keeps things interesting, and the overall look of the game matches well with the movie.
KnowWonder seems to have inferred thatís all your average, young gamer wants. And I canít really disagree. So if your children have seen the movie, and they play on the PC a lot, it might be time to hit the game store again.