Written on November 30, 2011
For those of you who watch Star Trek movies, you’ll recognize a phenomenon where every even-numbered movie was a huge success, while every odd-numbered movie was a dud. With the Active Life series, Namco seems to be following a similar pattern. The first Active Life game, Outdoor Adventure, was a groundbreaking title that was among the first to introduce “fun” active kid’s gaming to the Wii. The follow-up, Extreme Adventure, was by most accounts a sub-par game. The third title, Explorer, was once again a fantastic game, full of imaginative use of the mat controller.
With Active Life: Magical Carnival, it feels that the series is running out of gas a little bit again. It’s a collection of 24 mini-games. I’ve grown to become very suspicious of games that jam in as many mini-games as possible, as if the game publisher were hoping that more quantity would make up for less quality. I get that impression here.
Like the other Active Life games, this one uses a special floor mat controller from Namco that you plug into the Gamecube connectors of the top of the Wii. The mats work similar to mats used by Dance Dance Revolution, but are not compatible.
With this game, you enter a virtual theme park. Various games support 1, 2, or 4 players. Unfortunately, as with previous Active Life games, all the players have to squeeze on one controller and/or take turns playing; there’s no way to use two controllers. With small kids this isn’t a problem, but with grown-ups it starts resembling a bad game of Twister.
You can play an “adventure mode” which isn’t much of an adventure, you just play as many different activities as you can to fill up a sticker booklet which will make your park more “popular”. Or, you can play each of the mini-games individually. As with previous Active Life games, you can play as your Mii (they’ll attach a weird looking human body to it), or as one of their default creepy characters with the Little Orphan Annie lack of eyeballs.
Here are all the mini-games, broken into five different “Zones”:
1) Flying Carpet (up to 2 players). Here, you get on your hands and knees and press buttons to steer or accelerate a flying carpet, similar to Aladdin. This one is hard on the neck, as you need to really strain your neck to see the TV.
2) Magic Lesson (up to 4 players). This is a pattern matching game like “Simon” where you have to memorize sequences of buttons given to you by a magician.
3) Ballroom Dancing (up to 2 players). This was a game where you have to press certain buttons with your feet in time to a waltz beat in a ballroom strangely reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Not a bad concept, but the execution isn’t great–the music is terribly non-distinctive, which means there’ll be a lot of trial-and-error before you get it right.
4) Flying Broom (up to 2 players). Once again you’re flying through the air chasing a fairy, reminiscent of Tinkerbell. You need to have good reflects to press buttons to turn or to avoid walls.
1) Monster Panic (up to 2 players). Here’s another game where you’re kneeling on the floor and have to press buttons to flip switches.
2) Haunted House (up to 2 players). Finally, a game that uses the mat controller for walking. You need to tiptoe through a haunted house to avoid waking up ghosts, and then avoid obstacles by running or jumping. This one came closest to what the Active Life series should be all about, although some of the obstacles seemed frustratingly random.
3) Who’s the Ghost (up to 4 players). An interesting “spot the intruder” game where you have to memorize a group of Miis in the room. The screen goes blank and then you need to spot who wasn’t there before and press on the appropriate mat button.
4) Ghost Hunder (up to 2 players). This is a “Ghostbusters” type game where you use the Wii remote to snag a ghost and then press the square buttons with your feel to “reel it in”. The concept was done before and much better by Nintendo in Wii Motion Party.
1) Ball Balance (up to 2 players). Another button-stomping game where you need to match random sequences of buttons in time to stay balanced on a ball. Very similar to other games in the previous Active Life games.
2) Trampoline Tricks (up to 2 players). Another button stomping game where you need to jump and then mash the correct sequence of buttons before you land. This one has also been done, but I do appreciate the use of the mat controller in this one.
3) Rope Crossing (up to 2 players). You’re on a tightrope and need to balance yourself using the Wii remote and walk by pressing the square buttons. Again, I do like the use of the mat controller for this, but conceptually the concept was done better in Wii Fit Plus.
4) Giant Swing (up to 2 players). This is another timing/reaction game where you need to jump on the right set of two buttons with precise timing to get your player to go from swing to swing. This one was an exercise in frustration, as it took a long time to get the timing right.
5) Lion Show (up to 2 players). A game where you have spot the pattern by which a lion is charging you and crouch (by standing on the square buttons and holding the top arrow buttons) or jump accordingly. Not a great game for people with big bodies.
6) Spinning Wheels (up to 2 players). A game where you basically run in place and jump when you see clowns in your way. Another exercise in frustration, and the clowns will come out of seemingly nowhere.
7) Motorbike Challenge (up to 2 players). A game where you steer a motorbike in a cage by standing on the square buttons. The more balloons you collect, the better you’ll do.
8) Clown Show (up to 2 players). A rather incongruous activity where you can string up to three random activities under “Circus Zone” together.
1) Hammer Strike (up to 4 players). Here, you mash the blue button as much as you can, which will dictate the force by which your hammer swings to ring a bell. This was decent, although the use of the game pad seemed forced–this (as well as all the carnival games) would have been much better just using the Wii remote.
2) Frog Jump (up to 4 players). Another game where you get on your hands and knees and swing a hammer by pressing on the blue left button to try to get a frog to jump onto a moving lilypad.
3) Balloon Maker (up to 4 players). A carnival game where balloons will inflate, and you need to stop the gas flow before the balloon pops. This was was fun, but again the Wii remote would have made infinite more sense.
4) Ball Rolling challenge (up to 4 players). A well-executed game where you roll a ball onto a curved rail and try to use just enough force that it ends up in the designated spot.
1) Chase the Monkey (up to 2 players). A running game where you run in place on the mat and jump to avoid obstacles in your pursuit of a runaway monkey.
2) Bomb Panic (up to 2 players). A “hot potato” game where you press a button on the mat to pass a ticking time bomb to the next player.
3) Pirate’s Duel (up to 2 players). A game where you press the up arrow and down arrow that’s displayed on the screen with the proper timing to defect a sword wielding pirate.
4) Pirate Adventures (up to 2 players). A game that uses a lot of different controls. Run in place to climb up a mast and run, step on the square buttons to turn a wheel, and mash a bunch of random buttons to prevent skeletons from boarding the ship. This was a fun one, very similar to the “runaway train” game from Explorer, although there were times the controls weren’t as responsive as I’d have liked.
From an aesthetic perspective, the game is pretty and colorful. From a gameplay perspective, the controls are pretty responsive. And if you have multiple kids in the house, this is still one of the stronger multiplayer games out there.
The biggest beef I have with this game is that it just seems to lack the imagination that made #1 and #3 so strong. Many of the games are weak copies of other games that have been done elsewhere on the Wii. And virtually all the gameplay involves fairly and contrived generic button mashing that doesn’t feel very natural and/or is a thinly veiled imitation of what’s already been done in previous Active Life games, just in a different environment. I would have hoped that with new evolutions of the Active Life series would come new and innovative ways to use the mat and truly bring “active gaming” forward. Instead, it feels like a rehash of everything that’s been done before.
Not only are there practically no new ways of using the mat, as I pointed out multiple times above, in certain cases the use of the mat is almost superfluous–the same game would have been much stronger using the Wii remote.
I also get the strong sense that the game developers were trying more to play “catch up” with other games. The theme-park concept is being done right now in Kinect Disneyland Adventures for the Xbox and Carnival Island on the Playstation. There’s even a part of this game where you “take your picture”. Of course, the Wii doesn’t have a camera, so the “picture” that’s taken is of your avatar. There’s a clown that says “Ha Ha, You look so ridiculous”. It might as well have said “Ha Ha, our developers are trying to copy the photo-taking capabilities of the Xbox and PS3 on a system with no camera”.
This is sad in a way, because I think the mat controller that Namco introduced is a very strong one whose potential hasn’t even come close to being fully tapped and which can accomplish gameplay that the Wii remote, Balance Board and even the Kinect and Move can’t.
I will say that if you already have a mat and have enjoyed the first three games, at $29.99, this is a relatively cheap way to extend the use of your mat. But if this will be your first Active Life game, I would definitely recommending skipping this one and going with either Outdoor Life or Explorer. While I’d easily stand by my earlier ratings of both of those games of 5 out of 5 stars, with this one I can only muster a 3. It’s OK, but not earth-shattering.