17389516 Double Fine Happy Action Theater appeals to the inner child!

My very first experience with Double Fine Happy Action Theater was an odd one. One day I decided to download a bunch of demos including Happy Action Theater to my 360 via the Xbox website. The following weekend, I fired up the 360 to let my seven-year-old son play some Fruit Ninja Kinect. When he got tired of chopping up fruit, he asked if he could play something different, and then started Happy Action Theater. Not knowing what to expect, we waited for the game to load.

All of a sudden, our den was filling up with lava. I climbed up higher on the futon to avoid the river of fiery death, and much to my horror, my kid dives into it, picks up fire and sets the basement ablaze. Mom wasn’t content just to watch, and by the end of the game demo we were out of breath from laughing so hard. I’m very selective of the kinds of games my son plays, but this experience was enough to make me consider buying it. In the end, it turned out GT had a review code up for grabs – and I jumped at the chance to review this one.

While the demo offers several mini-games and is timed, the full game offers 18 different scenarios with absolutely no rhyme or reason. There are virtually no scores, no playlists, or any single point to all of it. Happy Action Theater is truly a video playground, and not an interactive-story-turned-game. If you’re looking for something that is impressive in the technical merits of gaming (sound, video, etc) or a  cleverly told story that sucks you in, I’m sorry to say that this isn’t the experience you’re looking for.

The controls are pretty basic – you use the Kinect to play around and interact with the different scenarios. Instead of 1-2 players tracked by skeletal motion, the folks at Double Fine designed the game to support up to six people using the Kinect camera’s surface tracking function.  This allows the game to do things like cover you in snow, transpose you multiple times in a scene, or even make you dance while you stand still. In some cases it will even make you disappear from view, which means that Happy Action Theater is keeping track of both you and the environment. In addition to motion controls, the controller can be used to skip through scenes, or make them last longer. It works really well, and I am glad they didn’t force the non-play controls to be Kinect-only.  While I found that the accuracy of the games where you used your hands to shoot or throw objects was less accurate, but was pretty good when it came to kicking balls, balloons and lighting fireworks.

 Included in the 18 mini-games is photo-shoot where you can interact with your previous picture (5 shots total), as well as a blockout-like game, a simple 2D shooter where you float around the screen and toss fire at other players and demons, a space invaders knock-off, and a disco dance-floor.  The fish tank, lava and garden scenes were fun for kids, and the two other music-based games looked like Wolfman segments right out of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Given that you can use the 360 to play your own music, these segments might be the most group-friendly to lock in and leave on as a background visualizer.

 If  there was something missing from Happy Action Theater, it would be the ability to save and share some of the experiences it creates. I made some really funny pictures, but after the fifth shot, there is no option to save it. I get the simplicity and no risk of having a silly experience recorded, but it would have been a fantastic opportunity to allow people to save the pictures to their 360. The other thing would have been a favorites playlist, and perhaps a hint as to whether this will be expanded with DLC in the future. The only other thing that I found might be annoying is that some of the Kinect readings didn’t work for me as well as for my son. For instance, I had to actually lie down in the river of lava to allow me to pick up fireballs. He could simply scoop his hands in and set the house ablaze.

 Double Fine bills Happy Action Theater as 1-6 players, but honestly, I wouldn’t  bother playing it as a single-player experience. It is devoid of excitement in that regard, in exactly the same way that a teeter-totter isn’t a lot of fun by yourself. Realistically it’s a 2-6 player game, depending on your playing space. It recognizes sitting, standing, and lying down. There are games that showcase the strength of a platform. Some are technical, and some are simply fun.  No one in view of the Kinect sensor is safe from the fun that Happy Action Theater brings – at 800 MS credits, it’s well worth it for anyone who has kids or entertains guests. In fact, I’d recommend MS bundle this with every new Kinect – this is a simple-yet-effective use of getting some unexpected fun from your 360.

If you’re even a little curious about it, I would strongly recommend you download the demo off the Xbox Marketplace.