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Plugged In

Smash hit Lego series returns to Star Wars roots

Plugged In

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LEGO Star Wars

Forgettable
toy-to-game crossovers litter the history of video gaming. Although spinning
off hit toy lines into games is an obvious way to broaden their appeal, the
resulting software rarely makes much of an impression on consumers or critics.

But the Lego franchise, which gains its newest installment this week, is different. It's
responsible for a total of 50 million sales over the last 14 years, the bulk of
which have come since 2005, when the Lego brand suddenly shot to the top of the
game charts out of what seemed like nowhere.

What happened? A flash of inspiration -- blue-hued, and accompanied by an unforgettably iconic "fwoosh" sound effect. Lego alone wasn't enough to crack the video games
market, so the Danish company did the same thing it did with its flagging toy
line in 1999: it enlisted help from George Lucas and his newly refreshed Star
Wars universe. Lego Star Wars: The Video Game was the result -- and the
combination was electrifying.

RELATED: LEGO games through the years

It didn't hurt that the game was good. Its developer, British outfit Traveler's Tales, brought a 15-year history of developing kids games based on other people's stories, and
hit on a smart formula: simple action, lots of characters to switch between,
and a plotline that's faithful enough to please the Star Wars geeks, but not so
slavish to be dull to more casual fans.

Thanks to its easygoing, drop-in, drop-out co-operative gameplay, it was a perfect family
game. A passing sibling or parent could easily join in an in-progress session,
dropping out when they were done. And with a difficulty level pitched on the
easy side of easy -- with no Game Over screen, it's impossible to fail a level
-- the frustration levels stay low.

But it's one thing to build a kids game that lets Dad join in. It's quite another to build a game he actually wants to play -- and here the deck was really stacked in
Lego Star Wars's favor. How many media properties can link the child of 1977
with the child of 2005? There aren't many -- but two of the most enduring are
surely Lego and Star Wars.

Best of all, it didn't take itself seriously. At all. Almost totally devoid of spoken dialogue,
the whole Lego Star Wars series took every opportunity to have a good time with
the characters, from wise-cracking battle-droids to hidden disco rooms. Later
in the story it proved itself able to make light of even the great Vader/Luke
reveal. Even when its simple action sequences got monotonous, the jokes could
raise a smile.

Quite a number of smiles, as it turned out. Lego Star Wars would become the 13th best-selling game of 2005, and a sequel tackling the original trilogy quickly followed. A
further release bundled both games together with a suite of extras, and was
honored as the 23rd greatest video game of all time by Guinness.

Obviously realizing they were onto a good thing, Lego Group didn't stop there. The following years would see a string of games themed after some of Lego's other toy-movie
crossover lines: Batman, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter. Pirates of the
Caribbean will follow in May, to coincide with both the release of the fourth
Pirates movie and the launch of a corresponding Lego toy range. Sale-for-sale,
the franchise now rivals Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda.

But the next Lego game, which hits stores this week, goes back to the sci-fi roots of the series. It's based on the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series, which has been tearing
up the TV ratings charts since its 2008 debut. It won't just be another
regurgitation of the by-now familiar gameplay: Traveler's Tales, perhaps eyeing
the slightly older demographic the cartoon hits, is adding more complexity to
Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars.

A "scene-shift" option will deepen the game's puzzles, letting players flip between characters in two different locations to solve puzzles. The space battle sequences, some
of the original games' weaker sections, are being overhauled. And the bigger fight
sequences will gain strategic elements, allowing players to command larger forces
of troops.

So what's next, after Pirates? Lego's toy line is filled with great licenses that seem ripe for
video games exploitation. Their Toy Story kits featured prominently on many
kids' holiday wish-lists last year. Spongebob Squarepants seems a good choice
for a younger audience. And as Disney's Cars franchise revs up for a sequel, so
too are Lego's block-making presses: the manufacturer is expected to expand its
Cars-licensed range this year.

Or maybe Lego will opt for Prince of Persia. A toy line based on the Jerry Bruckheimer movie  --and the thought of such a successful property making the circle from video game, to movie, to toy, and back to video game -- just seems too convenient to go ignored. It's enough to make your yellow, permanently grinning head spin.

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