Take to the skies in Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, a surprisingly good video game from 2006.
(Originally posted on Channel Awesome on April 20, 2015)
Take to the skies in Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, a surprisingly good video game from 2006.
From pretty early on in Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, a recurring theme of Snoopy's character was pretending to be something other than what he was. At first, he'd merely do impressions of other animals, as well as people (which weren't always appreciated by the latter). Later on in the strip, Snoopy's daydream fantasies became more elaborate and intricate as he imagined himself in a wide variety of roles - a member of the French Foreign Legion, a lawyer, college student Joe Cool, and of course, a World War I Flying Ace. This particular fantasy was the most recurring, and is probably the most iconic. Even in his fantasies, though, Snoopy's hunt for his arch-enemy, The Red Baron, was always doomed to failure, with Snoopy's famed Sopwith Camel ending up getting riddled with bullets. Various other members of Snoopy's family got in on the action - his brother Spike was an infantryman, and his sister Belle was a nurse. As for the other cast of Peanuts characters, they were whatever Snoopy's imagination needed them to be. Marcie, Lucy, and Eudora were typically cast as charming French lasses, while Charlie brown and Linus were everything from army command to enemy guards and spies. Sometimes his antics could end up royally screwing over other people, such as the time he imagined Sally's homework was a secret dispatch, and he swallowed it after a frantic chase so that it wouldn't fall into enemy hands.
The debut of Snoopy's World War I Flying Ace persona (October 10, 1965)
As a kid, I always thought that Snoopy's World War I adventures would be a natural fit for a video game, and I guess I wasn't the only one. In 1983, Snoopy and the Red Baron was released for the Atari 2600, and it supposedly sucked. (I've never played this game, not even on an emulator, so I can't speak for myself on this.) In 2006, however, they tried again with Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, released by Namco Bandai. The Schulz family and the copyright owners of Peanuts gave permission for the game makers to animate the Peanuts gang in 3D, as opposed to the more traditional 2D style animation. (I guess that's why I wasn't weirded out by the trailer for the upcoming Peanuts movie - this game had acclimated me to the idea of the characters in 3D.) The game was released for the Playstation 2 (the version I'm reviewing today), PSP, and a PC version for Windows. Releases for the Gamecube and Xbox were also planned, but cancelled for some reason.
The game opens with Snoopy asleep atop his doghouse, while Linus and Charlie Brown are reading his latest story - a novelization of his alter-ego as a World War I Flying Ace and his wartime adventures. We then transition to the World War I setting, where all of the Peanuts gang have been cast as members of the Flying Circus - Lucy as a general, Linus as a strategist, and poor Charlie Brown as a janitor (much to Charlie Brown's displeasure). You start with a training level, as Marcie guides you through how to fly your plane, use your weapons, and execute a variety of offensive and defensive maneuvers. (After this, she'll also be your equipment specialist, selling you health and weapon upgrades.) Once you've completed your training, you're ready for action - and there's plenty of it. You'll have to battle your way through 22 levels, all with the same objective types: defend your allies and take down your enemies. There's also a plot involving the Doodlebug, a secret weapon that Snoopy will have to stop - while dueling with the infamous Red Baron himself in the final level.
If you've ever played games like Starfox or Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Snoopy vs. The Red Baron will feel very familiar. Instead of flying atop a doghouse, Snoopy is actually piloting a real plane (except for the very beginning when you're in flight school). During some of the boss battles, you control Woodstock, who mans a rear machine gun. In case anyone find the idea of Snoopy flying around shooting guns distasteful, you never actually kill anyone in this game. Your opposition consists of either unmanned machines or human pilots that parachute to safety when you shoot down their planes. (And no, you can't shoot them while they're parachuting.) In addition to single-player missions, there's also a "dogfight" (snicker) section of the game where you can duel either another player or the computer. You can unlock various Peanuts characters to play as in dogfight mode by collecting letters that spell out their names, which are scattered across different levels. (I don't think any of them play any differently from each other, so I think it's just a matter of who your favorites are - besides, if you're a completionist like I am, it's another incentive to replay a level and try for a higher ranking.)
I'm no expert video gamer, but I've played a fair number of games like this, and I found Snoopy vs. the Red Baron to be quite a challenge - not unbeatable, but I had to work for it. The mission objectives themselves aren't all that hard, but your enemies won't go down easily. Snoopy responds to the controls pretty well, if not as quickly or as fluidly as I'd like, and he can take a fair amount of damage before he needs a root beer refill (the game's version of a health pick-up). If you take too much damage, your plane will get hard to control until you regain some health, which makes sense, even if it can make it hard to protect yourself from further damage or snag the pickups you need. Your machine gun isn't usually going to be all that useful at first, since most of your opposition will take more than a few hits to dispatch. You can upgrade your guns, as well as increase your stunt and health bar at Pigpen's store, but expect to use your secondary weapons a lot to take down even basic foes like enemy pilots and boats throughout the game. These range from fireworks and water balloons to pumpkins and potatoes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. (The more powerful a secondary weapon is, the more often you'll have to reload.) Certain secondary weapons, such as a flaming boomerang or the electricity-generating lightning rod, are actually required in order to access certain levels, which is usually a matter of racking up enough money to buy them from the store. Health and stunt refills, as well as ammo for your secondary weapon, show up often enough to be there when you need them, but not often enough to take away some of the challenge.
One thing in particular I like about the game is that it really does feel like a Peanuts game, instead of just being a shoot-em-up with a Snoopy skin on it. The characters all act like themselves, and the idea of the game being a story Snoopy has written is a nice touch. Bill Melendez voices Snoopy and Woodstock, as he's done in the animated specials, although I'm not sure if these were brand new vocals or sampled from existing Peanuts specials. while child actors were brought in to voice the rest of the characters. (I looked them up on IMDB, and none of them have any credits listed other than this game.) The music for the title menu and training level are Vince Guaraldi-esque jazz trio pieces, although it switches to a (quite good) action-adventure type score when flying combat missions. The biggest deviation from Peanuts tradition, aside from the animation style, is that the commanders, and the Red Baron himself, actually talk (in word balloons only) - they're never voiced. However, we never see their faces - during gameplay, they're represented by empty army officer hats (kinda like how the comic strip Doonesbury depicts certain celebrities and politicians).
Snoopy vs. The Red Baron got positive reviews from critics, usually averaging a mid-to-high 70s score out of 100 from the likes of GameRankings, GameSpot, and IGN. I don't know how well it sold, but I guess well enough to get an XBOX-360 exclusive sequel called Snoopy Flying Ace, which also got good reviews. I never snagged a PS3 or PS4, so I don't know what the deal is with backwards compatibility on those systems (I hear mixed reports about that), but if you have a working PS2 or an emulator, this is worth snagging. As for me, I'm glad I took a chance at this one. Someone at Gamestop tried to talk me out of buying this, saying it wasn't very good, but whether out of fandom or curiosity, I couldn't resist - and I'm glad I didn't.
This easily could have turned out to be just one of many mediocre-at-best licensed video games. What we got instead was a lot of fun, both as a Peanuts game and an action game in its own right.
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