It’s incredibly difficult to review Double Fine Happy Action Theater with a traditional review system. It’s hardly a game at all; there’s no challenge, no goal, no direction. Calling it a “game” is, honestly, hardly appropriate - it’s more of a toy than anything. Toys and games are both designed to be fun, though, and Double Fine Happy Action Theater gives you a lot to play with.
The mad scientists at Double Fine have already shown they can make a fantastic Kinect game that’s targeted at children but still fun for adults with their charming Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and they do it again with Happy Action Theater. Happy Action Theater contains 18 “games” (we’ll call them games, it’s easier that way) that make use of the Kinect technology in clever, inventive ways. While many will simply write them off as little more than tech demos, Happy Action Theater’s offerings are a surprising amount of fun when approached as things to be played with rather than beaten and conquered.
When you first boot the game up, you’re thrown right into the mix. There’s no narration or on-screen instruction at all, just you and the game. Whatever Kinect sees is put right onto your television screen and the game will project all kinds of weird things into your living room for you to interact with. Your living room might become filled with lava; you might be underwater; you could become a paddle in a Breakout-style game or a paper cutout of yourself dancing with other Double Fine characters. It’s all very bizarre and surreal, but it’s incredibly well done.
The game will switch between scenarios every so often, but if you have a controller handy a simple press of the A button will either skip to the next one, or pause, keeping the games from switching until you decide it’s time. At any point during gameplay, performing the guide gesture brings up a menu to choose a game. It’s all very seamless and intuitive, and unlike some other Kinect games you won’t be fighting with the menus to try to get the game to do what you want it to do.
The real magic of Happy Action Theater comes from how well Double Fine’s wizards bend the technology to their will. When the lava pours into your living room, it will bounce off of furniture like couches and tables before flowing around it. As this is happening, the lighting is changing in real time. In one game, a flock of birds will perch on whatever they can find, whether it’s scenery generated by the game, your furniture or you. Continuing what it started with Once Upon a Monster, Double Fine has managed to combine technology, imagination and wonder into what transcends the definition of a game and becomes an experience.
Of course, a game like this begs to be shared with friends and family, and Happy Action Theater can keep track of up to six people in a room at a time. You won’t be playing it alone past your first time trying out each game, but watching other people’s eyes widen as they marvel at what is happening on screen will keep you coming back.
Double Fine Happy Action Theater is certainly stacking the deck against itself, with an 800 Microsoft Point asking price and non-game presentation. Still, Double Fine set out to do a very specific thing and they did it wonderfully; frankly, we have to wonder if anyone other than Double Fine even can do anything like this. Without a doubt it is worth a purchase for the experience alone, and if you can grab some open-minded friends to share the merriment, you will absolutely be thinking “this is why I got a Kinect.”