"Thank you for my birthday money. I spent it on two very good Harry Potter games."
I received this message from my 11-year-old cousin recently. It was painstakingly typed out at home and printed in some godawful font over clipart of a wrapped present. It broke my heart. Poor boy, I thought, he's played so many shoddy cash-ins and dodgy mini-game collections that he doesn't even know what a good game is. When I was 11, Sonic came out. Zelda: A Link to the Past and Road Rash too. And Street Fighter II. I had it easy.
My cousin meanwhile, prevented from playing more adult games by loving parents, has to put up with Harry Potter and the Half-Arsed Prince.
But modern kids' games don't have to be crap. Occasionally one comes along that combines ease of access with charm and class, simultaneously appealing to kids, their parents and their older siblings. Disney Universe is one such game. Taking hints from the LEGO series and LittleBigPlanet to create a local-multiplayer puzzle platformer, Disney Universe is a riot of primary colours and positive reinforcement. The screen erupts with gold coins and cartoony explosions, while the soundtrack parps along with infectious urgency. There's some neat design in there too. It is, in short, a joy.
The set-up couldn't be more straight-forward. The Disney Universe is virtual theme park, populated by helpful AI and consisting of six separate "worlds" taking their visual cues from beloved Disney properties. So you've got a Pirates of the Caribbean world made up of pirate ships and secret coves, a Lion King world composed of African savannah, an Alice in Wonderland world stuffed with surrealist imagery, and so on.
However, like a cutesy version of Westworld, everything goes a little bit wrong. The Disney Universe is hacked and suddenly the AI is working against you. Playing as a colourful, Sackboy-esque, slightly nondescript visitor to the universe, along with up to three friends, it's your job to defeat the nasty AI minions and rescue the captured guests.
The player characters are a bit bland for a reason: costumes. There's a bunch of them, borrowing from a whole heap of beloved Disney franchises. You begin the game with just a few costumes to choose from, but as you progress you unlock more and more by rescuing the guests trapped in each world. Once a guest is rescued you can hand over in-game cash to earn the right to don their outfit. There's around 60 in total, allowing you to play as your favourite Disney or Pixar heroes.
Well, most of them anyway. Disney Universe looks set to place a strong emphasis on DLC. Even on the main menu - which is simple and streamlined - the in-game Store features prominently. Expect premium downloadable outfits to trickle through for a long time after release. It's moves like this that make it easy to be cynical about Disney Universe. But once you get stuck in to the game itself, any doubts melt away into a cheesy grin.