If it’s not yet accepted on its face as a given, we’d like to make the case that the only licensed bowling video game this world really needs is a Big Lebowski title; only the characters in the Coen Brothers’ cinematic masterpiece would merit a bowling video game with backstory. That fact hasn’t stopped many companies, now including Electronic Arts, from trying to infuse the simple ball-tossing sport with more than just the gravitas of pure physics: The Sims Bowling ($5) for the fifth-generation iPod is just the latest example.
As with its renditions of mahjongg, sudoku, golf, and solitaire, Electronic Arts has used pretty new clothing—here, more graphics and novel features than sounds or superb controls—to dress up a game that’s nothing to write home about on the strength of its iPod-specific game play. History has shown that rolling your ball down a lane at a set of ten pins can be rendered exciting with the right controls and a smart combination of special effects, but EA’s approach here is more sedate, as if the company’s trying to offer something for the 7-70 demographic rather than the 13-30 one.
You start by picking and modestly color-customizing a character—a “Sim” from the company’s popular Sims games—then briefly visit his or her house before traveling to the local lanes for a game. There’s not much to do at the house, but you’ll occasionally receive notices there, offering you the chance to earn money that can buy, well, bowling supplies. Like wax, gloves, bags, cloths, and balls. Additional items are unlocked as you play, but in all honesty, the incentive of being able to upgrade a bowling ball bag or get a pretty cloth for the ball didn’t really do much for us.
As it turns out, the game’s entire currency system is sort of odd. You get a bunch of cash every time you show up at the alley, and have to pay a tiny amount every time you play, but you can’t bet, and you don’t earn cash for winning a shoot-out or a standard game. The money appears to be there more as an incentive to keep showing up for games, then leaving and coming back, than to actually succeed. We earned more through a random notice at our house about getting a better job than we did through playing 50 frames against different opponents. The message we took away from this was somewhat contrary to what you’d expect from a bowling game: if you want money, go home and get a job, don’t bowl.
The actual bowling mechanic is simple. You start by picking a 10-frame game, the Spare-O-Thon mode (remove all the remaining pins left after pre-determined imperfect first rolls), Strike-O-Thon mode (chain together as many strikes as you can muster), or practice mode. Next, you set your position on the lane, tap the button twice to specify the power of your roll, then aim, then then the ball’s spin.
Three of the four settings require modest hand-eye coordination, and if you use too much power, your aim becomes more difficult, requiring you to correct for poor aim with a bit of spin. Manage to stand and aim straight, use average power, and don’t spin much, and you can get strikes every time. Otherwise, you’ll fail to knock down all or some of the pins, and your Sim competitors will beat you. You can also play against a friend by handing off the iPod during the game; prepare to share headphones if so.
Having played (and actually very much enjoyed) our fair share of such games over the years, we weren’t exactly bowled over by this particular rendition of the sport. Though Electronic Arts has done more than the bare minimum to bring bowling to the iPod, as it has done with each of its prior titles, there’s nothing so compelling about the Sims theme, the aesthetics, or the gameplay that helps The Sims Bowling to transcend the “mildly entertaining for brief periods” mark set by too many of its iPod game peers. At a time when Nintendo’s Wii Sports has proved that small novelties in personalization and interactivity can turn even a bowling mini-game into a system-seller, EA’s odd music picks and but-for-lane-noise silence, boring shopping and customization, and overly simple controls and 2-D graphics contribute to an experience that too quickly grows dull. In our view, The Sims Bowling is a title for serious bowling fans and/or Sims groupies only, and even then, most players will be left wanting more.
Company and Price
Company: Electronic Arts
Title: The Sims Bowling
Compatible: iPod 5G