The vain and cocky Emperor Kuzco is a busy man, what with getting his groove on, finalizing plans for a massive personal water park, and keeping the peasants in check. When his new administrator, Yzma, interrupts his daily preening time, it proves too much for the self-absorbed Emperor, and he fires her on the spot - an act that will ultimately prove calamitous. Seeking revenge, Yzma plots to kill the Emperor and usurp his throne. However, Yzma's assassination attempt backfires, and Kuzco is magically transformed into a llama. Weirder still, Kronk, her assistant, has dumped him off near the dwelling of Pacha, the man whose house stands right smack in the middle of the Emperor's water park development zone. Talk about irony. Featuring the voice talents of John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, and David Spade as Kuzco, Disney's The Emperor's New Groove isn't just the story of a cocky llama learning humility on his way back to the throne. It's also a fairly decent 3D platformer.
The Emperor's New Groove represents quite the departure from the usual formula of Disney-inspired games. Unlike the fully 2D or fully 3D efforts of such games as Tarzan and Dinosaur, the gameplay in The Emperor's New Groove represents an amalgam of styles. Early levels borrow a page from Nintendo's blockbuster Super Mario 64, delivering a distinctly 3D look and feel and emphasizing exploration and jumping skills over drawn-out creature battles. As such, the first two acts of the game are underwhelming from a visual standpoint. The jungle backdrops and village environments are colorful and immersive, but there's nothing really spectacular about what you'll see as you leap from treetops and pounce on a bug or two. By the game's third act, however, things begin to get interesting. You'll find yourself strapped to a log, drifting out of control down a tumultuous river. A great deal of hilarity is induced from seeing a llama and a fat man speeding down a river tied to a log, and the way the situation is presented is both graphically and mechanically impressive. You'll need to use the D-pad to steer the log left and right, slowing down or speeding up as the need arises, all while snapping alligators and tumbling logs attempt to block your path. As the game goes along, both the visual quality and the gameplay depth continue to increase. Later acts will find you leaping from 2D platforms, hiding from guards in Metal Gear Solid-style puzzles, or careening out of control down 3D mine cart courses - often all in the same level.
As a testament to the game's programmers, or perhaps its target audience, The Emperor's New Groove isn't just an ambitious attempt at the action genre, it's also a game that is easy to pick up and play. The D-pad moves you around, while a variety of button presses control jumping and hoof-based attacks. A transformation element is also woven into the story, and it's wonderfully executed in the form of multiple animal forms for you to control. Should you reach the end of the game, you'll have crawled around as a turtle, leaped high into the sky as a frog, and helicoptered your way to safety as a mischievous bunny rabbit. Although the game borrows heavily from existing genres, the constant mixing and mingling of puzzles and timing-oriented tasks provides for healthy doses of variety and replay value. In all, there are 31 chapters spread across eight acts, and, as is often the case with Disney games, each chapter is bookended by charming, high quality FMV snippets ripped straight out of the film.
The Emperor's New Groove isn't without its problems, though. Some issues, such as the game's insanely low difficulty level and allowance for unlimited continues during tough areas, are problems that most people will forgive - especially in light of the game's assumed target audience. The puzzles themselves aren't exactly mind-bending, either, but clever standouts such as the Bob's Big Boy sculpture in the mountain stage or the conga drum cannon balls in the city will really tug at the heartstrings of veteran game players. Other issues, such as the game's sound quality, may be more taxing for video game connoisseurs. Although the game has a wonderful attitude - with such snippets as "This scene was much shorter in the film" and "Hey, I checked the script" - there are too few actual quotes from the film, and there are even fewer musical interludes. Somehow, a Southwestern house band got the nod over Sting in the video game remake of the film - a fact that will no doubt chagrin Disney buffs who value the film's music above all else.
The game's greatest problem, though - and the one which will likely have the greatest impact upon whether or not you enjoy the video game rendition of The Emperor's New Groove - is its camera. At times jittery and out of control, the camera acts as both a window to the world and a confining prison. If the camera isn't lined up properly, you're not lined up properly, and you may jump askew of where you'd prefer. If you're zipping along using Kuzco's llama charge and the camera can't keep up, it will hold you back - often sending you spilling into a bottomless pit. For the most part, these camera quirks can be worked around, but there are times - especially when you have to perform multiple platform jumps - where you'll be tempted to put the game down for the night.
Flaws aside, Disney's The Emperor's New Groove gets much more right than it does wrong. A healthy smattering of secret areas and bonuses rewards those who really invest a significant amount of time in the game, while casual players will take quick delight from the game's varied stages, friendly difficulty level, and hilarious video snippets. If you've got the patience it takes to play through seven initially boring levels and acclimate yourself to the game's confining camera work, the final 24 levels represent some of the finest gaming that money can buy. It's pretty, it's funny, and it's pretty funny - the way a Disney game should be.