“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.
Every world consists of three areas, each of which is made up of three levels. These levels are quite small and self-contained, but clever design means there’s a quite a lot packed into them. The main thrust of the game is to move from left to right, bashing the AI over the head with your “tools” (there are no “weapons” in Disney Universe), while solving some very light puzzles as you go.
So, for example, in the WALL-E world you have to blast cubes of compacted waste to open up new routes and control a giant trash magnet to raise platforms. Meanwhile, in Pirates of the Caribbean world you’ll be rotating wheels and firing canons to progress. Everything you need to do is indicated by a pleasingly large blue arrow, bobbing above the next area you need to get to. It’s definitely not challenging, but it’s certainly infectious.
Similarly uncomplicated, the combat is breezy and light. Alongside your standard attack, there are power-ups dotted around the place. Each offers a different ability, from ice guns to one-punch boxing gloves and laser guns. There’s very little depth there. But the Mickey Mouse-shaped gold coins bursting out of enemies, the plumes of fire that spew forth from defeated robots, plus the cutesy exhortations of your character, ensure that it never gets boring. You’re surrounded by so many tinkling coins, beautifully drawn themed backgrounds and secret bonus objectives that you are always engaged. Disney Universe is a lovely place to be.
Indeed, the game offers up very little in terms of punishment. Fall off a ledge, stumble into poisoned water, or succumb to the attacks of the malevolent AI and you’ll lose some of the coins you’ve collected (most of which you can recover), only to reappear a few seconds later without any annoying game over screens.
Disney Universe’s real pull, however, comes in the multiplayer. Playing through the worlds with three friends is utterly, charmingly chaotic. It’s co-operative in nature – you all share the same objective, but it also encourages competitive play throughout, leading to some hilarious griefing. At the end of each level a winner is announced, based on how many coins or collectible objects have been snaffled up. With this in mind, grabbing a co-op partner and flinging them around just as they’re about to collect a bonus trinket is endlessly entertaining. Add rewards for playing through worlds more than once, a level ranking score and a bunch of hidden areas and there’s enough incentive to keep you coming back for more.
Ultimately, Disney Universe constitutes the ideal family game. It’s quick and simple, but has charm, character and inventive little puzzles galore. For decades, Disney has mastered the art of creating movies that appeal to kids and adults alike. It has now achieved the same with games. It isn’t going to be troubling the big boys in the Game of the Year stakes, but it does offer an inviting, kid-friendly alternative. I’m taking it to my cousin this Christmas and we’re going to play the hell out of it. His video game education starts here.