January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

The Empire strikes back with ”Lego Star Wars II”

Lego Star Wars II
(LucasArts; XB 360, PS2, PC, Nintendo DS, GBA, PSP; Everyone)
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, a videogame that re-imagined the Star Wars movies — the prequels, no less! — using cherubic, plastic-block clones of the characters would have made as much sense as selling fur coats on Tatooine. Well, such a game actually went on sale last year — and, to everyone’s astonishment, became the surprise hit of 2005. Presumably, the notion of producing a sequel wasn’t met with much second-guessing, especially since it Lego-fies the much-loved original trilogy.

Lego Star Wars II pulls an Empire Strikes Back and manages to one-up the original. Most of the credit goes to the superior source material: since we’re talking classic Star Wars now, you play as Luke Skywalker (not Anakin) and Ewoks (not Jar-Jar Binks, though some folks may not call this an upgrade). Han Solo and the rest of the franchise’s most hallowed characters also get their due in the linear story mode that begins with Darth Vader’s raid of Princess Leia’s ship and ends with the rebel-alliance rave on Endor. The game takes a few (and sometimes hilarious) liberties with the plot, like Obi-Wan presenting Luke with a lightsaber and nearly getting decapitated by the fledgling Jedi. (C-3PO isn’t as lucky — and the expressions on the heroes’ faces are priceless).

Like its predecessor, LSWII has a free-play mode, where the fun really kicks into hyperdrive: You can play your way through the trilogy using not only the characters that appeared in the respective scenes, but also any one of the characters whom you’ve unlocked in other parts of the game, continuity be damned. This includes the Star Wars rogues’ gallery, so feel free to select Greedo and shoot first, last, and as often you’d like. LSWII adds a mix-and-match feature that gives you the chance to swap heads, limbs, and torsos on figures and then drop your unholy hybrids (e.g., Yoda’s head + slave girl Leia’s body + Chewbacca’s legs = crazy disturbing) into the game. There are tons of other extra bonuses and items to collect throughout the game, so even if you’ve seen the movies a million times, this family-friendly gem is worth playing just as much. A?Gary Eng Walk

(SCEA, PSP, Everyone)
Videogames don’t do cute very well. Looking at the dominant styles in the interactive entertainment landscape, it seems like most developers create games to fuel escapist fantasies of heroism, revenge and achievement. That landscape changed a little bit when Namco’s Katamari Damacy hit PS2s all over the world in 2004. Largely due to the game’s simple controls, wacky premise, bizarre cast and Day-Glo visuals, the Prince and his magically sticky Katamari ball became a cult obsession, even pulling non-gamers into the spell of its hummable soundtrack.

LocoRoco is clearly an attempt to replicate the success of Namco’s franchise. The main characters are the LocoRoco, giggly globs of goo (think: cartoon Shmoos). When their home planet is invaded by the creepy Moja Corps, you must help these docile creatures fight back. By using the PSP’s shoulder buttons to tilt and shake the planet surface, players can make Locos roll, jump to avoid hazards, and bop enemies into non-existence. It’s this simple control-scheme that allows you to really take in the whimsical aesthetic of the game world. The Locos interact with each other and the planet’s other zany inhabitants by singing in what sounds like Japanese baby talk. The levels are curvy, loopy obstacle courses (complete with hidden areas) that have the wondrous simplicity of construction-paper cutouts. And given that it’s essentially a cross between Katamari Damacy and Teletubbies, LocoRoco‘s biggest achievement is that it doesn’t overdose on its own cuteness: The gameplay is inventive, fun and feels natural.

There is a bit of ugly, though. Before LocoRoco‘s release, an Internet furor burned up gaming message boards concerning the looks of the game’s bad guys. Put bluntly, the Moja Corps might be mistaken for jigaboos, like minstrel blackface caricatures. Accusations of racism on Sony’s part and oversensitivity and intentional misreading flew back and forth over the web. In the interest of full disclosure, I can say that as a black man, it’s a bit jarring to see anything remotely resembling a Sambo floating around on my PSP screen. Even assuming there was no malice in the hearts of the game’s Japanese developers and designers, it’s hard to believe that these potentially offensive representations raised no flags when the game was being evaluated and localized for release in the U.S. Doing something as simple as changing the color of the Moja characters to say, green, would mean that the characters’ tentacles wouldn’t look so much like dreadlocks.

This controversy shouldn’t take away from the fact that LocoRoco is a great, lighthearted title for the PSP (which could certainly use a title like this). Sony deserves a lot of credit for making a game so utterly charming and fun to play — let’s just hope that when the inevitable sequel comes along (and we want one), the designers add a dash of sensitivity. B+Evan Narcisse

You May Like