The funkified whimsy behind SpongeBob SquarePants elevated it from standard cartoon status into a pop culture phenomenon. It sits right next to The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on that shelf of screwy cartoons with enough personality and charm to warrant mass production of toys, movies and all the paraphernalia that marketing mavens could conjure.
Only problem being, that videogames based on popular cartoons usually suck. It's a sad fact gamers have come to realize by enduring hours of platform mediocrity, poor game mechanics and shoddy attempts at humor.
Occasionally, game developers craft a game based on some insanely popular license and it doesn't suck. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, based closely on the theatrical release of the same name, is such a non-sucky title. Yes, it's a platformer.
And yes, you collect things and jump over spikes and lava. You can even unlock show-centric extras. But this is where the similarities end. By focusing on what makes the show entertaining, namely, oddly grown-up humor and marrying it with solid action, developer Heavy Iron delivers a fun dive into the oceanic depths.
The game follows the movie very closely (enough to have THQ warn us on spoiling the ending), so expect to see all the characters and locations from flick. The plot revolves around the dim-witted duo (SpongeBob and Patrick) as they try to thwart the maniacal Plankton from ruling the world.
For those not up on their SpongeBob trivia, Plankton is the three-inch tall evil-genius always looking for a way to enslave the globe. Plankton's latest scheme, which he calls Plan Z, sees him framing Mr. Krabs (SpongeBob's boss and manager of the Krusty Krab restaurant) by stealing Netpune's crown and pointing the finger at him.
Plankton then plans to enslave the populace of Bikini Bottom by using mind-controlling bucket-hats and steal Mr. Krab's secret Krabby Patty recipe. Granted, it's a fairly simple story. Then again, the star of the film is a buck-toothed, sentient sponge, so who cares? You start the game in the middle of one of SpongeBob's dreams, where he's been summoned to resolve a dire situation at Krusty Krab: a slice of cheese is missing from a fish's order. Once you're off and running, you'll notice the game uses the usual platform staples.
The left thumbstick controls movement while the right thumbstick controls the camera. SpongeBob can jump, double jump and hang on to ledges. His main attack, the Karate Spin, sends him whirling into enemies. Patrick uses the same basic set of moves, but features a few exclusive additions.
Just as in the last SpongeBob outing, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Battle For Bikini Bottom, each character boasts unique abilities. SpongeBob specializes in uppercut-style air attacks, letting him attack enemies above him. He can also roll up into a ball to navigate Super Monkey Ball type stages. Patrick can swing across chasms by latching on to ice blocks with his tongue and perform fast moving cartwheels.
While each character controls well overall, moving them around can feel floaty at times. And it's not because the game takes place on the ocean floor, either. Since the game makes heavy use of the platform mechanic, chances are you'll miss a few jumps due to somewhat wonky control.
Attacking enemies using SpongBob's Karate Spin or Patrick's Starspin won't always register a hit, even though you're standing right next to them. This happened rarely, but happen, it did. Also, characters would sometimes fail to latch onto a ledge during prolonged jumping sequences, sending them to the bottom of an abyss.
Throughout the game, you'll be able to upgrade your abilities, including health and attacks, using Manliness Points - the equivalent of gold coins in the Mario universe. Each character can upgrade five main attributes, three of which you need to unlock before you can even use them. Each skill, whether it is SpongeBob's Karate Spin or Patrick's Cartwheel, is noticeable improved with every upgrade, both visually and in attack power. Thankfully, the changes don't come off as arbitrary. Forget to upgrade, and you'll have a tougher time clearing all the stages.
Some character advancement is necessary. For example, you'll need to collect a certain number of special Goofy Goober Tokens to unlock special abilities enabling you to gain access to key areas. The Smash maneuver lets you break open cracked floors and trigger switches on the ground. Likewise, the Sonic Wave Guitar, which shoots controllable sonic waves, is necessary to clear one of the game's earlier stages. You can collect Goofy Goober Tokens in a number of ways. The coolest way, however, is during the game's driving and sliding stages.
Driving and sliding is a new element in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and it just happens to be the best thing about it. In fact, the driving sequences deliver more of a challenge (not to mention thrills) than a majority of the platform stages. During these stages, of which there are several, you get to drive an enormous hamburger and slide using an old bathtub.
Control for both feels responsive and smooth. In fact, throttling through caves on a bathtub and jetting through Bikini Bottom on a fast moving burger feels better than all of the platforming jumping. You'll need to jump over spikes, dodge boulders and maneuver oils spills. You'll also collect Nitrous to boost your ride before hitting ramps, sending you tearing through the air (or water, rather.)
The first time you encounter a driving or sliding stage, your only objective is to clear it. Later, you'll need to return to each of them and re-play them as Time Challenges, Ring Challenges (drive through a set of rings without missing a single one) and Macho Challenges (same as Time Challenge only less forgiving) to earn extra Goofy Goober Tokens. The only complaint: the sliding stages feel like they go on forever.
Still, they're all visually awesome and dish out a ton of fun. And driving isn't only thing you'll be doing in addition to platforming. You'll also navigate Floating Block Challenges (think Mario 64) and SpongeBall Challenges (think Super Monkey Ball.) Each challenge adds a ton of diversity to the game and offers a challenge. Beat any of these stages in the first few tries and you may just qualify for some kind of macho medal of your very own.
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