Publisher: Microsoft / Developer: Double Fine / Price: 800 Microsoft Points / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Everyone [Comic Mischief, Mild Fantasy Violence]
The Microsoft Kinect is a pretty neat toy, but in terms of being used as a serious gaming accessory, it hasn’t really lived up to its potential. Fortunately, the makers of Happy Action Theater seem to recognize the device’s strengths and weaknesses, and have found a way to accentuate the former while minimizing the latter. It uses the Kinect to turn your living room into a stage, where you and your friends are the performers… for yourselves. Happy Action Theater is an odd duck, never really becoming anything that much resembles a game, but remaining extremely fun regardless.
It’s really difficult to explain Happy Action Theater. The most accurate description I can come up with—that it’s an interactive screen-saver for your television—sounds like it’s an insult. That’s unfortunate, because screen savers are deadly dull, while Happy Action Theater is more like an electronic smile generator. And yes, I realize how dumb that sounds, but it’s true, goddammit.
When the game starts up, you stumble upon a theater show being hastily prepared. When the thick red curtains part, you’re suddenly faced with yourself, the star of your own show. You might suddenly be the featured dancer at a Double Fine-themed discotheque, or be sitting on your couch during a blizzard, or up to your waist in lava. Every few minutes, the curtains close, the main theme plays, and then you’re center-stage in a new scenario: as I write this, I’m sitting in an underwater wonderland, surrounded by sea-life, and being baited with goodies on hooks by a nefarious angler who lurks above the top border of my television screen. If I touch the bait, I’ll get hooked, and my image will be yanked off-screen. Later, I might be cast as the paddle in a woodland-themed game of Brick Break (or Arkanoid, if you prefer). Or, the screen could adopt the look of the black-and-white King Kong serial from the golden age of film, where buildings are constructed only to be destroyed by my footfalls and arm-swings, with planes whirling around my head for me to smash, and a newspaper photographer popping on-screen every thirty seconds or so to snap my picture for the front page.
None of the games have any kind of rules or instructions. Just flail your arms and things on the screen will happen. Even the more traditional-style games, like the aforementioned Brick Break analogue, or a bug-themed Space Invaders clone, allow you to play or not play as much as you like. There are no punishments for getting zapped by an enemy or letting the ball drop below your paddle, and there are no rewards for clearing a level, except for the generation of another level. The objective is fun—and nothing else.
Players can cycle through each mini-game (or environment, since “game” might be too generous a word) by hitting the right and left bumpers on the controller, or they can decide to keep one environment on-screen indefinitely by hitting A. This “pause” feature would be pretty useful when entertaining guests at a party who are having fun in a particular environment, or who just like the idea of hanging out in a lava pit or giant Jell-O mold while they chat and drink. In fact, the more people you have on-screen with you at once, the more crazy things get. Suddenly, the birds in the pigeon park have that many more human perches, who throw birdseed with a wave of their arms, and that many more people to flail around and pop balloons in the…well, in the balloon room.
The great thing about Happy Action Theater is that you decide how you want to play. But choosing to play truly emphasizes the full meaning of that word: you’re really playing with this thing. When I first tried the game, I cycled through all the environments after about a half-hour. Even though it was all over pretty quickly, I had a huge, dumb grin on my face the entire time. Each new environment kept me laughing without telling a single joke, and a few of them actually got me up and dancing like a moron—a sign I was actually having fun instead of clutching a controller with intense concentration. Happy Action Theater takes the simplicity of a kids’ game—no rules, no objective, no story—and makes it fun for pretty much anyone who’s willing to sit and goof around.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking going on with the graphics in Happy Action Theater, but the game manages to take the outlines and features of you and your living room and build convincing and fun environments around you. As I’m writing this, I can’t help but smile when I look up at the screen and see a pigeon pecking at my TV screen from the inside, while three other birds perch on my shoulders and on my head. I look like some kind of nerdy laptop pirate. Later on, I’m going to fool around with the time camera (I’m making these names up), which offers a countdown and then takes a photo of your position…then keeps your former self on-screen while you get into position for another snapshot, allowing you to create strange, DaVinci-inspired Vitruvian Man-esque images.
The imagery of the on-screen graphics that surround you are of the cartoony variety, as the game is cautious to never take things too seriously. In fact, I just let out a big laugh after seeing a bird wearing a necklace of plastic six-pack rings fly in front of me. Even the relative predictability of an environment you think you know continues to offer up little visual gags and surprises.
The soundtrack changes with each new environment, providing appropriate mood music for each experience. The kaleidoscope environment provides suitably trippy music as your face morphs and reflects on the screen, while the blizzard level dingles with jingle bells and the sound of falling snow and fast-forming ice. Like the visuals, the sound never goes too far into the realm of realism, but rather does much to evoke a mood or a feeling of fun or relaxation, as the case may be. The flower-garden, for instance, offers the sounds of springtime, with birds chirping, bees buzzing, wind blowing, and a soft but upbeat chorus of steel drums.
Happy Action Theater is a ton of fun, but if you’re the kind of gamer who craves action, excitement, and a plot to keep you coming back for more, this isn’t for you. Rather, this was made for gamers with kids around the house, or players who have a living room that frequently hosts friend-filled parties. Sure, Happy Action Theater isn’t much more than a glorified tech demo for the Kinect, but it’s probably the most fun I’d had with any Kinect title since bringing the device home. If you’re looking for something different and you’re brave enough to laugh and dance in front of your TV for a while, get this game.