The Chuck E. Cheese of videogames is here. Is that a good thing?
Man, I wish I was still six years old. Life was so easy and uncomplicated. I believed in imaginary things like the Great Pumpkin and Santa Claus and professional wrestling. I played with stray dogs and cats without fear. I slept well and let my parents worry about the big stuff. My job in any given situation was just to have fun and avoid crying or soiling myself. If Thrillville: Off the Rails had come out then, I probably would have hailed it as the greatest game EVAR. Unfortunately, I'm pretty far removed from being six years old, and Thrillville isn't so thrilling for fully-formed human beings. It's not broken by any means; in fact it does a few things reasonably well. But unless you're a six year old boy (or have significant developmental issues that keep you trapped in the mindset of a six year old boy), you might want to skip this game.
Thrillville: Off the Rails is a theme park management sim, mini game collection, and roller coaster creator, all in one. These elements are tied together by a thin plot involving you, intrepid park builder, thwarting the evil competition GloboJoy while creating a successful, functioning theme park. The park design/management system is a shallow but fun way for first-timers to learn the basics of business and management while placing rides and mini-games in predetermined spaces around the various parks. You set the prices, choose your favorite colors, hire some mechanics and groundskeepers, and let the people enjoy themselves. When I say this part of the game is easy, I mean as far as I can tell you can't screw it up. If you neglect your managerial duties, nothing bad happens. You can talk to the parkgoers to get hints and missions that move the game forward (but be prepared for lots of repetitive, meaningless dialogue, too). If you want to run around and not talk to anybody, no problem. This is consequence-free sandbox gameplay for kids who still occasionally play in real sandboxes.
The roller-coaster building is perhaps the most elegant part of the game. Players are able to assemble tracks in whatever crazy design they choose, piece by piece. Through clever use of the Wii Remote's accelerometer, players are able to manipulate the piece of track they're placing by moving their hands. If they want the piece to curve to the left and down, they point to the left and down, and the piece follows suit. The system works well and adds a level of intuitiveness not found in the PS2 and 360 versions of Thrillville. Once you've built your coaster you can ride it, which is also gratifying (although the graphics are so lackluster that the ride is far from the exhilarating first-person experience you were hoping it would be). New to this iteration of the Thrillville franchise are "WHOA" track pieces, which can be anything from a TNT alley to a jump in the track or any other outlandish turn of events. From a design standpoint, they're fun; actually experiencing them while riding your coaster is usually anticlimactic. Still, for creative types, the track design is a nice little diversion. You couldn't build your whole game around it, though. This might help explain the presence of mini-games, which on the surface have no relation to theme parks or roller coasters whatsoever.
And if you're wondering what a mini-game collection is doing in cahoots with the more closely related theme park management and roller coaster building, good luck finding an intelligent reason. The best that I can come up with is that Thrillville treats mini-games the same as carnival rides, in that you walk up to a kiosk in the park and press a button to do either. Luckily, this sequel to the PlayStation 2 original is right at home on the mini-game-friendly Wii, so the juxtaposition is less jarring. And some of the mini-games are actually pretty good: highlights include Stunt Rider (an Excitebike rip-off with fun, floaty physics), Autosprint 2 (a top-down racing Super Sprint rip-off), and Luftwaffe 2 (so faithful a 1942 rip-off, it almost replicates the first level exactly). See a pattern here? There are Gauntlet, R-Type, and Double Dragon copycats as well. Some of these are lovingly crafted homages to the originals, while others are just there to fill space. Other games are tailored to the Wii, like shooting galleries and mechanical bull-riding. Either way, there is enough here (34 games in all, plus variations) to give the player plenty of choices. Most of the games are multiplayer as well, and a party mode adds some much needed longevity to the proceedings.
I say "much needed" because the single-player game quickly grows repetitive and tiresome. Thanks to the risk-free environment and the lack of clear goals, the park management game that ties everything else together just doesn't have enough drama to motivate the player to make any progress. As you build and build, you gain experience points, which gets you access to new games and coaster track pieces. But by the time you get all the pieces unlocked, you're so tired of building stuff that you don't really care.
The sound design is one of the better parts of the game. Frontier Developments crammed in lots of songs and dialogue to populate the aural landscape and give the park a rich, lived-in feel (note that I'm speaking to the sound quality, not the quality of the songs themselves; this faceless mix of Hannah Montana and Huey Lewis stadium pop is my idea of what the waiting room music must be like in Hell). Great roller coaster sounds and in-game effects round out an admirable effort. The effort in the graphics department is less impressive. These are PS2-level visuals circa 2002, at best. It does run in 480p and widescreen, which is nice, but all that does is give you a great view of how little is actually going on graphically. I realize this is a kid's game, but you could say the same thing about Zak & Wiki, and that game is absolutely gorgeous. Thrillville: Off the Rails is visually serviceable, but that's about it.
And that's about all there is to this game. It's serviceable. It accomplishes its job of providing enough decent content to distract the average kid for several hours. Add in the multiplayer and the slightly cheaper price point, and Thrillville: Off the Rails is a hard game to stay mad at. Unfortunately, if you're outside the targeted demographic, the game will most likely make you feel old, or at least bored, or probably both.