Theater of the Absurd
Double Fine's second foray into motion controlled territory is barely game. Or, more accurately, it is barely a "game" in the traditional sense of the word. Double Fine Happy Action Theater is a "game" that cannot be won, loss, or beaten. No campaign, no innate competitive aspects; just a ludicrous smorgasbord of minigames cum Kinect tech demos lavished with the visual panache and charm expected out of Tim Schafer's imaginative studio.
And it's all the better for it.
Understanding what exactly is contained within Happy Action Theater will likely be the key to determining if the game is worth the ten US dollar asking price. As mentioned above, Happy Action Theater is a breezy Kinect-required minigame collection. A Breakout-esqe game, controlled by player horizontal movement, is the only title within Happy Action Theater that feels like an actual "game" as it contains a scoring mechanic. Just about every other title grafts interactive graphics onto your play space and encourages you to just goof around. Within mere moments apart, my living space was both submerged in ocean water and filled to the brim with defecating pigeons. Other scenes have the players leaving psychedelic trails with every movement against a black backdrop, participating in digital snowball fights, and scampering for high ground as lava slowly rises from the bottom of the screen. Underneath the obvious interactions, Double Fine has tucked some secrets away for those who enjoying tinkering with every aspect of the digital playground presented.
At no time during these events does Happy Action Theater ever prompt you on how to play correctly. There is no way to play "correctly". Those looking for direction in Happy Action Theater can consult the prerequisite achievement list, but doing so will likely ruin the aspect of discovery I so thoroughly enjoyed in my time with the game.
If I had to pick issue with the actual execution of the minigames, my complaints would be aimed squarely at the presentation of depth. It is simply difficult to tell whether an interactive object is closer to the foreground or background of the screen. Given the relaxed nature of Happy Action Theater, I feel positively silly calling that a fault as I had more than enough time to suss it out without the fear of penalty.
Some of the minigames are flatter than others. A simulated cloning stage, where a static image of the player is frozen periodical, fails to spruce up any enjoyment beyond the initial-and inevitable-sexual posturing. Another has the players spreading flower seed and, consequently, having flowers grow. Player input on this game is unclear and I couldn't help but feel a bit inconsequential during the brief stay.
Unless the players intervenes via controller input, the game will naturally rotate in and out of different minigames every few minutes. Surprisingly, Happy Action Theater forgoes a lot of the persnickety Kinect player identification process that slows down so many other Kinect titles. Players are welcomed to jump in and out as they please and the game has no set limit on the number of on screen players (though the game only recommends six players). This is a great feature for a title that will likely live and die as a party distraction.
Also, you may have noticed I have been using the plural "players" throughout this review. It is completely intentional. Whatever legs of longevity exists on Happy Action Theater is almost completely dependent on how well you can entice your friends or family into tagging along with you. Within moments of my cohort's departure from the Kinect's gaze, I found my enjoyment slipping alarmingly fast. Needless to say, single player thrills are not Happy Action Theater's strengths.
As the title would suggested, a visual motif of Golden Age Hollywood is utilized throughout the game to tie in the seemingly unconnected minigames. Between every game a curtain draws concealing a very brief load screen. Occasionally this theme bleeds over to the games themselves; a King Kong inspired city destruction romp is presented in black and white grain filtering. As minute a feature as visual themes sound, it actually helps tie the game together in an appeasing manner. Unsurprising considering Double Fine's storied history with all things adorable and eye-catching.
Within the first two paragraphs of this review, you probably made up your mind whether or not to flop down ten US dollars on Happy Action Theater. Go with that instinct. If you have plenty of willing participants and a moderate love of the off-kilter, grab a ticket to Happy Action Theater. Everyone else is best suited catching a matinee elsewhere.