Madagascar is based on the upcoming Dreamworks pictures movie about four animals (Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Gloria the hippo and Melman the giraffe) and their adventures as they go from their home in the Central Park Zoo to the wilds of Madagascar, and all the trouble they get into on the way. 

Being that this is a movie license turned into a game, and a handheld at that, that used to be two easy strikes against a game.  However, recent releases have shown that movie licenses can make good games, and even make good games on a console.  The question is, does the story of four animals, aimed at the 10-12 age radius on a handheld aimed at 18-21 year olds work, especially with the dual screen that the Nintendo DS is (in)famous for?


To be honest, the graphics in this game do not look like that of a handheld.  At least, not until the DS and the PSP came out.  The graphics are colorful and bright, easily helped by the backlit screen of the Nintendo DS, and easily surpassing the level of the Playstation and nearing the graphics quality of early Playstation 2 or Gamecube games.  The caracters are nicely animated on both the top and bottom screen, including idle animations for all of the characters.  The background also gets some animation which really helps in later levels and helps to make the game feel more like the jungle that some areas are set in.  If there’s any complaint it’s that some of the levels have a sameness to them.  All and all, though, the graphics are a definite bright point in the game.

The music in this game, like the graphics,  is also very bright and cheery.  That being said, it doesn’t take long before the music gets very monotonous and annoying, as it never really changes from stage to stage.  This is the bad part.  The good part is that while the original voice actors for the movie aren’t in the game, the sound-alikes that are sound quite close to their counterparts.  Being a DS game, there isn’t a lot of voice, mainly little phrases and snippets here and there.  Still, it works overall, and the music can be turned off.

The other sounds work quite well with the game, with the animals sounding reasonably authentic.  Again, with the game aimed at 10 to 12 year old children, it isn’t as though you’re expecting digital recordings of animals in the wild.

The controls in this game are rather basic.  A and B do one thing, X and Y do another, and L and R a third.  The touchscreen for the most part is used to change characters (which L and R do as well), with a few levels here and there where you use it to guide a character in their task, be it avoiding monsters leaping at you while banging on a drum, fishing on a rocking ice floe, or rolling in a ball through the jungle.  On those levels, the touchscreen really comes into use, but on the rest, it feels more like an afterthought.  Unfortunately, this isn’t so much a failing of the folks at Vicarious Visions and Activision and more a symptom of the DS games themselves.  Hopefully with time, this’ll change, and that being said, fewer points were docked for it than otherwise. 

However, during the bonus missions, especially the ones with Alex, it became very awkward to hold down X or Y to run while hitting A or B to jump periodically.  There’s no way to change the control structure, which would have been nice.

The one thing that sticks out about the gameplay in Madagascar for the DS is that it isn’t quite sure who its intended audience is.  Activision states that Madagascar is aimed at the ‘tween’ set, or about the 10-12 year old age range.  This fits in with the rating of E.  However, the DS itself is intended for ages 18-21, or so says Nintendo.

The problem with this is that the game is honestly too difficult for many 10-12 year old gamers.  In fact, this reviewer is in his early 30s, and there are areas in the game that are almost frustratingly difficult.  The platforming levels aren’t too bad, but as the game progresses, they get steadily more difficult.  In the early sections of the game, though, nearly every other level is a stealth-based mission, which seem even more difficult than the later platforming ones.  The bonus levels (which aren’t required to finish the game, and only unlocked by collecting coins) are the stealth levels with an element of speed added and may be intended only for the most hardcore (or masochistic) gamers out there.

That isn’t to say that the game itself isn’t fun, but the difficulty can definitely lead to frustration, especially considering some levels are two and three stages deep, and you cannot save in the middle of levels, as the game saves automatically at the end of each level.

One last note on the difficulty.  The concept of a spot in a level where if you touch it you automatically die, especially in a game aimed at children, is a Bad Idea.  That being said, there are water areas in many of the levels that only Gloria is able to swim in.  If any other character falls, is knocked, or otherwise ends up in the water, it’s an automatic trip to the beginning of that area.  Personally, the game should only dock you a life point and bring you back before the water.  However, that isn’t the case, and it’s one of the things that really adds to the difficulty.

With a retail price of $40, there’d need to be a lot of gameplay to justify the purchase of this DS title.  Luckily, Madagascar delivers.  The game consists of approximately 20 to 25 levels, with many of the levels consisting of two to three ‘stages’ each.  This means that the game can last at least twenty to thirty levels, and that’s not even including the fact that many of the levels are meant to be played again after unlocking more abilities for the four characters in order to collect all 1100 coins. 

The combination of these two factors helps to give a lot of gameplay options, not even counting the multiplayer involved (which wasn’t reviewed due to a lack of players to test it with).  With all that said, it means that the $40 price tag looks better and better.