Review: Midnight Bowling (WiiWare)

How many points does a game score for a gutter ball?

Gameloft has given Wiiware some of its best titles like Midnight Pool and Wild West Guns, so it was with great anticipation that we sat down to enjoy their latest offering, Midnight Bowling. Although some would argue that Wii Sports renders any other bowling game redundant, we feel that there is room for a more rewarding take on the sport and the quick to pick up and play Wiiware service is the perfect place for such a game. So in that spirit, let’s take a look at Midnight Bowling.

Right away, you will recognize the style and art design as a Gameloft product. There are five bowling alleys each with their own garish theme. Our favourite is the "Aqua Bowling" alley, which is mysteriously located at the bottom of the ocean and features large glass windows so you can watch sharks swimming by.

Although the characters are all new, the theme could easily be described as Midnight Pool goes to the bowling alley. If Gameloft’s character development were any deeper, there could have been room for some sort of continuous storyline between both games, but unfortunately the characters in Midnight Pool were fairly one-dimensional, and in Midnight Bowling they have even less depth . Lacking any sort of description at all now, the characters are just avatars with names and unlockable costumes. During games, they each have two lines of voice dialogue: one for a good result and one for a bad result. Get used to hearing the bad result after every single frame you bowl when starting out, because the control scheme is your enemy.

Speaking of the controls, some may find them unresponsive and inconsistent. It turns out that this is true, but probably not for the reason you think. The controls are very awkward and it is difficult to predict what the result of your throw will be, but this is, ironically, not the most likely reason you will have difficulty early on. The problem is that this game has an entirely different control scheme from Wii Sports Bowling, and no instructions or tutorial to explain this. As a result, your first efforts will likely produce bizarre results that in no way match your intended swing or hook.

To better explain the problem, Wii Sports Bowling measures your swing and uses the accelerometer in the Wii Remote to measure the angle at which you are holding the Wii Remote. In that game, you could adjust your hook (the curve the ball moves in down the lane) by adjusting your grip on the Wii Remote very much like in a real game of bowling. It turns out that none of this works the same way in Midnight Bowling, but we only discovered this after accidentally coming across some text that casually appeared on-screen during one game that, in the most unassuming way, told us that everything we knew about bowling was all wrong.

The correct way to bowl in this game is to “Hold the B button and swing the remote.” That’s right, you hold the trigger and don’t release it. How does the ball get released from your bowler’s hand? And what if your swing doesn’t match that of the onscreen bowler? Well, it’s best not to ask such questions. The ball just knows to throw itself. All of our efforts at adjusting our release time and hook were a complete waste, because upon discovering this block of text (and actually reading it without skipping through it), we discovered that these are not the real challenge of the game like in real bowling. Here’s where the ‘Matrix’style world turning on its head moment happened: the real challenge of bowling in Midnight Bowling is in what you do after you throw the ball.

Let us repeat - bowling in Midnight Bowling happens after you throw the ball. This is the point where you are expected to twist and turn the Wii Remote to apply spin to the ball. You may be wondering if this is some sort of cartoonish bowling inspired game, but not real bowling. To be honest, we’re not sure. It certainly looks like it was intended to be a bowling game but the controls are so maddeningly unresponsive and unrealistic that anyone buying this game thinking they will be playing something approximating real bowling is certain to be disappointed. And anyone buying this game for a fun ‘alternative’ to real bowling will also likely find that the learning curve for the controls is far too steep for any sort of casual fun.

Realistic controls that take time to master would have been appreciated. Over-sensitive controls that hook the ball to dramatically different and unpredictable degrees, are not. We’re sure that the controls to Midnight Bowling can be mastered, eventually. It may take as much, if not more time, than it would take to learn the real sport of bowling, but it can be done. It just takes a lot more patience and dedication than any reasonable video game player is likely to have.

It certainly will take longer than one night, which completely ruins the game’s casual get-together-with-friends selling point. When friends go to a bowling alley for the first time and throw nothing but gutter balls, they still have a good time. We’re not so sure if they’ll be as happy with a video game version of that experience. But that is exactly what will happen and the likely result is that your friends will leave frustrated and annoyed with you that you didn’t just let them play a ‘better’ bowling game like Wii Sports Bowling.

And, because it bears mentioning in every review, there is no online multiplayer. We hated the absence of such a feature in Midnight Pool, but here, we just don’t really care. An online bowling game would be awesome but this game just doesn’t play like bowling. And whatever kind of game it really is isn’t fun. So online would not really help.

There are a few alternative game modes. A ‘story’ mode that let’s you play against the computer like normal, except you have to read a sentence or two of pointless banter before and after each game. You’ll unlock additional items here. At least you feel rewarded every time you unlock a new bowling ball or costume. This is a feature Gameloft included in Midnight Pool as well, so there must have been some sharing of ideas going on between the two teams, making the disparity in gameplay quality all the more puzzling.

The other mode is party mode. This is, without a doubt, the only thing worth considering getting this game for. It features a Mario Party style game board where each square represents a different challenge that the player must complete in order to advance. Think Golf Bowling, but with more extreme challenges like ramps, barricades, and even a loop. Because of the obstacles and last minute adjustments to aim required by this game mode, the abysmal control scheme actually makes sense here. Even so, you will struggle just as much with the controls as before, except now you’ll be struggling to avoid obstacles at the same time.

Had this ‘Party’ feature instead been the actual game, and perhaps in some way hinted at before downloading, then Midnight Bowling might look more appealing to casual players and even to hardcore bowling fans. But as things stand, this feature serves merely as a life raft on a sinking ship.

Conclusion

The Wiiware service has certainly had its share of disappointments but Midnight Bowling may top the list. The party mode saves this game from being a complete disaster, and the presentation in terms of graphics and music is as good as you would expect, but a game has to be playable to be fun. And we know bowling -- we’ve got the purple tournament champion jacket to prove it. “Midnight Bowling” isn’t bowling, and it isn’t a fun video game. It should just be called “Midnight”. If you’ve already downloaded this game, tell it that it doesn’t have to go home, but it can’t stay here.