Developer: Jet Black Games
Release Date: January 12, 2009
When Global Star's Carnival Games for the Wii was released almost 18 months ago, I, along with lots of games critics, shot Take Two's gift horse. We all filed fair reviews of the game based on the criteria by which we are accustomed to judging video games, but we failed to account for a large majority of Wii owners, who don't care so much what we critics consider to be high art when choosing a disc full of party games. THQ's Neighborhood Games has the potential to put critics in that same quandary: Despite looking quite nice, with good art direction and some animation detail in the environments you wouldn't expect, the overall title is weak enough to garner some low review scores. On the other hand, as a family multiplayer game, Neighborhood Games has some of the same appeal as Carnival Games.
Neighborhood Games is about perfect for a family games night, if you have a fairly active parent or two, and a couple of kids under the age of eight. When we got the title, rather than sit with chin in hand all by lonesome, I put the disc in the Wii and turned the kids loose on it. They liked it in varying degrees: our teenager not so much; the youngest child, not quite three, didn't really get it; and the middle boy, four, loved it. I actually spent hours playing the game — some of the games take a while to complete, even on the easiest difficulty setting — to unlock everything in the single-player mode, but my main focus was on how the title played with the kids, with my wife or myself providing balanced competition along with referee duties.
First, you must play the game in multiplayer with real people, and you'll probably want some kids in that group. A game like this doesn't make much sense played alone, but some of the game types, notably the RC vehicles games, aren't available in single-player mode. In fact, if you only play solo, you'll think you're missing some of the advertised games, but they're all there in the multiplayer mode.
The visuals in Neighborhood Games are quite a bit better than I expected. I've practically made a hobby of complaining over miserable Wii graphics and have demanded, often in vain, that Wii visuals be developed unique to the platform. Of course, Neighborhood Games doesn't have counterparts on other consoles, but the graphics are unique to the Wii and are, delightfully, developed with the Wii in mind. It's all cartoonish 3-D models, but they suit both the game and the Wii (no Nintendo Miis in any form or fashion). Also, as mentioned, there are some extra details in the environments. For example, in the first basketball game, a delivery truck passes near the court, jouncing and bouncing down the lane rather than lifelessly scrolling by on its inexorable course to the horizon. There's also some character customization available, although some items you may want must be unlocked in the rather dreary single-player mode. This isn't a game of graphical wonders, but its art direction enhances accessibility of the title for young children, mimicking to some degree what they see in theaters or on television.
Besides the tennis and golf variations, there are the RC model games, and a couple of variations each of basketball (they're all shooting/field-goal games), bocce ball, horseshoes, shuffleboard and lawn darts (Yes, the video game version of a leisure pastime banned from U.S. and Canadian sale 20 years ago, for safety concerns). Again, Neighborhood Games is not really worth a solo effort, unless avid players want to practice between party matches. If you do play alone, you'll have to unlock each successive game type in the core games by beating a snotty little virtual kid. There's also a built-in skills challenge based on easy, medium and hard difficulties: Beat your computer opponent on each difficulty level, and you become the champ of the 'hood. There's little reason to advance through the game on higher difficulty levels, though. The easy setting on the difficult games is all you'll want, and the hard setting on the patsy games doesn't make much of a difference for long.
So far, Neighborhood Games looks like a minor family blockbuster. The graphics are good, the audio is OK and gameplay is captivating enough. At this price point, it could have been a clear winner. The one serious issue is here is control, and that problem is twofold: It controls all the same, and a lot of the time, the control feels plain wonky. For the first gripe, all of the mini-games are played with the exact same underhand tossing motion, like tossing a horseshoe — horseshoes is in Neighborhood Games, but all of the games basically play like horseshoes. Basketball doesn't play like horseshoes, of course, but basketball is too hard for this, perhaps any, kind of title. It took me a couple of hours to start making baskets, and another hour to beat the first game type; anyone not working on a review would have given up in perhaps 15 minutes.
After spending time with the game, I realized that all this started when the design team culled to the base games they would include in the title. They're all games inspired by real-world games that heavily favor the underhand toss. No, the designers shouldn't change horseshoes to something wanting a tennis backhand toss, but they could have mixed up the game type a little more.
The second issue: Within that realm of the underhand toss, Neighborhood Games has very strict criteria for achievement. In most games, there's a bit of space in throw force interpretation for weak throws that fall far short of their marks, and then a lot of space in that arc for excessively forceful throws that sail some ways over targets. Then, in games like the horseshoes variant battleshoes, that rule flops on itself, making short throws too easy to make, and the required longer throws near out of reach. At first, you'll think the game is horribly inaccurate and plain wonky because one throw is so far off the next, even though you're sure you threw them the same. After spending a whole lot of time with the game, I discovered I was just thinking my throws were the same. Negligible changes in loft, force or direction make significant alterations to the trajectory of the tossed object. Bottom line: Control is just too sensitive to be good.
An interesting thing about the hypersensitive Wiimote detection and the sameness of controls for lots of the mini-games is that you, or less coordinated younger children, get used to using the exact same motions over and over. Repetition, however, should not be the cure for weak game design, but this quirk does increase the playability of something that would be a lot harder to handle.
The final reckoning for Neighborhood Games is not difficult. This is one of the better-looking party titles not published by Nintendo. The game is stable and generally fun if lawn games are your thing, and you overlook variety in the game types not yielding much diversity in their style of play. I spent a bit of time with this title that wasn't necessary — playing with the kids, watching the kids play, playing when the kids were running riot through the house. The game does check in at a discount price over full-price Wii titles. With all that said, Neighborhood Games is not for you unless you'll be playing with young gamer children, or you're looking for a very casual game to play with friends and family who sometimes will play a game with you, but aren't so much gamers themselves. But if you're looking for a multiplayer game you can play as part of the evening, not the point of the evening, you could do a lot worse in the Wii catalog.