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Looking Back: Toy Story 2
by Parker Scott Mortensen

File this under 'Movie-game tie-ins that sucked a lot less than they could have'. Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue isn't a great game, but then, it was harder to tell back then, wasn't it? I was seven years old in 1999. It's sometimes tempting to approach things with the same critical eye as a seven year-old and grade things on a scale of fun and voraciousness; if we want to keep playing - even if we don't know why - the game is good. And, by those merits, Toy Story 2 isn't much worse than the 3D platformers it's copying, such as Super Mario 64. Is the hassle of good game design really worthwhile when you can produce the same enjoyment with a clunky movie-game?

I guess a seven year-old doesn't really know what it means to call platforming 'clunky'. It means this: Buzz Lightyear moves with the inertia of a spinning top. He's overly lithe and prone to bounding past or falling short of whatever destination you'd intended for him. You'll never be able to make a jump in good faith that you'll land safely, and whatever sense of depth perception you have should be left at the door.

And then there's the story. Like any good 3D platformer, you're running around performing idiotic tasks for friends Hamm, Slinky, and Rex, in order to collect important objects; namely, Pizza Planet tokens, which are required to progress to new levels, the last of sees you rescuing Woody. Presumably, Hamm, Slinky, and Rex are on your side, and presumably they'd like to rescue Woody, too. They've access to these powerful Pizza Planet tokens, but curiously they won't give them to you unless you've collected fifty coins, saved six army men or beaten them in a race around Andy's backyard.

...some friends.

It doesn't make sense, but this is a game I spent a lot of time with when I was seven. Playing it, I can't help but reconnect dots between my seven-year-old self and my nineteen-year-old self. Twelve years ago, I was in this digital playground, and twelve years later I still enjoy it. It's familiar, too; I'd be lying if I said that I really thought games twelve years ago were that different from today, at least in the ways that matter.

Red Dead Redemption, for instance, is essentially Toy Story 2; a giant world that you explore and gain help from strangers inside, in exchange for help with their myriad problems, from herding sheep to hog-tying outlaws. The biggest improvement we've made since Toy Story 2 is how to create characters who are willing to put up with the fickleness of NPCs. More than anything, NPCs are selfish jerks, but our protagonists are written to be more patient, so it evens out. Our ability to justify gameplay in the context of a plot is increasing.

I can't think of any way to measure 'fun'. I could say that I have just as much fun playing Toy Story 2 as I do playing Red Dead, and there would be virtually no way to back it up or prove otherwise. So, let's explain it like this: Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue is as much fun as Red Dead Redemption, but it's not as consumable. I get tired of Toy Story 2 much more quickly than I do Red Dead Redemption. There are huge amounts of effort put into creating a world in Red Dead that obfuscates just how video game-y it is; incentive to come back, incentive to replay, and incentive to never leave.

The biggest improvement over the last dozen years? Games' ability to rope you in and never let you go. You don't just want to play video games anymore; you want to be lost in them. Games' gameplay, mechanics and stories have all taken baby steps compared to the expansion of their knowledge in how to hook you with meta scores, achievements and volume of content. You're getting more for your money than you ever have before.

Isn't that nice?

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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