Developer: Blue Tongue Entertainment
Release Date: August 1, 2006
"Barnyard" is a bizarre little film from the warped mind of Steve Oedekirk; yes, the same Steve Oedekirk behind "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" and "Thumb Wars." Never heard of him? Don't worry – you're in the majority. "Barnyard" marks his first foray into feature-length family films, and it is an odd one. In less than 90 minutes, the computer-generated film manages to be both hilarious and terribly depressing, switching over at roughly the halfway point. Toss in some ridiculous liberties taken by the creators (male cows with udders!), and you have a seriously conflicted piece of entertainment.
Barnyard for the Nintendo GameCube is the game adaptation of that film, following the unwritten law that all animated films must have an interactive tie-in. Rather than focus heavily on the ship-shod narrative of the film, Barnyard is a game designed around the setting and characters, creating an experience significantly longer than that of the film. This is both of a positive and a negative. At 10 to 12 hours in length, it may not be the type of game most would designate as being long, but it sure feels like it. The repetition of events and mini-games make the game feel endless at times, and it often feels like some things were merely tacked on to lengthen the adventure. With that said, Barnyard does many things right, putting it among the elite of children's games based on animated films – if that is really much of an accomplishment.
The marketing subtitle for the film was "The Original Party Animals," and that really tells you quite a bit about the nature of the storyline. The film stars Otis, a "male cow" who just wants to have fun, as opposed to his father Ben, who serves as the beloved leader of the barnyard animals. When an extremely depressing event occurs (think "Bambi"), Otis is called upon to become the new leader, but he struggles to compromise between doing the fun thing and doing the right thing. Barnyard the game takes place both before and during the events of the film. As a newly acquired bovine, you entrench yourself within the ranks of the barnyard, doing favors ad nauseam for your new friends.
Barnyard employs the open-world concept best known from Grand Theft Auto, but most recently used in Cars, another quality film-based game. Your hours spent with the game will typically be spent doing one of two things: running errands or playing mini-games. Thankfully, oh so thankfully, your cow is able to ride a bike around the sprawling grounds of the farm. The cows may plod around on two feet, but they fly around when on two wheels. Though tricks are not available, I can easily say that the bike is a key aspect of the game. Traveling on-foot takes about five times longer than on bike, so the mere existence of the two-wheeled wonder truly enhances the experience.
Though you have say over what to do and when, the game is still quite limited. Missions are given to you by characters spread out around the compound, and missions are divided into those that can be done either in the day or during the night. A small clock in the upper left-hand corner of the screen keeps you aware of the time, though there are never any issues. Any mission botched or missed before the sun rises or falls can be done during the next applicable time period. Missions are typically timed, but Barnyard is an incredibly easy, forgiving gaming experience (just as you would expect it to be).
The errands are quite simple and usually involve some kind of item or animal hunt. For example, you may need to find the ingredients to create baked goods or locate 10 of a certain type of flower. These collecting missions are not terribly riveting, but why would they be? Do you get a kick out of going to the local convenience store several times a day? Coins are often rewarded for completing these missions, which in turn can be used to purchase goods from the gophers. Like in the film, the gophers are the (literally) underground source for "human goods," but they only operate at night in the game. A pool table and dart boards can be bought for the "party barn," and you can buy uniquely designed bikes after accumulating serious coinage.
Much more time is spent on the mini-games, and many of them are actually pretty fun – in spurts. I played a fair bit of the "Barnyard Pool" game, which uses a table in the shape of a paddle-boat. This obviously changes the dynamic of the game, and some funky rules further modify the billiards experience, but I still had a good time with it. My only issue with it is that the CPU opponent often makes boneheaded shots in your favor, such as shooting the cue ball directly into the pocket two turns in a row. "Tease the Milkman" is one of the more simplistic games, but it excellently recreates the scene from the film in which Otis mocks a mailman from behind with various dance moves and impressions. It may just be a button-pressing affair, but I was laughing through most of it.
"Chicken Launch" plays like a Pilotwings segment in which you must guide a gliding chicken through rings and eventually into one of the many windows of an old farmhouse. "Gopher Golf" is a simplified take on Hot Shots Golf, but with a greater emphasis on putting. Once you make your initial drive, you will use an underground gopher to pop up and putt the ball around the course. The initial nine holes are quite basic and easy to master, but the second half of the course (revealed later in the game) requires a bit more in the way of planning. The most visually unpleasant mini-games have you squirting milk from your udders at a series of targets or enemies (raccoons, wolves). Children might find it amusing, and certainly some adults would probably think it to be disgusting or perverse. I just thought it was bizarre.
Unfortunately, Barnyard relies too much on races, either on bikes or in "borrowed" cars. Neither could really stand on its own as a full-fledged game, and both are used excessively, especially near the end of the adventure. In the last two or three hours alone, I must have done eight races. I typically enjoy racing games, but there are some definite issues with the races in Barnyard. Every single bicycle race pits you against the three Jersey Cows, one of which is significantly larger than the others. Since you start in fourth every time, getting around this behemoth can be an issue on tighter tracks. More obnoxious are the collision detection issues on the tracks, which are not even remotely well-designed. Crashing into barely-noticeable rocks loses its charm after the first time, I promise.
Repetition becomes a serious issue in Barnyard, as I thought the game should have ended roughly three hours before it actually did. The developers must have been ordered to stretch out the experience, because you end up doing the same things over and over again, with only slight modifications. I must have golfed five times during the adventure, and these are not optional missions. The narrative of the game gets buried between seemingly endless errands, races, and games of golf. Further annoyance is tacked on by the limited soundtrack. The few included country-inspired instrumental tracks are played out within the first hour but are continuously looped for the entirety of the game. My advice: Turn down the TV volume and plug in an iPod.
The visuals in Barnyard leave a lot to be desired, but this is due in large part to the fact that it is a GameCube game. Sure, the GameCube has played host to stunning visual experiences, but multiplatform games tend to suffer when squeezed onto the Cube's miniature discs. Barnyard has a decent amount of environmental variety, but everything is blurry and features low-quality texture work. An inconsistent framerate makes the game look even crummier, but luckily does not affect the gameplay. I should also note that the game froze twice during menu screens, despite being a factory-sealed retail copy of the game with no visible marks on the disc. I would hope that it is not a widespread issue, but I have not had any issues with my GameCube prior to this.
Barnyard marks one of those rare occasions where the game totally outclasses the film upon which it is based. Despite heavy repetition, you have to believe that children are going to get a kick out of the game. As a grown man, my personal experience with the game is affected by a lifetime of previous game releases, but to a young child, it may just be an amusing, interactive cartoon. I watched my nephew play the game for a while, and he seemed completely mesmerized by it. GameCube devotees have been going through some tough times lately, and while Barnyard is not necessarily a great game, it is well worth a purchase for younger gamers not yet in their teens.