School's out forever.
Recess was a special time. It came after eating rubbery meatloaf and drinking milk from moo-moo cartons, and before the next dreaded class with an intellectual and pissy English teacher. I still can’t believe I managed to get though all of elementary school with a smile on my face. Maybe it was fake.
EA Playground tries to capture the endless joys of recess without the wait – and I really do mean endless. You start out as the new kid at school (never a good thing), but not once do you ever step into a classroom (always a good thing). That’s not a problem, really, unless you enjoy homework or having your teacher wake you up. Besides, you’re at least getting pretend exercise running around the digital playground and playing recreational mini-games by flinging your Wii-mote. The last time most people got exercise was walking to and from the water cooler.
The first moment after choosing your youngster and stepping out in the schoolyard, you are immediately challenged by the Sticker King to face him as the king of the playground. To show him who’s boss, you need to master seven mini-games, collecting Golden Stickers from young disciples scattered about the playground. Think of it as having to defeat students of seven different schools of play-fu. This isn’t an exaggeration - tetherball players look like monks of muay thai and dodgeball matches start with the sound of a gong. Fortunately, paper racers, slot car racing, and kicks – which is volleyball played with feet and soccer goals – make the game more light-hearted and casual.
On the other hand, hardly any of these mini-games feel right for the playground. When I think see-saw, I don’t think slot cars, rail-shooting dart shootouts, and paper airplanes? Moreover, kicks and dodgeball are more appropriate for gym class, and tetherball and wall ball aren’t the first things when recess comes to mind. Where’s the jungle gym, the swing, the high bar, the metal slide that turns into molten lava in the summer?
To be fair, the bright and sunny environment has all these nostalgic constructions peppered about and it’s definitely an uphill battle trying to invent a mini-game with a swing that is intriguing and has lasting appeal, but EA Playground feels more like a hodgepodge of activities from different game genres than something that is believable in a schoolyard.
This doesn’t mean, however, that these seven mini-games are boring. None of them are particularly innovative or challenging for a video game veteran, but for a nine-year-old kid, each of them serves as a well-designed introduction on how video games work in a way they can appreciate and understand. The Wii control schemes are easy to follow – flick the Wii-mote to whack a ball, swing it sideways to block a ball, and tilt it to navigate a plane through an obstacle course.
Progression is also uncomplicated and straightforward. As you best the competition, play side activities like bug hunts and basketball dribbling drills, and complete dares – which are usually challenging variants of mini-games - you will unlock new areas, face slightly more difficult opponents, achieve a higher grade on your report card (for gym?), and gather a collection of stickers and marbles. Spending marbles (which you can also find floating around in not-so-hidden places or simply by giving High Fives to competitors) on Super Stickers gives you extra moves and abilities in mini-games, just so you can make completing EA Playground even easier.
In fact, it’s so easy that you’ll get through every area a bit too quickly, but this is largely because there’s not much content to go around, and the difficulty level is set for kids, not adults. I mean, you can count the number of mini-games here with your fingers – and that’s without your thumbs. There’s just not enough variety, and both the single-player and multi-player modes suffer because of it.
Even then, by the time you’re halfway through, about five hours in, you will have reached the final area. From there, you have to backtrack to previous areas, of which there are only four in all, and spend your ample supply of marbles on Super Stickers that don’t do much but take up space in your sticker book. I guess even recess can get dull after a while.
Although unambitious, EA Playground does what it intends to do. It’s a solid collection of mini-games, packaged with friendly cel-shaded colors and whimsical music, that will appeal to rambunctious young-ins. They probably won’t recognize the repetition, the odd choice of mini-games for a playground, and how close it is to being a jumble of refined Flash games. But you – the not-a-third-grader-anymore you - probably will.
It's a great choice for the wee Wii gamers in your life, but if you're old enough to get arrested for lurking around a real-life playground, you won't find the virtual version any more welcoming. EA Playground doesn’t hit it out of the ballpark, but most kids just want to learn how to hit the ball in the first place - and that’s just what they’re here to learn how to do.