Sunday, September 02, 2007

It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! Review

It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown!, developed by THE WEB PRODUCTION and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Appropriate for a variety of ages due to numerous difficulty settings, diverse mini-games, can skip recruiting process, simple mouse-driven controls, recognizable 2-D graphics
The Not So Good: Fielding is very hard, slow pace, some arbitrary story advancement requirements
What say you? Part adventure game and part sports simulation, it is enjoyable for a large age range: 6/8

One of the most esteemed comic strips is Peanuts. Charlie Brown and his gang of cohorts have been doing their antics for quite a long time, and have appeared in numerous television specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas (????) and It’s Columbus Day, Charlie Brown! Sports have been infused with the comic strip, from Lucy’s Tony Romo-like football holding skills to baseball. Using this connection is It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown!, and adventure-sports game where you must recruit members to your team and then play your way to victory in a point-and-click baseball game. It seems like a good concept that doesn’t just use the license to sell games (since baseball was a predominant part of the comic). Will It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! be good, or grief?

It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! uses 2-D graphics that mirrors those found in the comic strip. I’m glad the game uses this method to look more like the cartoon instead of an inferior 3-D game with giant bulbous children. While the level of quality isn’t up to the cartoons, the game still looks good and it’s unmistakably Peanuts. The game looks like a color version of the comic strip, and that’s all you really need in a Peanuts-based game. The game doesn’t lose anything by eliminating that third dimension (although the baseball games are more challenging, which you could argue is actually a good thing), so residing in a well-represented 2-D world is fine with me. It appears that all of the current voice actors are in the game, or at least people strongly reminiscent of those voices. It’s reassuring when Charlie Brown sounds like Charlie Brown. Completing the package is entertaining background music that fits the atmosphere of the game well. Honestly, the graphics and the sound could not have been better for a Peanuts-licensed game, and keeping true to the original comic is what fans would prefer.

It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! is a single-player only game where you must recruit players onto your team and then taste sweet, sweet victory in The Big Game. The recruiting phase is a lot like an adventure game, where you go talk to characters and “unlock” them by completing mini-games. You can skip the story mode and go straight to a game if you would like, though the story mode is good enough to play through once. In the story mode, you must activate each of five Peanuts characters and then beat their mini-game. Typically, activating a character involves bringing along another character to interrupt their current activity and start the mini-game (distracting Lucy away from Schroeder, making Sally annoy Linus, et cetera). Most of these interactions make sense from a character standpoint if you follow the cartoon, though if I didn’t have the walkthrough, it would have taken me a while to figure out how to unlock each of the mini-games. The characters also have side dialogue that doesn’t repeat as much as you would think; if you backtrack past the same area, the resulting conversation might even reference previous passes by. After each successfully completed mini-game, you are taught one aspect of the baseball game to prepare you for The Big Game (like hitting, pitching, or fielding). Each mini-game has three difficulty settings to choose from and they are very different, making It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! appropriate for all ages. The hard difficulty level is actually very hard, even for a seasoned gaming veteran such as myself (I almost felt bad playing most of the mini-games on medium…almost). The mini-games also have a good variety and most of them relate to the specific character: Schroder has a Simon-like music game, Lucy gives a Peanuts-related trivia game (in the form of a psychological test), and Linus makes you catch objects with his blanket, to name a few. It’s nice that the developers actually put some thought into the mini-games: instead of just throwing them in, they do relate pretty well to each character. There isn’t any replay value in the story mode and it only takes about two hours to complete, but it is something to try out once and it is well-designed and appropriate for the Peanuts world.

The baseball game is a mouse-driven affair, as everything is done with clicking on the field. This makes the game much easier to control than any of those console baseball games, since this game is geared towards a younger audience. You can choose a six or nine inning contest and the difficulty level (which, again, makes it very easy or quite challenging). When pitching, you will pick the pitch type (fastball, slider, curve, or change-up), location, and speed. It’s pretty difficult to strike out opposing batters if you don’t mix up your pitches, which adds an air of strategy and realism to the game. Fielding is probably the most difficult portion of the entire game: you have to click on the ground where you expect the ball to land, and the closest player will automatically go there. Since It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! is in 2-D and the fielding mode is played from an overhead perspective, it can be difficult to judge where the ball is going to land based off the ball size and shadow. It definitely takes some practice, and the first losses you will experience are a direct result of poor fielding on your part. To bat, you simply move the batter in the box and click at the correct time. Once you figure out when to swing (right before the ball crosses from the grass to the dirt), battling becomes trivially easy. The opposition tends to throw a lot of strikes (especially at the lower difficulty levels) so it’s just a matter of getting timing down. The game could have made you guess where in the strike zone the ball was going to go, but maybe that level of complexity is beyond the scope of It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown!. Running is done from the same overhead perspective as fielding, and you just need to click on the base to move. Runners will automatically advance to first base, but other runners will automatically hold up, requiring some micromanagement. It does get frustrating when players are out because they didn’t (or did) automatically run when they should (or shouldn’t) have, but in the end that’s poor playing on your part. Overall, the baseball aspect of It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! is well-designed and very appropriate for a wide range of ages. While the constant cut-scenes interrupt the flow of the game (though they can be skipped once you see them once), the simple mouse controls means anyone can learn the conventions of the game quickly, and you almost have the same level of control as in more “sophisticated” simulations. I actually had fun playing the baseball part of the game, at least until I figured out how to hit the ball with disturbing regularity. Still, I imagine kids will have a ball (get it? ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!) with the game, as the adventure mode and baseball mode come together to produce a completely entertaining package.

It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! doesn’t simply use the Peanuts name to sell games: it is thought out and executed very well and appropriate for a large age range. The adventure mode is fun the first time through, recreating a believable Peanuts universe thanks to the spot-on graphics and sound. The mini-games are also plausible activities that link to the characters in the game. The baseball game uses simple controls but still manages to be a bit challenging, at least until you start connecting on hit after hit. It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown! shows how a license is supposed to be used: to create a compelling and plausible game within the universe of that particular license. Those interested in a Peanuts-related game, or even just an adventure or baseball title, will find a lot to like in It’s The Big Game, Charlie Brown!.