Games that capitalize on movies are usually stinkers. Its one of gaming's unwritten rules, and you can practically bank on it. Still, its hard to resist the lure of continuing a good film beyond the big screen and into your own home. While some movies are more suited to become videogames than others, I'm hard-pressed to think of one that seems like a better fit than Disney's most recent creation, Lilo & Stitch. The film has opened to rave reviews and near-universal praise because of its adorably offbeat characters. It also has a more emotionally dysfunctional and acerbic sense of humor than the Mouse House has dared attempt in recent years. From a personal standpoint, I enjoyed the film immensely and decided to risk ignoring the cardinal "film-to-game" rule to give it a try. (Well, in all honesty it was my love of the film combined with the piercing whine of my six-year old son that convinced me, but the point is that I bought the game.)
For those who haven't seen the movie yet, Lilo is a young Hawaiian girl from the island of Kauai. Stitch is a genetically manipulated extraterrestrial engine of destruction resembling nothing so much as a six-legged blue koala. Their Game Boy Advance (GBA) incarnation takes place after the film, and concerns a mad alien scientist who plans to use Earths mosquito population as an army. This isn't as nonsensical as it may seem since mosquitoes played a small (but pivotal) role in the films plot. In any event, don't worry too much about it, since the story is negligible.
The controls and action are both fairly standard platform affairs, with no real surprises. Stitch brandishes four rayguns (one in each arm), jumps, and can lob pineapple grenades. Lilo is basically helpless, but can sneak, crawl and climb admirably. Between some of the levels, Stitch will pilot a spaceship for brief bouts of shooter action. Instead of flying side to side, his ship rotates in a circle around the screen as he heads away from the player. For those who remember the old arcade classic Gyruss, you'll know what to expect. There are also a small handful of vehicles to control in the final few areas. They handle exactly like carbon copies of the vehicles from SNK's Metal Slug series, complete with rotating cannons and jumping abilities.
Once you put down the instruction booklet and fire up the game, you'll notice that the best thing about Lilo & Stitchis the wonderful animation given to the characters. Its no real surprise, considering the generally high production values of Disney games on consoles. Despite the size of the screen being smaller than I'm accustomed to (I don't spend a lot of time with handhelds), the smoothness and fluidity of the duo really was a sight to behold. Especially noteworthy was the amount of effort put into Lilos climbing and floating motions. The art and elegance of the film translates well into the hand-drawn animation in the cartridge.
Also appreciated was the variety between levels. While Lilo & Stitch doesn't contain anything that gamers haven't seen before, there was enough differentiation in its order and presentation of play to prevent me from becoming bored. Right about the time I was growing weary of blasting aliens with Stitch, the game shifted into some minor puzzle solving with Lilo. Before that got too old, things changed up again and I was flying the ship with Stitch. None of it was revolutionary or even that engaging, but a least the developers didn't go the cheap route and pump out a game with 20 identical levels.
On the other hand, where I think the developers tripped up a little was the difficulty. While I was able to blast through the game in a little under two hours, my son (who begged me to buy the game in the first place) wasn't able to get past the first level. Lilo & Stitch is the kind of old-school platformer that has no guilt about taking cheap shots at players. You'll often get tagged by enemies firing from off screen, or damaged by explosions that linger longer than they should, for example. For those players who have experience dealing with this sort of thing, the cart won't last the length of a plane trip from Hawaii to the mainland. For younger kids (the target audience, I'm assuming) its crushingly difficult and frustratingly unbeatable.
Other things to be aware of are the lack of replay (a no-no for a handheld title) and the meager extras. Once you've been through the games twelve or so levels, there's nothing much to keep you coming back. The developers included "hidden" items that unlock still pictures from the film, but they can all be found the first time through. The game also advertises "REAL MOVIE CLIPS," but don't get too excited. Those are unlocked simply by going through the game once, and they last but a few seconds each.
Overall, Lilo & Stitch isn't a total bomb like the majority of quick movie license cash-ins, but it wasn't all that great, either. The game retained the feel of the source material and the storyline was consistent with the films tone, which was nice. However, the average gameplay wasn't anything to write home about, and the difficulty will be too much for inexperienced gamers buying it based on the license alone. I have a sneaking suspicion that Id be a lot harder on the game if I hadn't already seen the film and fallen prey to the charms of a blue koala in an Elvis jumpsuit. For those of you who can't get enough of the characters, the game has some appeal. If you haven't seen the film, didn't like the film (if that's even possible) or you're just looking for a worthwhile portable purchase, I'd advise looking elsewhere.