Imagine the excitement in my household when an achievement popped while playing casual Kinect title, Double Fine Happy Action Theater. Well, you probably can’t imagine it, but I’ll attempt to persuade some excitement to ooze out of your nerd pores with this description. While playing on the lava land game/toy thing (I’ll get to that in a bit) I laid down in the lava and did that bit from Terminator 2, you know, this bit, and BAM, achievement unlocked “I Know Now Why You Cry”. That was enough to justify the price of the game for me, but what else did I find in the game during my first hour of gaming? Let’s find out, through the medium of expressive dance…
I’ll stick to hastily written scrawlings instead.
So yes, I’m sure you are wondering why I elected to purchase a collection of mini-games for Kinect when I should have been assisting the Stormcloak rebellion in Skyrim, but the answer is obvious.
For a whole week I had three children bashing about in the house, all used to having a lot of time away from each other on a dad to day basis. We were stuck indoors due to poor weather and sickness in the household so I turned to Xbox Live Marketplace for assistance, and luckily Double Fine studios came through for me yet again. With a heritage including the Monkey Island games and Stacked I have a lot of time for Double Fine games, and didn’t need much persuading to instantly download Happy Action Theater for the family to experience together. Initially I bought it with my two youngest children in mind, but I had remembered seeing a video involving Double Fine’s Tim Schafer discussing the title’s appeal to drunken students, and figured that it would also apply to me as a giant man-child. I’m essentially a student, but I don’t require alcohol to get involved in shenanigans. The lure of a pool of lava was too much to resist and while my youngest was splashing around I dived in, and performed the obligatory (and rewarded) thumbs up. The game recognised my shape immediately and I was able to join in with no sign-in or pausing required. In fact you can have up to six people at the same time – we’ve had five on the go at once and all enjoyed it – as it doesn’t worry about tracking individual body parts, instead the sensor just tracks the shape of individuals. This is shown off to great effect in games that isolate individuals for photos and close-ups. All very good from a technical point of view, but none of that really matter when you are stomping around destroying an augmented reality city-scape.
In an hour I tried all of the modes that the game had to offer and soon enough it became clear that this is not a ‘game’ in the traditional sense, it is far more comparable to a series of toys, a selection of scenarios that encourage exploration and imagination. There is very little right way/wrong way in the game, and instead this ensures that gamers of differing ages and preconceptions will have slightly different experiences. In one mode you are placed in a room that soon becomes a wintery snowscape. If you stand still snow will collect on you as you slowly turn blue and freeze, shattering the ice when you move. You can also opt to kick the snow around or even scoop some up to throw at friends or directly at the television screen. Another game sees you feeding pigeons. We’d played the game five times before we noticed that you could be carried off by the pigeons if you sat still.
While the interest in the game was limited mostly to being impressed by what had been achieved technically, I was grabbed by the balls by various dancing/musical modes, most of all the dancing star mode, in which your movements control the speed of the music, and photos taken throughout your dance become Nyan-cat alike images that fly across the screen leaving a rainbow trail. I don’t know whether it was the choice of music in the game or the game itself, but even now I can’t help jumping in with the kids if it comes on while I am in the vicinity. Last night I burned toast as a direct result of the mode. Hot stuff indeed.
In all there are eighteen ‘games’ to be played with in either a hand picked mode – that allows for long periods of play in one specific mode – or Director mode that switches games every few minutes (note you can also skip manually using an Xbox controller, this is handy if you want to keep things pacey). My children love the game, I am fond of it, and the wife hates it. That is as it should be. This is not a game for sensible sorts. It requires you to be the sort of person who, when presented with a box of Lego, can sit for hours creating things happily. It is a game to enjoy, and a game to be shared.
I can’t recommend this to everyone, it wasn’t made to be suited to all, but as a fun way to sow off Kinect to visitors and a great way to encourage the kids to explore their imaginations it is near flawless. From that point of view it is very much recommended.
Put simply, if you enjoy crochet and Eastenders you might not be the person that this game is targeting. You may still enjoy it very much, but you might find it a bit laborious. For everyone out there who is young or young at heart, there is plenty to enjoy for your money.
Double Fine Happy Action Theater is out now on XBLA for Kinect, and costs only 800 MSP. (About £6.50)
Animal Comparison Score: If this game were an animal it would definitely be the Cat in The Hat. (We never said that the animals couldn’t be anthropomorphic or fictional)