When I was a kid, they didn't make video games based on movies. But if you wanted to re-live, say, "Star Wars," you could buy the action figures. If you didn't have all the dolls, you could recruit substitutes: GI Joe could fill in for Darth Vader, Barbie could understudy Princess Leia, and you could make C-3PO and R2-D2 out of Legos.
In 2010, just about every child-friendly blockbuster is accompanied by a video game. But since they're usually straightforward rehashes of the movies, most games don't capture that childhood spirit, which is really about creating new adventures for beloved characters.
Toy Story 3 comes closer to that feeling than any movie-based game before it.
On one level, it does deliver a recap of the film. The familiar Pixar toys have been left behind by their owner, Andy, and embark on a mission to get him to play with them one last time. The result is a better-than-average romp, with Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and Jessie running and jumping through levels based on the new film's settings.
Some of these story sequences may be a little too challenging for younger children, even with the generous hints turned on. And some of them drag on much longer than you'd expect: One sequence, which begins in a flooded bedroom and ends in outer space, took me more than an hour to get through, which is beyond the attention span of most kids I know.
But there's another level to Toy Story 3 that's likely to satisfy players of any age, from 8-year-olds to geezers like me. It's called the Toy Box, and it's as clever an approach to the material as you could imagine.
It's an open-world playground that starts off as a dusty Wild West town. Any one of the three main characters can be sheriff, and other Toy Story regulars, such as Slinky Dog and Hamm the piggy bank, give you missions. You can ignore their demands - undoubtedly, some kids will be happy just roaming around and decorating their towns - but success at missions earns you the gold you need to buy new buildings or attract new residents.
Wherever you go in the Toy Box, they're something new to do. You can herd cattle. You can drive a race car. You can explore a haunted mansion. If there's anything you daydreamed about when you were a child, odds are that developer Avalanche Software has stuck it in here.
Weirdly enough, the one game the Toy Box reminded me of was another Wild West adventure, Rockstar Games' recent smash Red Dead Redemption - minus all the prostitutes and corpses. Like RDR, Toy Story 3 delivers a wide-open landscape of seemingly endless possibilities. It's one of the most adventurous movie games ever created, and it's a delight.