The behavior of tourists who persist in visiting Florida during the hottest summer on planet Earth can possibly be explained by the presence of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a Universal Orlando Resort island that boasts several wizard-themed roller coasters, a faux enchanted castle and refreshments such as butterbeer. It just opened and it’s a smash hit.
But for Potter fans with lower tolerances for heat and ride-line congestion, the sensible alternative is LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4, which utilizes four volumes of the novels’ magical locations as blueprints for several hundred virtual wizarding playsets. Although they are woven into the Harry Potter narrative, the game’s levels are basically romps through Harry Potter LEGO toy boxes.
I must confess that I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I saw a couple of the movies, I think. I started to read the first book. And I continue to regard that section of the bookshelf as a linear foot of vexatious alliteration and foreseeable characterization. But LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is a game that two players can enjoy, with one player always cast as Harry and the other taking the scene’s supporting roles. So I was able to play Years 1-4 with a dedicated fan of the books who expressed admiration for the way that the game’s designers used the story’s locations.
We trashed Diagon Alley and rampaged through Hogwarts’ Library. We smashed everything we could find in the dining hall, and transformed our fellow students into breakdancing moose. It’s almost as though the Harry Potter books were written for videogames. The narrative of gaining new powers, then testing their abilities on a lesser enemy followed by a big boss enemy, is straight out of videogaming. Maybe that’s why the books have sold so well.
Most of our adventures consisted of blasting rooms apart with our wands, then using magical spells to reassemble the LEGO pieces into something useful for the task at hand. Simple objects like staircases I was entrusted to build for myself by using clunky levitation spells. But when complicated LEGO kit-bashing was required — transforming a pushcart into a sweeping machine, for example — then the game reconstructed the pieces for me automatically.
Usually our goals were simple: brew potions, open doors, placate ravenous monsters. Major events in the story were conveyed primarily through LEGO action-figure pantomimes. Occasionally we needed to actually step into battle. But LEGO games, like the toys they depict, are clunky and innocent. Aiming my magical blasts was usually a matter of orienting the thumbstick in the proper direction and then tapping buttons until something Harry Potterish happened.
THE GOOD: LEGO-izing the first four Harry Potter books has produced a game almost as lengthy as a wizard’s education, with enough unlockable characters and hidden treasures to last through grad school.
THE BAD: The computer that controls Harry’s friends doesn’t seem to have learned how to cast spells or collect LEGO pieces during its studies at Hogwarts, making the single player game a bit of a multitasking chore.
THE BOTTOM LINE: LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is an innocent bash-and-build through the first half of Harry’s story.