Have tetherball, will waggle.
If you’re a Wii owner over the age of ten, you’ve probably gotten pretty sick of hearing other gamers call your system a kid's game machine. EA Canada, however, has embraced the stereotype and delivered a game aimed squarely at kid gamers. EA Playground is a colorful and cheery title set in a sprawling elementary schoolyard, filled with small chibi-children and some clever interpretations of traditional playground games. It offers a good variety of family-friendly fun that is perfectly geared towards younger gamers while still offering up just enough strategy and skill to keep parents entertained. It’s a game filled with simple and quick amusements that, while not without their shortcomings, provide a solid choice for gamers looking for some more family-friendly applications on their Wii.
EA Playground starts you off in a schoolyard just after the recess bell has rung. The main single player game is loosely structured around players walking around the schoolyard and finding challenges in which to compete against their classmates. The goal here is to win stickers from your classmates, which, once collected, will establish you as king of the playground. You can also collect marbles, the game's most basic form of currency, to buy new abilities and stats specific to each of the seven main games. Marbles can be found by exploring the playground on your own or by competing against classmates in extra "dare" challenges, where conditions for victory are changed in various ways. In Dodgeball, for example, you may be challenged simply to dodge ten balls without being hit.
EA Playground is controlled with just the Wii Remote and features a heavy focus on motion controls that are generally intuitive and fun, if not terribly deep. Most of the motions are limited to simple left, right, and upward strokes, all of which should be familiar to the average Wii owner. In Wall Ball (the game’s variation on handball), for instance, you’ll swing the Remote up to serve and then swipe to the left or right to hit the ball in the corresponding direction. If you swing a little early, your ball will angle a little more severely to the left, while if you wait until the last second to hit the ball, it will go mostly straight. It’s not quite as sensitive or varied as, say, tennis in Wii Sports, but it’s a well-suited level of depth for the 2-3 minute games you’ll be playing here.
While the number of games isn’t overwhelming, there’s a good level of variety that makes each one feel unique and distinct from the others. In Slot Car Racing, you accelerate with the A button, use bonus items with the B button, and move left or right by rotating the Wii Remote in either direction (the remote is held pointer-style). The slot cars are fast to accelerate and can pick up a decent variety of attack power-ups (like a firecracker missle and thumbtacks) making the relatively quick races a frenetic and fun scramble for the finish line. There’s not all that much to do besides mash on the accelerator and angle for green boost arrows on the track, but the races are so quick and kinetic that you won’t have time to be bothered by the lack of depth. In Dart Shootout, the Remote is used to move an aiming cursor while you shoot targets and playground combatants in a standard on-rails shooter level. Hitting the A button will bring up a shield that can be used to block incoming darts, and reloading is performed with a quick shake of the Remote. These levels are strictly by-the-numbers shooting galleries, but the snappy pacing and the instantly intuitive controls make them fun to breeze through for the few minutes that they take to beat.
The most entertaining game, and ironically the simplest one to control, is Paper Racers, a paper airplane flight game. Players hold the Remote between thumb and forefinger like an actual paper airplane and tilt to maneuver their planes through some tricky obstacle courses collecting speed-boosts and flying through different colored stars for points. It will feel more than a little ungainly for gamers that haven’t played a flight game with these controls already (similar to the "looseness" many players felt when playing through Excite Truck for the first time). Once you acclimate to the sensitivity, however, there’s a true sense of finesse and immersion to moving the little toy planes through tree branches and narrow nooks that feels truly responsive. The game is rather forgiving about moving players back into position if they ram into an obstacle (something younger players will probably appreciate), but perfectionists should be able to wring a fair amount of entertainment from the handful of courses on offer.
Kicks is another fun surprise that has a little more depth and skill than the other games. It plays out as a hybrid of soccer and volleyball, with teams of two players kicking the ball back and forth without the ball touching the ground, then shooting it into the opposing team’s goal. There are options to fake shots, charge up a super shot, and headbutt the other team’s shot back into their own goal. The controls are responsive and simple, while the rules of the game reward attention to timing and some basic strategy that can lead to some tense shootouts, especially in multiplayer. Again, this isn’t a deep new sport calling out for its own game, but for a 2-3 minute mini-game, there’s a commendable level of balance and strategy beyond the standard Remote waggling.
Other games available are Tetherball and Dodgeball. Each plays out just like you would expect, flicking the remote in time to throw a ball (or smack an incoming tetherball). Dodgeball is the only mini-game where you’re also required to move your player, handled with the remote’s D-pad. It’s clunky and not nearly as responsive as an analog stick, but the game provides you with dodge and deflect moves to compensate. It’s an imperfect solution, and it would have been sporting of EA to at least include the option to control the game with the Nunchuk’s analog stick, both in this mode and for moving around the larger playground hub-world. It’s not a deal breaker, but it will remind you just how vital analog control has become for 3-D gaming.
The game sports the same agreeable pastels and cel-shaded visuals of My Sims, which is a great fit for the targeted family audiences. Textures are generally crisp and flourished with small scrawls that accentuate the hand-drawn feel of the game. Characters models are a little under-detailed, and populating the whole game world with squat chibi-people in hip kids' catalogue clothing can make it a little hard to tell characters apart. Some of the courses and environments can feel a little sparse or burdened with repeated objects that make the game feel like it was thrown together rather hastily. Still, the visuals will please your eye in spirit and execution more often than not. Music is bland but upbeat while successfully avoiding anything distractingly over-the-top or repetitious. EA Canada has also done a nice job setting aside some sound effects for the Wii Remote’s speaker. In Tetherball and Wall Ball, in particular, having a distinct audio cue in your hand every time you hit the ball can be an important aid in timing your swings properly.
While there’s no Wi-Fi play, the game has a decently provisioned multiplayer mode. Kicks and Wall Ball make particularly amusing multiplayer games with their slightly more elaborate control options. You’ll be able to play any of the mini-games against up to four friends, or set up a "tourney" with a specific batch of mini-games and number of rounds. While there’s nothing that enhances the core gameplay in any significant way in the multiplayer, it will help fill out the playtime of the relatively short single-player mode (around six hours if you’re taking your time).
Taken for what it is, EA Playground succeeds without breaking the mold. Gamers who bought the Wii for simple family fun should be pleased with the variety of games and family-friendly presentation. While none of the games are quite as deep and compulsive as Wii Sports, they’re entertaining enough on their own to keep players waggling through the short single-player mode. If you’re looking for something with a little more depth and sophistication, EA Playground will undoubtedly be a disappointment. If, however, you have young kids or just want something fun and simple that will keep Wii Sports out of your Wii for a week or two, EA Playground is a good option.