Who hasn't heard of Thomas the Tank Engine? Penned by the Revered W Awdry and his son way back in 1945, it's a series that has pretty much become a mainstay of childhood ever since - in fact, as the number one licence across a fair portion of the world, a Thomas toy is sold every two seconds, while the books and magazines sell millions each year. And after following that other kids' favourite Paddington Bear onto the big screen, it was only a matter of time before Thomas tried his hand, er, wheels at a game tie-in too, in this, the year of his 70th anniversary.
Marking the engine's first outing on the Nintendo 3DS, Thomas & Friends: Steaming Around Sodor is a neat little collection of simple mini-games, aimed squarely at the steam train's younger fans. With all your favourite anthropomorphic engines in place, and a story narrated by the actual narrator of the Thomas & Friends TV show (sadly no longer Ringo Starr), there's plenty for young Thomas fans to love here, which should probably come as no surprise, considering the team behind it. Developed by the folks that brought us the winning child-friendly platformer Frozen: Olaf's Quest, as well as umpteen other kiddie-TV-show-themed mini-game collections over the years, from Fireman Sam to Timmy Time to Noddy, it's an audience the company know well - as their latest Thomas game proves.
While other kids titles may simply offer a collection of mini-games to play through, with nothing tying them together, Steaming Around Sodor actually has a full on Story Mode for kids to sink their teeth into, which ties together the game's nine mini-games in a coherent tale that feels like it could have been lifted straight from the TV series itself. With a visit from the prestigious Duke and Duchess of Boxford on the cards, it's up to Thomas and co to make sure everything's ship shape for their arrival. Whether it's helping tidy up, taking the pair on a tour of the island or playing a farewell tune, there's plenty for a busy engine to do - and plenty of mini-games to play. The all important Free Play mode, meanwhile, lets you pick and choose any of the game's mini-games to play outside the constraints of the story mode, so your child can come back and play their favourites over, and over, and over again - although you'll need to unlock most of them through the story mode first!
The mini-games include the instantly familiar "connect four" and "pairs", both given a distinctly train-y makeover, whether it's taking on James in a box-shunting match, trying to line up four of your colour before he can, or flipping over cards to try and match the faces of all your favourite Thomas characters (see above). There's even a Thomas-y take on a traditional match three game, where you need to swap symbols around on a grid to make lines of three or more to make them disappear, while a pipe mania-esque tour of the island sees you rotating track pieces to make a path from engine shed to a bridge.
There's a few more inventive games thrown in for good measure too. One (pictured below) sees you turn your train into a makeshift trampoline, as you try and position yourself under a ball to bounce it from one side to the other. Another sees you piloting Harold the helicopter through the skies collecting medals, shifting him up and down to avoid troublesome trees and clouds, while 'Lifting and Loading' sees you sliding Thomas and his three coloured carriages left and right along the bottom of the screen to catch the right coloured boxes as they move down the three conveyor belts.
Happily, the mini-games are pretty straight-forward, and it's impossible to fail at them and get a game over. Even when we lost at connect four to James, the game didn't actually punish us, instead letting us move on to the next part of the story with a score of zero and a 'Well done!' for our efforts. Some of the other mini-games are more of a high score contest affair, too, giving you five lives, with each mistake you make eating up one, with the idea being to get as high a score as possible. Three different difficulties let you tailor things a little if you're finding it too easy, although the 'hard' difficulty does require some seriously speedy reactions!
While the Story Mode is fully narrated (something that's essential for younger children), the games themselves aren't, so non-readers may miss out on crucial instructions for the mini-game ahead. While many of the games are fairly self explanatory, some are a little more obtuse if you haven't read the instructions - one game that asks you to tap on trains to send them back into their sheds, and another that sees you playing a farewell tune, tapping the trains x number of times may be a bit tricky for kids who have yet to start reading to understand on their own. However, older kids should be fine from the off, and with a little nudge in the right direction, younger kids should be able to handle Thomas & Friends just fine, particularly as there's no way they can fail or get a game over.
In all, Thomas & Friends: Steaming Around Sodor is a nice little collection of kid-friendly mini-games. With a fairly varied set of mini-games, and a range of difficulties, most kids should be able to find something they're comfortable with. While the story mode itself may only be an hour or so long, parents should never underestimate how much children tend to find one mini-game they love in collections like this, and play it over, and over, and over - so longevity shouldn't be an issue. All things considered, this is a great choice for young Thomas fans!
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS