Given the snarling, macho protagonists prevalent in video games today, it's easy to forget that the medium was once largely populated by cute, funny animals. Hedgehogs, bandicoots, raccoons, bobcats -- anything with four legs -- were likely to get a chance at virtual celebrity.
Two of the most endearing -- and enduring -- critters were created by Insomniac Games. In 1998 the developer introduced the adorable dragon Spyro, producing three titles before relinquishing the character to other studios. In 2002, the company moved on with the catlike "lombax" Ratchet (and his robot buddy Clank), a franchise that's now 10 games strong.
Spyro, Ratchet, and Clank are back this month in two games that represent radical departures from their respective series. One is a rejuvenation, the other a disappointment.
Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99) has been built from the ground up as a multiplayer, cooperative experience. You and three friends can play as Ratchet, Clank, muscle-bound blowhard Qwark or the villainous Dr. Nefarious, who are forced to work together after one of Nefarious' plots is interrupted by an even more dastardly foe.
The core elements of an R&C game -- jumping, shooting, and solving puzzles -- are here, but they've been dumbed down to make it easier for new players to jump in. One of the delights of this series has been the ability to explore huge, three-dimensional worlds and discover their secrets at your own pace. In All 4 One, the level designs are almost entirely linear, and co-op play means you cannot dawdle too long without annoying your teammates.
Another R&C trademark, its arsenal of imaginatively goofy weapons, is also limited here by the need to maintain balance in co-op. And the puzzles offer no challenge at all, except when one of your online teammates just cannot figure out how to flip a switch -- in which case, everybody gets stuck.
All 4 One does feature the high-quality writing, animation, and voice work the series is known for, but the gameplay is merely adequate. For legends like Ratchet and Clank, that's not good enough.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, Mac, $69.99) is the 11th Spyro game to be published since Insomniac let the little guy go. Most of the previous 10 games have been dispiriting affairs, lacking the charm and excitement of the original trilogy.
Skylanders, created by the California studio Toys for Bob with help from Taiwanese developer XPEC Entertainment, is more than an attempt to reboot the character. Rather, it introduces 32 new heroes -- and an entirely fresh approach to the running-and-jumping platform genre.
The software is packaged with three plastic figurines of its creatures and a Portal of Power that plugs into your console or computer. When you put one of the figurines on the portal, the character materializes inside the game. If the Skylander you're controlling gets into trouble, you can replace him by putting a different model on the portal.
The Skylanders are divided into eight elements -- such as fire, water, magic, or technology -- and each character has different skills and weapons. The more you play with one creature, the quicker it gains new powers and special moves.
Some areas within the game are accessible only by characters of a certain element -- so if you want to open an air gate, for example, you might need to run out to the store and spend $8 on a new Whirlwind Skylander. Some parents will cringe at the added expense, but Skylanders appeals to the same collect-'em-all impulse that made Beanie Babies and Pokemon so popular. At least the figurines are attractive and well-made -- and the game itself is entertaining for both kids and adults.