I don't envy video game designers who have to work on movie tie-ins. Artists have to duplicate the look of a film with a much smaller budget. Writers have to stick pretty closely to someone else's script, even as they stretch a two-hour story into an eight-hour game. There's not much room for creativity.
While the typical schedule for a top-shelf video game is at least two years, movie game developers usually have far less time. Still, movie tie-ins have gotten a lot better since the Atari version of "E.T." nearly destroyed the video game industry in 1982, and there have even been a few games ("GoldenEye," "The Chronicles of Riddick") that outshined their parents.
The licensed games we've seen so far this year ("Iron Man," "Speed Racer") have been solid if not distinguished. Diehard fans won't regret buying any of the games reviewed here, and the first of them will appeal to just about anyone.
_"Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures" (LucasArts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $49.99; for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, $39.99; for the Nintendo DS, $29.99): Some of the most enjoyable "Star Wars" games have been the kid-oriented adventures in which Luke, Han Solo and the rest of the gang appear as Lego characters. Now developer Traveller's Tales has turned its attention to LucasArts' other big franchise, and the results are just as delightful.
"The Original Adventures" draws from the first three Indiana Jones films, skipping this year's "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Of course, you can always play as Indy, but dozens of other characters, from Marion Ravenwood to Short Round to Henry Jones Sr., help out. The game is especially entertaining in co-op mode, where two players can work together to fight bad guys and explore ancient temples.
All of the iconic scenes from the original trilogy are recreated in Lego form, with plenty of fresh puzzles added to stretch the running time. You won't be able to unearth some treasures the first time through, so you'll want to revisit most of the levels with different characters. There are some very clever new gags (including a great joke involving C-3PO's head) that you may miss the first time through, so the replay value is excellent. Three stars out of four.
_"Kung Fu Panda" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $49.99; for the PlayStation 2, $39.99; for the Nintendo DS, $29.99): "Kung Fu Panda" seems like a title better suited for a video game than a movie, but this week we get both. Alas, while the movie features Jack Black as the voice of the panda Po, the game settles for a soundalike who doesn't quite capture Black's weird hyper-stoner rhythms.
The "KFP" game does deliver first-rate animation, including some exclusive material from DreamWorks Animation. Most of the levels feature Po using his martial arts skills to fight off waves of enemy critters, and he has a few special techniques: He can belly-flop, causing a minor earthquake, or roll up in a ball and carom around the arenas.
The other heroes known as the Furious Five _ Monkey, Tigress, Viper, Mantis and Crane _ all get chances to show off their unique moves. While fighting all the smaller villains does get tedious, it's broken up by some decent puzzle levels and some fairly challenging boss fights. Fans of the movie are likely to get a kick out of the "Kung Fu Panda" game. Two-and-a-half stars.
_"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (Disney, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $49.99; for the PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, $29.99): "Prince Caspian" was developed by the studio behind "Lego Indiana Jones," but it doesn't have the same flair. That can be blamed largely on the stodgier source material, whose lead characters, the tiresome Pevensie children, just don't have Indy's charisma.
Fortunately, there are more than a dozen other playable characters, including centaurs, minotaurs and a talking mouse. The most excitement comes in the large-scale battle scenes, where the minotaur can hop on a giant's back and cause all sorts of havoc. The best puzzles in the game require switching between brawnier beasts and more limber ones, but there's nothing a fairly bright child won't be able to figure out.
"Prince Caspian" is filled with footage from the big-screen epic, but you won't be able to make sense of the story from the game alone. And if you're not an admirer of all things Narnia, there are many superior fantasy games on the market. Two stars.
On the Net:
_"Lego Indiana Jones": http://www.lucasarts.com/games/legoindianajones/
_"Kung Fu Panda": http://www.kungfupandagame.com/
_"Prince Caspian": http://disney.go.com/disneyinteractivestudios/caspian/