You know, when Ubisoft announced that it was going to produce a series of games based on the Surf's Up animated film, I got a little excited. Surfing videogames are fun -- California Games' surfing mode on the Atari Lynx kicked all sorts of butt, and when Activision started pushing a lot of extreme sports and gave Kelly Slater his own GBA game, I was all over it. So to get a by-the-numbers Mario Kart racer? Let's just say I'm a bit disappointed. What's been created for Surf's Up might not be bad, but it's certainly underwhelming, and it clearly shows a lack of creativity on the part of the development team put to the task of bringing the theatrical release home.
Admittedly, as of this writing I have yet to see Surf's Up in the theaters. But judging by the name, and at least from the two movie trailers that play before the feature presentation, I can put money down on the fact that the film features a whole lot of surfing. In fact, I'll go even further and say that, based on what I know, the film revolves around at least one surfing competition. So would it be too far out to think that the designers of a videogame based on the movie might want to incorporate these two elements into their product?
Instead, what Ubisoft Montreal created for the Nintendo DS game is, essentially a kart racer. Kart racing is a videogame cop-out -- it's what videogame designers fall upon when they're put to the task of creating a game on a multi-character property that doesn't really lend itself well to any other game genre.
Now, instead of throwing the movie's penguins into motorboats, they really do get up on their surfboards. But there's no wave to surf on or to trick off of. Once the character's up on the board, it's self propelled. Oh, you'll see a wave crashing in the distance, or arbitrarily licking at the back of your character as he zooms around the "race track," but come on -- this isn't surfing. This is driving.
I will admit that, for a kart racer, Surf's Up isn't terrible. It's a tight design that looks good and plays intuitively. Zip strips are still in play to give the player a boost of speed, and yes, there are weapon pick-ups that can be used to screw with the other racers. Control is nice, and in the more difficulty settings the computer opponent offers up a challenge -- but mostly that's due to some overly aggressive AI routines that bunch everyone together and make it difficult to pass the pack.
The problem is, it doesn't set out to do anything different. Yes, there's a trick system, but there's really no skill involved -- players simply tap one of four touch screen buttons while in the air to load up a trick arsenal. If you land poorly the game doesn't penalize you beyond not giving you as many points as you would have if you simply tapped one or two buttons successfully. There's also a "Harmony" pick-up that's only useful in single player races -- hit this power-up and the race stops so that you can tap buttons in sequence. Pull off a lot of these sequences successfully before time runs out and you'll gain a boost of speed, invincibility, and an auto pilot for a short burst. This isn't something that'll really work in multiplayer.
It's also very short. You'll unlock all the tracks and all the hidden characters in the first hour and a half. Yes, there is multiplayer, but it requires multiple copies of the game to play, and for this review I only managed to secure one copy so the competition couldn't be tested. But wait, what's that Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection logo on the box? Believe it or not, the development team put it online...but seeing how this game is clearly aimed at the "kids" crowd, and seeing as how Surf's Up isn't exactly an "A" game, you won't be surprised to discover that in several tries I never managed to find a single person trying to hook up for online competition. Oddly, this game doesn't use Friend Codes, either -- it's strictly a "random match-up" kind of experience.
And sorry guys, it's really stupid to have a kart racing game with characters that look almost identical to everyone else. Apart from the one or two non-arctic creatures, these guys are black and white penguins, and even though they're distinctly different 3D models, when they're off into the distance it's nearly impossible to tell each other apart.
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