Reviewed: May 28, 2005
Released: May 25, 2005
It wasn’t so long ago that when you mentioned a movie-inspired game most people would cringe, but recently a string of surprisingly good movie games have trickled onto the software shelves. Activision seems to be snatching up movie licenses right and left with hits like Spider-Man, X-Men, Shrek and most recently, Lemony Snicket, a game which actually surpassed the movie in nearly every way.
Madagascar is the latest movie-turned-game from Activision and once again proves that you can turn a great movie into an even greater game. I started my review two days before seeing the film and finished it two days after and can say without reservation that this is one of the best movie-games I have played...ever. The game and movie complement each other so perfectly that neither spoils the other, yet each expands upon the content of the other to create a greater whole.
For those who haven’t seen the movie or countless trailers, Madagascar is a story about a group of animals living in the New York City Zoo. Marty, the zebra has just turned ten and is going through a mid-life crisis. He dreams of exploring “the wild”, and late one night he escapes from the zoo and makes his way through downtown New York to Grand Central Station where he tries to catch the train to what he thinks is the wild or what we call Connecticut.
His friends; Gloria, the hippo, Melman, the hypochondriac giraffe, and Alex, the lion try to catch and bring him back to the zoo but they all end up getting captured and put on a cargo ship, which is hijacked by scheming penguins who are also planning their own escape back to Antarctica. Our group of heroes gets dumped over the side of the ship, still in their crates, and ultimately wash ashore in Madagascar.
Don’t even ask me how to categorize the gameplay in Madagascar. This is one of the most diverse titles I have ever played in my 20+ years of gaming, borrowing from every genre and every popular arcade and platform game in existence. You'll be doing something entirely new and totally fun every 15 minutes.
A huge portion of Madagascar's appeal is its cast of four loveable characters, each with their own unique abilities that can be upgraded throughout the course of the game. Marty can jump and kick and eventually learn a super-leap move. Gloria can run and tumble and gain a speed boost by eating red peppers. She can also do a butt-bounce for some Mario-inspired sequences later in the game. Melman has a cool helicopter jump that allows him to glide across long gaps and later he can smash and throw things with his head. Alex has a powerful roar, a double-jump, and eventually a claw attack.
The game is laid out to follow the plot of the movie, but rather than recreate the scenes from the movie you get to explore those unseen moments that you know happened but the movie didn’t have time to cover. You start off in the zoo for the opening tutorial then you have a rather lengthy stealth level where Marty has to escape. This might take you 30-50 minutes of gameplay for a sequence that wasn’t even shown in the movie.
After a lengthy dash through downtown New York you find yourself crated and onboard a ship. At this point you get to play as the penguins who must use stealth tactics and a sliding dash and fin whack move to overpower the crew and take control of the ship. Again, this sequence took all of two minutes in the movie but you’ll spend an hour playing it out in the game.
Some levels are dedicated to a certain character while others switch off at scripted points and other allow you to switch at will to complete certain character-specific objectives. Gloria might have to smash through some boulders to allow Melman access to a point where he can jump and glide over to a pick-up.
There is a not-so-subtle collection system that has you collecting 100 coins on each of the dozen-plus levels. This is hardcore platform gaming at its best that will keep you playing and replaying these levels over and over. On my first pass through the game I averaged 87 coins per level with only two perfect 100’s.
Coins are extremely important for unlocking additional game content, power-ups, and new wardrobe accessories for the characters. Each character has several visual upgrades like a crown for Alex or a bikini for Gloria. Then you have the Extras like bonus lives, 2x Tiki health power-ups, and flaming paw prints.
Of course the first place to spend all that spare change is the Mini-Game menu where you can unlock the Tiki Mini Golf, Lemur Dance Party, and a great Shuffleboard game. These are much more than your standard mini-games. Once unlocked, I nearly forgot about the story and played the mini-golf for four straight hours. This has to be one of the best mini-golf games out there and it’s just a small fraction of the content in Madagascar.
Shuffleboard plays just like the real game only you use characters from the story and they ride inflatable life preservers. Then you have the Lemur Dance Party which is basically a recreation of any dance game you have played much like the dance mini-game in Shark’s Tale. Button symbols stream from the center outward to the diamond pattern of the face button layout and you tap the corresponding buttons as they pass over the hotspot.
Not only do you have to unlock these games, there are plenty of additional bonuses to buy for each of them. You actually have to pay to unlock multiplayer golf, and it costs 20 coins per player up to six. You can also buy two new shuffleboard courts, one with side rails and obstacles and a third that is made of ice and shaped like a half-pipe, each with their own strategy. The Dance Party comes with one song and there are four more you can purchase as well as purchasing a two-player dance mode.
The game is laid out in the form of a huge map that is 20x larger than your TV, so you have to scroll around to access each of the levels and mini-game areas. The next chapter unlocks when you finish the first and you can go back and replay any previous level to find missing coins or visit the “Zoouvenir Shop” to unlock more content. The entire game is seamless immersion from the opening title to the closing credits.
While the mini-games are obvious diversions, the core gameplay is loaded with mini-style games that blend right into the main platform action. You will be frequently called upon to perform quests or do certain tasks. On the ship the penguins will have to use the cranes to move crates and pick-up crew members and dump them overboard (or put them in cages if you are nicer than me). This plays from a top-down view and is just like those crane games.
There are jumping puzzles where you have to bounce from colored mushrooms in a certain repeating pattern just like the old Simon game, and some downhill river slide racing games where you have to collect coins and hit water sprays for bursts of speed. In some levels Alex will need to locate and jump through colored hoops to earn bonus cash, and another puzzle challenge has you leading bees to specific flowers on a strict time limit. Take too long and they sting you.
I could talk about Madagascar for days, but let me just say that in the ten hours it took me to finish the story portion of the game I never did the same thing twice. This game was mixing up the gameplay from start to finish, not only by changing the characters you are playing but also the objectives and the ways they complete them.
The graphics in Madagascar were very good, but not as good as I would have expected after seeing previous movie games like Shark’s Tale and even Lemony Snicket. The Xbox version supports progressive scan for a flicker-free image, and there were no jaggies to speak of. Colors were rich and vibrant but the textures were a bit harsh at times and didn’t blend entirely well. I suspect the game was ported across all the platforms with little visual optimization, as this looked liked a polished PS2 game.
The opening movie is basically ripped right from the film and looks great. The rest of the cut-scenes all use game-engine graphics that transition right into gameplay and there are mini-cutscenes that pop-up throughout the game as you meet characters and see movies of your quest objectives.
The levels are large, colorful, and well designed. The camera is manual so you will be tweaking it a lot during 3D gameplay. There are a few instances where the camera will lock into a certain view, like the dash through New York, or a top-down angle, like Gloria’s Frogger-inspired street crossing. You can also pull the left trigger to snap the camera behind your character.
The characters are outstanding, both in their design and their animation, which mirrors the film. Naturally, Alex’s mane is a polygon construct rather than individual hairs, but you’ll hardly notice. Melman has an awkward animation as he lurches around on long spindly legs and Gloria shakes the screen when she rampages through crates and hay bales. I also encourage you to just sit back and watch the amusing idle animations for each character like Alex juggling fruit.
The HUD is colorful, informative, and designed to fit with the theme of the game. It also vanishes when not in use, but will reappear if you take damage, collect a coin, or pull the right trigger to manually call it. Otherwise, it’s nothing but gameplay.
As I said earlier, I started the game before I saw the movie so I didn’t know who was doing the voices. None of the actors from the movie reprise their roles for this game but oddly enough, it doesn’t matter because this ensemble does just as good, if not better.
First of all, kudos to Phil La Marr who can do Chris Rock better than Chris Rock. I would have sworn it was Chris doing the voice of Marty until I read the voice credits in the manual. The rest of the cast delivers a flawless performance. Steven Stanton (Melman) actually pulls of a better neurotic than David Schwimmer does in the movie, and the guy doing the voice of the penguin commander is Phil Hartman reincarnated, both in tone and delivery.
The scripted dialogue is excellent in its own right, but the humor will have you laughing aloud. During the outrageous tutorial for the golf game, Mort, the doe-eyed Lemur, actually tries to hypnotize you with the up and down motion of the swing meter then gets into an argument with the off-screen Marty about trying to hypnotize the player. That's just one small example of the endless humor strewn throughout the entire game.
Sound effects are outstanding and recreate the sounds of a zoo, the bustling nightlife of New York City, the ocean sounds of a ship voyage, and all of the wildlife sounds of an African jungle. You are totally immersed in the experience.
There is a fantastic original score featuring music that is actually better than the eclectic jumble of tunes from the film. While the film relied on a lot of snippets from licensed music to enhance the Hans Zimmer score, the game keeps it “real” with plenty of jungle flavor using authentic instruments. The selection of music for the Lemur Dance Party is fun with a great beat, but I must complain about the omission of “I Like to Move it”; truly the best song from the movie and one that begs to be part of the dance game.
Madagascar took me just under ten hours to finish, not including the four hours I spent getting that recording-breaking 26 on the mini-golf game. I’ve probably spent at least 2-3 more hours playing shuffleboard and trying to beat my high scores in the Dance Party.
This is one of those rare titles that rewards your single-player excellence by unlocking a wealth of material you can enjoy long after the main game is over and even share it with your friends. Shuffleboard is two-player only and the mini-golf can go as high as six players and is the best themed mini-golf game you can play on the Xbox. There is also a two-player mode for the Dance Party.
The open-ended game design also allows you to revisit previous levels and find those coins you may have missed on your first pass. Some of them are hidden really well while others only appear when you complete certain objectives.
Whether you are a kid or just a kid at heart, this title has something for everyone. It spans nearly every genre including arcade, FPS, action, platform; there is even some stealth-action ripped right from Metal Gear Solid 2 if you remember hiding in that box and sneaking through the ship, and Madagascar even gives a nod to classic arcade games like Frogger, Simon and the crane game.
I can’t recommend Madagascar highly enough, both the film and the game. Best of all, it doesn’t matter which one you see (or play) first since each only makes the other one that much better. This is a must-play title for anyone looking for a family-friendly game packed with the fun and gameplay of a dozen individual titles.