The most common indictment of Nintendo's Wii has been a lack of good third-party games. That's typically an adult gamer's complaint for games that, if not designed purely for adults, at least appeal to adults. Yet there's a whole other shortage in the Wii third-party catalog: engaging games with mechanics and simple controls suitable to a primary Wii audience — young children. This is why budget titles, like Carnival Games, shallow and flawed as they may have been, sometimes spring out of left field to produce unexpected smash hits.
There is yet another wasteland in quality Wii gaming: sports titles based on real-world sports. Publishers have tried watered-down versions of their HD console titles. They've tried versions completely reworked for the Wii's performance and control system. They've even tried jokey, over-the-top versions of their signature franchises. But they're all just versions. For parents playing with their kids, all the shortcomings over the HD console editions are obvious. Even for the kids, it's obvious this isn't Daddy or Mommy's real sports game.
Jerry Rice and Nitus' Dog Football attempts to bridge the gap between young children and real-world sports on a Wii game disc not designed for use as a coaster. It largely succeeds. The worst thing about the effort maybe the mouthful of name-drops they crammed into the licensed title.
Make no mistake: This is a game for the wee ones. If there are no kids in the house, this game has no place in your Wii library. Even with younger children, if they've moved on to more robust Wii titles, or games designed for the heftier systems, they'll probably enjoy their play sessions with Dog Football, but it's not likely to become an instant household favorite.
In reviewing this game, I enlisted the able assistance of my game-crazy seven-year-old son. Dog Football would have been perfect for him last Christmas; he was six and Santa presented him with Kirby's Epic Yarn. Santa didn't realize, no matter what a brilliant Wii title is Epic Yarn, the game was then a little beyond his reach. (It's probably worth noting: The hang-up up was mostly the Wii control scheme. He's accustomed to modern dual-stick; Kirby on a PS3 or Xbox 360, he'd have probably taken to that right away. Motion control isn't as inherently natural a scheme as it's puffed up to be.)
The kid turned seven last June, revisited Epic Yarn and polished it off in a few days. He'd advanced that far in gaming coordination in just six months. That's a problem for games like Dog Football. He'll enthusiastically play the game with me for about an hour, but it doesn't engage him the way more sophisticated titles do. He's likely somewhat above average in gaming skill for his age — he'd better be, around here — but the Dog Football window of entertainment value for any gaming youngster of any skill will close quickly.
It's a tight fit, too. I also impressed my kindergarten-age son into the service of reviewing; although he enjoys games almost as much as his older brother, his coordination and comprehension skills aren't developed enough to manage much of a Dog Football experience. These are boys who demonstrate avid interest in both sports and animals; it's not merely a lack of interest in the foundational material. The game just has a very limited age range.
Dog Football, for being, well, football with dogs, is a surprisingly robust simulation of the sport. On offense and defense, there is play-calling. The play selection is abbreviated, but it's not so limited as "pass or run," and "blitz or defend pass." There are actual options. You can also kick off, kick field goals and extra points, and punt on fourth and long. Kicking and punting execute dynamically controlled direction and power meters. On kickoffs and punts, the returning player gets to choose a play for return route, too. In contemporary junior-sized football games, special teams play is typically the most gutted part of the experience. Often, it's either entirely automated or completely eliminated. Dog Football not only includes this aspect of the sport, but it also does so in a way young children can capably control. That alone is pretty impressive.
On the whole, it's surprising how much like other, less-fanciful football simulations Dog Football plays. Never mind the fields are gimmicky environments, like backyards and seaside parks, and they're chockfull of oddball obstacles — patios, porches, even tunnels and tubes — the basic gameplay is stock football. The theme-park-esque fields and their varied construction also contribute to loading up on Agility Reward Factor (ARF) points for your dogs, enhancing gameplay. ARF points are stowed away, handed out for big plays; a touchdown gets you all the banked bonus points, while a field goal earns you only half. You can earn ARF bonus on defense, too, by stealing it: Intercept the ball during an opposing offensive attack, and you get all of the offense's accumulated ARF points for your very own. Additional rewards include Doggy Dollars, earned by winning games and discovering hidden items. The canine cash is later handed over for various attire and a greater selection of items.
Perhaps contributing to the overall logical sensibility of the game, both for children and adults, the player doesn't play as a dog. The guy behind the controller is the kid who owns the dogs. Controlling dogs that are running with the ball is accomplished by leading the dog with a bone treat, as a real pet owner might bait his dog into performing tricks or coming inside for the night.
Although there is a variety of plays and down scenarios, the mechanics and character control are greatly, and wisely, simplified. For the most part, all the control is handled by holding the A button and swinging the Wiimote up and down; and, more effortlessly, pointing the Wiimote, marked by a bone-shaped cursor, direct ball-carrying dogs in the direction you wish. Likewise, point and go for the owner/QB when he has to run for it. Dog Football passing only allows receiver selection at the play-calling stage. Your dogs run the routes labeled in the plays, and the dogs bark when they're open. The resulting pass, no matter how you aim it, goes to the last dog to bark. Skip that last open dog, you have no choice but to run your QB — or stand there and get sacked. Unfortunately, in the on-screen playbook, the passing routes are labeled A, B, C, etc. If you have any experience with console football titles, you'll first assume you have some dynamic control over receiver selection, but you don't.
Defense is played much the same way, sans the Wiimote swing. With your bone cursor, lead the defending dog to tackles, or get in position to block or intercept a pass. As a further nod to control simplification, holding the A button activates Auto-Dog. On defense, Auto-Dog chases the closest opponent; while carrying the ball, your Auto-Dog will dash for the end zone. This is a boon for the exceptionally young or uncoordinated gamer who still wants to play. The feature also reminds me of the last couple of years of Madden:the dynamically engaged auto-defense alternative. Dog Football went an extra, child-friendly step by implementing the feature for offense, too. There are a very few advanced moves, adding some breadth to gameplay for older children. If you're the parent, using these against your young tots is just plain mean.
The game has the usual basic modes for any sports title: play now, a season mode allowing you to win a very dog-themed trophy, training and practice exercises, plus the ability to fully customize your team (naming your sporty pets and picking unique uniforms) from a selection of dogs and human characters. (No, there's no franchise mode. Really, did you expect one?)
Dog Football looks and sounds like any other Wii title that's not aiming to stretch the graphical and sonic boundaries of the system. Like similar games, if it's entertaining, that's the point, and a shortage of gee-whiz graphical and audio effects is readily forgiven. What's there for the eyes and ears is plenty for kids who are still in their precious system-specs innocence.
Jerry Rice and Nitus' Dog Football is a great choice for kids who love both sports and animals. It's also a great option for young children who feel left out because their parents play the complicated, big-league sports games on HD consoles. Although most kids small enough to get much out of this title will need some initial adult instruction, after a patient primer, they can play against their parents, or on their own against siblings and friends. The life of this game will be very short; it's less a reflection on the game and more a comment on how quickly children grow up. Fortunately, this thoughtfully designed and reasonably thorough game is offered on the lower end of the budget price range for a Wii title. Studio Judo Baby has proven to me it can design console games for young kids, and that's no mean feat. In the future, I'd like to see what they can do for the same audience with source material that's a lot less restrictive than a well-established sport.
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