The Gumdrop World of Video Games: Animation and Other Charming Quirks

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As a gamer who usually bypasses frustrating puzzle challenges, I bit my tongue when a friend introduced me to Critter Crunch (available on the PlayStation 3 and iPhone). How could anyone resist a game starring a rotund, furry critter named Biggs, who stuffs small critters into bigger critters to fill his belly and literally regurgitate a rainbow into the eager mouths of his squeaking children? The game sounded disgusting. It sounded ridiculous. I had to own it.

Gamers from all generations know that video games don’t come lumped in one or two categories, but most people stick to their favorite genres anyway. Treasure-hungry explorers relish a good adventure, and sports fanatics crave an instant replay long after football season ends. So for gamers who fancy the pigskin action of a new Madden game or dump hours into World of Warcraft time and again, it might be surprising to learn that one of the industry’s more ruthless and effective marketing strategies brings out the sunny side of games. Hardcore players, beware. These games are cute.

An adorable presentation hooks otherwise reluctant players into buying these types of games. Like Critter Crunch (Capybara Games), PopCap’s successful Plants vs. Zombies charms unassuming gamers into a purchase. As a goal, players must build a formidable plant army on their lawn to defend against waves of goofy zombies, which will happily chomp through the sentient vegetables to snack on a home owner's juicy brains. The battle eventually concludes on the house roof, the difficulty bumping up a level or two as gamers learn new strategies and plant seeds better equipped to garden warfare.

Different plants boast their own lively personalities. Sunflowers, for instance, bop to the music and emit tiny beams of sunlight that can be used to grow more plants, but the walking dead have style, too. Some crawl onto the lawn with orange traffic cones balanced on their heads while the more daring snorkel through the backyard pool. The player’s arsenal consists of defensive walnuts that cry as zombies slowly munch away at them, “cabbage-pults” that launch leafy greens at vulnerable zombie limbs, and potato mines that detonate on contact.

Besides providing a unique brand of entertainment, Plants vs. Zombies earned notoriety with its popular YouTube internet music video, where a cheery sunflower and many partying zombies sing a catchy tune. Laura Shigihara wrote and performed the sing-along sensation, which reached more than three million viewers and helped promote the game.

Again proving that charming animation can work to a developer’s advantage, the popular Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda series remain top-sellers on the market. The quaint towns and collectible monsters of Pokemon splash on an irresistible, iconic flair that keeps gamers flocking to stores with each release. Many adults have known at least one Pokemon fan boy or girl and can identify the famous electric yellow rodent with red cheeks by name.

In The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, a humble hero named Link must conquer evil forces and return to his homeland. The game’s dreamlike design, complete with enchanted forests and mysterious dungeons, first attracts our attention, and the herculean quest that rests upon the brave Link's shoulders keeps us from budging in our seats. The game expertly balances good and evil. Its pastoral locales are populated with creatures both helpful and cruel, and the ominous music that accompanies the more treacherous scenes only lures us deeper into the beautiful, rustic world. Whether we’re combating evil one-eyed bosses or simply recovering our lost sword on the beach, the game’s comforting and almost hopeful visuals assure us that our patient endeavors will indeed save the world.

Little touches embellish these games, drawing new players into an ever-growing audience. Although Link is free to attack cuckoos (chronically flustered chickens), wise gamers know that plucking too many feathers will trigger a swarm of these otherwise lovable, now peck-happy death birds from all across the island.

Stellar graphics can’t salvage a faulty game, but they can give wings to a cleverly designed one. The visual pop of cute, pleasant animation can convince wary newcomers to dabble in unfamiliar genres, and better yet, keep them invested for hours at a time. Just ask Biggs and his bountiful youngsters.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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