In spending time with my 9-month -old daughter, I've been blessed with a new outlook on play. She is easily amused with all of the brightly colored stuffed-animals, rattles and random pieces of plastic that always seem to litter the carpet, but she will quickly drop whatever holds her attention and glom onto the next. Everyday objects or images can be just as entertaining. Mirrors are fun for a while, until she sees a piece of fuzz on the ground. After just a few minutes of playing The Double Fine Happy Action Theater, I realized it isn't a game at all. It's a set of toys, powered by the technology of Kinect.
The first time you boot up Happy Action Theater, there's a short preamble to set up the whole theater motif. The director is asleep at the wheel, so to speak, but he awakens and yells at the stage hands to bring on something fun. The curtain closes, and when it opens, balloons drop from the ceiling into a video image of wherever you are playing. It takes a second or two for your brain to realize what's happening, but then you simply start squashing. That's it, really. There's no points. No way to win. You can grab the shiny objects that pop up, but there's no real advantage to that either. Nope, there's just balloons and then you pop 'em. Boom.
Just about the time it starts to get boring, the curtain closes and suddenly you're in a new experience. There are about fifteen of these toys and they range from esoteric to much more gamey. Swimming in lava, kaleidoscope dance party, and aquarium fish bowl are in the first category while hippy space invaders, nature breakout and zapping your friend from space islands actually have a point or a scoring mechanic. I use the term "score" loosely, because the numbers on the top of the screen don't really seem to matter much.
Some of these experiences work better than others, and people will respond to them differently. Creative folks love the emergent play that can come from these toys. The jello-mold is pretty dumb because there's not much to do with it, but everyone loves swimming in lava because it allows for all kinds of stories and scenarios. From acting out movies like T2 of LOTR to just screaming for help, the best toys are those that use your imagination. Like a cardboard box.
It's important that you know what you are getting into with Happy Action Theater. Remember how fun it used to be to play in the ball pit as a child, or later in life, how you used to have fun posing for the camera and monitor displays in electronics store windows? Well, that's kind of what Happy Action Theater encapsulates. It's 30 seconds of fun derived from jumping around and figuring out what you can do with each "Happy Action". Which is perfect if you are a 4 four year old kid, or like to act like one with your friends, but if you expect a cohesive game with set rules and structure ... this ain't it.
The Kinect sensor is pushed to its limits with this title and it wins points for how well it handled the four, five or even six bodies and faces in its view. The level of accuracy reached with the depth-perception is the best I've seen in a Kinect game, and it easily tracked all our bodies in motion on the screen with only minor glitches.
Turning on Happy Action Theater at a party might work well as a social experiment to weed out the fun people from the fuddy-duddies, but you can't call it a game. The depth perception and technical accuracy of the Kinect sensor is used to its fullest, but there is part of me that wishes these well-conceived toys actually contributed to something meaningful. As it is, these toys may be fun for adults only in small doses, but I think this kind of title isn't really made for us. I can see the kids growing up using Kinect asking their parents to play this game on a daily basis and fondly remember playing with balloons and swimming in lava for years to come.
Bottom Line: A nice experiment with some genuinely fun moments, and a great showcase for what Kinect can accomplish, but unless you have young kids or like to play with simple toys, Happy Action Theater won't do much for you.
Recommendation: Worth the download for the young'uns if you have Kinect already, but unless you have an interest in making Kinect games or just playing around, you can probably pass.
Game: Double Fine Happy Action Theater
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox Live Arcade