Awkward, Hopeless, Fun
Did you do a double-take when you saw Napoleon Dynamite listed on the front page? Sitting on store shelves? Is it 2004? Haven’t three-year-old Napoleon quotes grown stale and given us uncurable brain damage?
[image1]I was caught embarrassingly unawares when Crave announced a game about the much-loved, much-maligned indie film. Why drag this dead horse of a joke into the harsh fluorescent light of Walmartland for one more tour at checkout counters? But much like the titular Napoleon and his hit-or-miss feature film, I surprisingly enjoyed the game.
Napoleon Dynamite is eerily faithful to the movie experience – it’s random, it’s bizarre, it’s stylishly behind the times, and it teeters between awesome and failure. Even if you hated the lumbering movie, you might prefer (and like) Crave’s short and sweet gameplay.
The movie is a slow, deliberate character study spread across a loose string of misadventures; the video game follows suit as a loose string of mini-games, mashing up familiar games with skits and lines from the movie. You’ll play Super Dodge Ball, Nanaca Crash and Cooking Mama, with a few horizontal shooters and some Parappa the Rapper-style rhythm stages. Toss in simple fare like tetherball, and you have a pretty good summary of Napoleon’s world.
These bite-sized games are fast, fun, and light, with plenty of score-based goals and unlockable goodies for replay value. The quality and difficulty of the games never get too serious, but Napoleon Dynamite never runs through that minigame-bundle drag, where one broken game keeps you from getting to all of them. Better yet, most of the games have an enjoyable bit of depth below their quirky, accessible trappings.
Speaking of accessible, Napoleon‘s cryptic nonsense from the movie comes to life and is the charming lifeblood of the game. Llamas, ligers, and ninja legions make up the opposition, and they paint the surreal landscape that Jon Heder could only mumble about in the film.
[image2]Much of the success comes from very strong art direction, cleverly drawn from the movie’s scrapbook-collage marketing campaign. The paper doll-style animation which flopped hard in Nacho Libre fits perfectly in Napoleon Dynamite’s pencil-and-crayon motif. Iconography, instructional text, photography, and notebook sketches are all clear, elegant, and in all the right places.
Napoleon Dynamite also makes a fine multiplayer experience, offering a dozen player-versus-player games to share over ad-hoc Wi-Fi. Load times are low and lag is non-existent even as steaks and water balloons are thrown around. A clean, full-featured game-sharing experience, it’s a great way to ease friends into the game and the peculiar world of Napoleon Dynamite.
While the graphics delight, recycled sound clips and gags become repetitive and tiresome. The thin story steals too many beats from the movie, and the petite menu musak doubles as a disappointing playlist for the rhythm mini-games. You might just crank some Jamiroquai on your iPod instead. Though the vocal clips run a little stale, I will never tire of hearing “your mom goes to college”. Sorry, that’s probably just a personal problem.
Strangely enough, Napoleon suffers worst from a lack of movie footage. Here’s a game that really, really needs a few video clips to demonstrate the comedy in motion, because the barebones cut-scene text is likely to miss with newcomers and skeptics. It’s equally disappointing that this a PSP product with no pack-in movie – no way am I hauling around two Napoleon Dynamite UMDs.
[image3]The mini-games, however, are more travel-friendly than any full-length movie. I would rather play quick rounds with a friend then awkwardly share a PSP screen for 90 minutes. As a UMD, this package wins hands down. (You had the movie on a memory stick anyway, right?)
When movies are turned into video games, the result is often so bland and formulaic that the soul of the movie drains out, leaving gamers with a waste of time and a bitter disposition. Here we have a game about a character-driven movie, where the character shines. It may not be stellar, but Napoleon is plenty fun all around.