In life, we are sometimes presented with situations in which our disgust can only be expressed by slapping our forehead -- repeatedly, until things seem to make sense again (Or at least until we pass out). In the case of Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure, either will do.
Having fond memories of the NES title with similar intentions, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, I was naturally intrigued by the prospect of a modern-generation incarnation of theme-park-based fun and excitement. But as soon as my grubby little hands grabbed the box from the shelf, I could practically hear it; faintly at first, but increasing in volume as I neared my GameCube-- that slow, foreboding theme from Jaws. Something was about to go terribly, horribly wrong.
Universal Studios, the game, plays as if your disoriented grandmother was attending Universal Studios, the actual theme park. Once you get in, you can’t find the exit; you spend obscene lengths of time squinting at a map; and you instigate discussion with complete strangers, most of whom will respond with a cordial “Hello!” but other than that, they don’t really want anything to do with you. And, if your experiences are anything like mine, Grandma’s all pooped out after about three hours, and ready to watch the fireworks show.
The pre-rendered park design is decent enough, if a little fuzzy at times. My qualms lay with the awkward fixed camera angles: they often place your fearless wanderer beyond the range of human eyesight, lost among the crowd. While this sounds like a minor annoyance-- and to be fair, it is-- I would find myself randomly twisting the control stick, looking to spot any distant movement that seemed to match my actions. I sometimes backed inadvertently out of the area, to my previous location.
The playable character models are adequate, and politically correct in the sense that they have children of various skin colors, and no discernable gender. The adults wander around, looking much the same and saying things like “The weather here is always perfect!“ (Translation: “We did not implement any weather effects!”) The mascots look slightly better, as exemplified when I attempted to fulfill my childhood dreams of shaking hands with E.T-- I could easily differentiate him from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The look of the mini-games range from slightly acceptable to slightly offensive, compared to modern standards. Of course, lackluster graphics can be easily forgotten if the gameplay is up to snuff. But then again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
There’s very little voice work-- to my recollection, Woody is the only park character who talks, and he never even does his trademark laugh. Not that I’m complaining-- judging from the rest of the game, if my character talked, I’m sure his voice would rival Banshee cries and chalkboard scratching in terms of auditory suffering. There are voice samples in the mini-games, which are loud and annoying, as expected.
Truthfully, the music is one of the few redeeming qualities of this game, much of which can be attributed to the talented John Williams. Usually, music doesn’t make or break a game, especially one in the style of this. However, a great soundtrack can reinforce extraordinary moments and memories of certain gaming events, assuming the accompanying gameplay is desirable. However, in terms of memorable gameplay moments, we are allotted none of which to speak.
Woody Woodpecker is all but stalking your character, seemingly running to each attraction with the sole purpose of refusing your entrance to the ride. He’s literally at every entrance, standing there and claiming that (as displayed by a line of about ten people) the ride has exceeded its maximum capacity, and you’re definitely not welcome to stand in the queue. Something seems suspicious, but Woody has nerves of steel. I’m assuming if you pretended to leave, and ducked behind the bushes somewhere, you’d see Woody and the guests sharing a hearty laugh over your idiocy, patting each other on the back and riding “Jaws” over and over again for free.
Therefore, one must partake in various acts of hard labor, namely picking up trash, to earn money for the purchase of “hats” that will allow you unlimited access to the rides. So it's back to the park entrance, where the ever-dependable Woody awaits you with his supply of headgear. Good luck in that endeavor, because once inside, the entrance apparently relocates to a whole other park, possibly New York Central.
But once that’s all taken care of, it's time for the rides, right? Well, not exactly-- first, you must don one of the stupid hats; for example, if you’re going to see Jaws, you have to run around the park with a giant fish on your head. Finally, after years of therapy, it’s off to the rides!
The following rides (mini-games), among one or two others, are available at our gaming disposal :
Jaws: Stuck at sea, with only a ship between you and many-toothed death, the character is repeatedly approached by the immortal shark Jaws, who is hell-bent on devouring the vessel. Brody, Hooper, and Quint are nowhere to be found, so I don’t know what his problem is. Nonetheless, Jaws will be victorious unless you throw barrels and boxes at him until he retires -- perhaps to his much more entertaining NES game. I’ve made it sound more interesting than it really is.
Back to the Future: This mini-game is similar to the actual, real life ride, in that you’re in the DeLorean and chasing Biff through time, so points for realism there. Gameplay consists of pressing “A” to accelerate and bumping Biff until he’s incapacitated. It’s fun for the first one or two times, and then you begin wishing you had lasers to blast Biff into smithereens. No dice, though.
Backdraft: By default, the Backdraft game is easily the most interesting, although clunky control prohibits it from being anything really special. Wielding a fire hose and extinguisher, the character runs through a blazing building and puts out fires. To give credit where it's due, some moments, such as when a massive firestorm bursts from the windows, border on intense, as our hero ducks and covers his way to safety.
E.T: With the lovably grotesque-looking alien at the helm, you bicycle your way through a path consisting of jumps, pits of water, and a moon. You get to the end, probably on your first try, and much rejoicing is had. At least it was better than that Atari E.T. game.
After you complete each game, you get a stamp of approval. After collecting all the stamps, Woody ushers you to a technical demonstration and everyone goes home crying.
And really, there’s not much else to say. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, but there’s no looking beyond the fact that Universal Studios Theme Park Adventures just isn’t any fun. Children, at whom the game is obviously aimed, will most likely find it awkward, confusing, and too flat-out boring.
Too few mini-games, too little fun, and frustrating navigation ruin what is essentially an interesting concept. The whole debacle lasts approximately three hours, the first of which is spent locating all of the attractions and being told you can’t enter.
Under almost no circumstances would this game be worth a purchase, for anyone. Even if there happened to be someone out there who found this game fun to play, the laughably short overall length would knock it down to a single rental. And even for rental purposes, I’m sure most would quickly wish they had their couple bucks back, to buy a cheeseburger. Even if they don’t really like cheeseburgers.
How could you let this happen, Woody?