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Review #37

Title: AMF Bowling Pinbusters!
Publisher: Vir2L Studios/Bethesda
Developer: 4J Studios
Genre: Casual Sports
Release Date: July 1, 2008


Bowling video games, when done well, are much like the sport itself: simple, yet addictive and fun. They're mostly easy to do, as long as you get the physics of the pins correct. While bowling games will never be multi-million dollar, Madden-style extraveganzas, they can serve well in today's ever growing casual game niche. This was apparently Bethesda's thought as their sister studio Vir2L Studios released AMF Bowling Pinbusters! for the DS, the companion release for the already released - and universally scorned - Wii version.

The DS version, by sheer luck of the draw, HAS to be better than the Wii version... right?

The first thing you notice as you turn the game on is that there is really very little for you to do in the game. There is a quick play mode that allows you five frames, the single player options, multiplayer mode, a chance to check your "progress" (what you've unlocked), and... that's it. Even for a $20 game, the mode selection seems pretty barebones, especially once you get into the single player options and find that you have three modes to select from: a World Cup mode, a "Precision" mode that requires you to hit every pin in order, and Duckpin mode, which allows you to use the smaller Duckpin balls and three-throw per frame Duckpin rules. Neither of the latter two modes allow you to do anything whatsoever except pass a few minutes, so if you're serious about getting to the nitty-gritty of the game, you have to go to World Cup mode.

The World Cup mode pits your bowler against four different opponents, at the end of which you unlock your bowlers' "gifts", which I've seen zero use for. You play the bowlers at their stages of choice, and if you beat them, and they haven't been unlocked, you unlock them and their lanes. The opponents can be one of twelve "World Class" bowlers, and I have to say, some of the stereotypes they came up with are hillarious. Once you get past Standard Boring American Stereotype Streak, the characters get downright laughable. A Brazilian kid who's lane is a football (soccer) pitch? A German chick named "Ann@Tron" that talks like a UNIX boot-up sequence and looks like Ivan Drago's female manager from Rocky IV? A child magician/bowler, complete with cape and funky magic vibes!? Who came up with these? While these caricatures don't really work for a 28 year old sports freak like myself, I could see them very easily working for younger kids; someone should ask Thalia Kennedy what she thinks.

Unfortunately, any innovative or inspired thought that went into the character designs themselves don't come across during the game, as when they're in action, all of the game's bowlers are pallete-swaps; they all have the same motions and the same mechanics, they just look slightly different. Save ratings for power and control (read: how much your ball spins), every character is otherwise the same. As a matter of fact, everything in this game is the same as the next item; the bowlers are the same, the balls themselves are the same (this is one of the few bowling games I've seen in the last 20 years that doesn't allow you to select ball weight), and the lanes all play the same (no differing oil patterns, sim freaks), they just look different, and I must say, some of the lane designs are frighteningly garish; I think MamaBowl's large, gaping faces that resemble something out of Rocco's Modern Life are going to give me nightmares for the next few weeks. Even Duckpin bowling more or less plays the same as regular bowling, just smaller. A lot of what J4 was trying to do just wants that one last ingredient to make a bland and emotionless game flourish, but that ingredient is left wanting, either because of budget constraints or time constraints or just not being able to link everything together. It's almost depressing how much personality this game could have had but doesn't. With all that said, the graphics don't look bad on the DS; the 3D models move good, and the lanes look decent, even if some of the more colourful lanes can be distracting.

Sadly, the gameplay is just as plain as the presentation. Bowling games can either be realistic or goofy, and Pinbusters! tries to straddle the line with mixed results. You select where your bowler stands before the run-up, press A, press it again to start the power meter, select how much power there is, and that's it for throwing the ball; you can determine spin by pressing left and right as the ball rolls down the lane to achieve hook. If the power meter goes up too high, you foot-fault and essentially lose the throw. Ball mechanics and throwing the ball is easy enough; it's simple and effective. The problem comes when the ball strikes the pins.

The pins themselves just don't seem to grasp proper physics or weight, and they go FLYING once you strike them. While you might think this a good thing, the problem with this is that they're so floaty, you never get the proper come-back pin, which leaves a LOT of situations where you're battling splits on second frames because the ball went straight through the pins. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the harder you throw the ball, the less luck you, as the player, will have with this game. I swear to Rod Roddy, the most effective way to score high in this game is to bowl perfectly straight at about 33% power, and lightly adjust spin accordingly. That's disappointing, as real bowling doesn't work like that; doing just that, I was able to consistently score 180s, with a round of 205.

Of course, in a real, professional tournament, a 180 would barely get you any prize money whatsoever. In Pinbusters!, it gets you nothing but wins. I put that these were "World Class" bowlers before, and made a note to add quotations to the words "World Class". I did this because the computer opponent is laughably easy at any stage of the game. Simply put, as long as you mark consistently, you will win, period, end of sentence. The computer tries to counter this with some questionable rubber-band logic - coined by noted exemplar Yahtzee Croshaw as "Mario Kart Syndrome" - but it really doesn't matter; mark, win. The computer opponent has some strange behaviour patterns as well; it will mark on the first frame with a spare, then throw the second ball so wobly and poorly that it strikes one pin, making it seem like an intentional mistake; this is coined by noted loudmouth prick Christoper Bowen as being "Mortal Kombat Syndrome". Any game that replaces intentional, stupid mistakes for honest AI shows itself off as lazy, and the only difference between the first round of the World Cup and the last is that the computer makes fewer absolutely atrocious mistakes as you advance. Then again, in World Cup mode, you're essentially given two free frames a game if you know what you're doing, so that point is virtually moot.

In World Cup mode, you get what's called a Psyche Out meter, as does your opponent. This meter increases as you knock down pins, pick up strikes and spares, and throw your balls with perfect power, something that I've already shown is counter-productive. If your meter fills, you can do a special move that will guarantee you a strike, but usually, if you bowl well, this builds up by the time you get to the eighth or ninth frame; if you're lucky, you'll set yourself up well for a good score on the tenth frame. However, if you get your meter half-way up, you will be able to "psyche out" your opponent. This is where the game goes from "meh" to "broken". When you psyche out your opponent, a red bowling pin appears in a random spot halfway down the lane; if the pin is hit, the ball goes towards the gutter. That in itself isn't too much of a big deal, but there's one part the instruction manual doesn't bring up, and I'm unsure if it's a bug or a feature: you can actually control your opponent's ball's spin. That means that if he sets up to the right side of the lane, just hold down the right arrow on your D-pad, and he's guaranteed to throw in the gutter. And while you cannot do this on the second throw, chances are good the virtually retarded computer opponent is going to smack right into that pin on the second throw, meaning he's got a blank frame. Considering you can usually get two of these a game, it makes beating the computer in World Cup mode - again, the only significant mode in this game - a cakewalk

When all is said and done, the #1 adjective that comes to mind when I think of Pinbusters! is "lazy". It seems like the developers aimed at a very casual, even young demographic, and didn't particularly seem interested in raising the bar they set for themselves whatsoever. The only reason to keep playing this game is to unlock all of the bowlers, which is doable due to the lack of difficulty of the game, but once that's done - I could do it in a couple hours if I put my mind to it - there's no other reason to really play this game. There are so many opportunities for improvement here - make the game more "wacky" by having obstacles on the track, more modes, different animations, a less static presentation, etc. - that it frustrates me to play the game knowing that Vir2l and J4 half-assed it. The one thing you would assume a DS bowling game to have - stylus controls - isn't even in the game! I am not a proponent of having stylus controls forced upon me when it's not necessary - I'm on record as being very down on games like Star Fox Command and Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for this very reason - but there are certain areas and genres where you want the ability to use the stylus properly, and bowling games is one of them. I spent a lot of money on Capcom Bowling as a kid, and looking back, that wasn't even a particularly great game; the thought of having something similar on the DS with a stylus and with 2008 technology makes me giddy. Sadly, the stylus is only used in this game to select menu options and move the scoreboard, the latter which can be more easily done with the L and R buttons. They might as well not have even bothered; what you can use the stylus for is completely tacked on, and almost makes it seem like it was mandated and thrown in. "OK, the boss wants us to incorporate stylus controls... screw it, let it move the scoreboard. There, done! Who's up for Shuffleboard?" Why is it a game dedicated to bowling cannot have something like this, but a game at the same price, that includes four other games, can, and costs the exact same amount of money at that? Why in the world would I buy this game?

There are multiplayer options, including a pass-and-play option for one DS, one cart play that I really do like. There's also an online component, but all this lets you do is play against another human that just happens to not be in the same room as you. The experience is generally favourable, and there was no lag experienced on my end, but once it was done, it was done; no leaderboards, no support for any other bell or whistle, just "here's your opponent, thank you and goodbye". The main benefit of online mode was that as I beat opponents online, I unlocked the characters they used on my own cartridge. I REALLY liked this, but for the wrong reason; it meant that I didn't have to waste a half hour going through their World Cup modes to unlock everyone. And like a lot of things in this game, I'm unsure if this is a feature or a bug, and if I have to ask that question, everyone loses.

THE SCORES

Game Modes: Dreadful (2)
Graphics: Mediocre (5)
Sound: Above Average (6)
Control and Gameplay: Poor (4)
Replayability: Poor (4)
Balance: Awful (1.5)
Originality: Poor (4)
Addictiveness: Poor (4)
Appeal Factor: Bad (3)
Miscellaneous: Bad (3)

FINAL SCORE: PRETTY POOR GAME (36.5/100)




Short Attention Span Summary

I wanted this game to be good, but unfortunately, I wanted it harder than 4J Studios and Vir2L Studios did. With more development time, more attention to details, a better QA team and more overall effort all around, this could have been an outstanding budget title. As it stands, unless it's for a child in the six to ten year old range, I cannot recommend AMF Bowling Pinbusters! to anyone, even at the $20 price tag.