If there's one thing WiiWare spotlights so well, it's the beauty of simplicity. Many of its best releases (World of Goo, Toki Tori, Art Style: Orbient) are deceptively deep showcases for simple - yet addictive - concepts. PictureBook Games: Pop-Up Pursuit, however, reminds us all that simplicity without a strong central concept is just downright limiting.
Pop-Up Pursuit is structured like a board game, and that's not a bad thing; there are several very good board-game-like releases on the Wii already. There's a good deal of life in the genre, and infinite possibilities for where to take it. When it comes to Pop-Up Pursuit, our complaint isn't that the Wii doesn't need another board game... it's that the Wii doesn't need another really, really, really bad board game.
Each game is played with four players: if you don't have enough friends who are into self-punishment enough to play it with you (and this is quite likely) the CPU will take over the empty slots. Every turn begins with the choice between collecting a card or taking a coin; cards are used for moving and interfering with the progress of your opponents. Coins are used mainly to purchase cards on certain spaces, or to be cashed in at the end of the game for bonus points.
Okay, so far so good, right? What's next?
Well...nothing. Nothing is next. That's the game. That's the entire game. Collect a card or a coin, play a card, move ahead. And then wait until it's time to do it over again. The game plays something like Candy Land, in the way that you start in one place and your only goal is to make it to another place, doing absolutely nothing else along the way. Candy Land is a popular game for children because it combines many things that kids enjoy: quirky characters, colorful designs, and candy. Pop-Up Pursuit, in strong contrast, combines some other things children are familiar with: boredom, sitting still, and wishing they were doing something fun.
There's no real strategy involved, as each space on the game board remains "covered" until somebody crosses it and reveals its function. This means that you can't plan ahead whether to move three spaces or five; you won't know what any space does until you land on it, and you're always at the mercy of randomization.
In fact, randomization dictates the entire game. The game spaces, the cards, and the special events - well, special event - everything is randomized. Normally, randomization is an excellent way of keeping games fresh, and it gives the underdog a fighting chance at catching up, but in Pop-Up Pursuit, so much is randomized that it doesn't even feel like you're playing it, and eventually you'll start to feel like the game would be much happier playing without you. (And, by all means, feel free to let it.)
There are not many options available to configure the game into something more playable. There are only two game boards (Pop-Up Pursuit will tell you there are six, but that is not true...there are two, with three difficulty settings each) and you can select your character from a small assortment of types, such as a ninja, a pirate, and a debutante, which sounds like it would make a better "...walk into a bar" joke than it did a video game.
The difficulty settings are worthless, as they don't alter the gameplay at all; you're just more likely to land on "negative" spaces on the higher difficulty levels. This doesn't actually make it any more difficult, however, because everybody is more likely to land on negative spaces, which levels the playing field, and leaves you just as likely to win or lose as you ever were.
Also, randomization means that the CPU players aren't necessarily more likely to win on higher difficulty settings. The first time through, we played on the easiest setting and the CPU kicked the tar out of us. He just happened to get better cards and landed on spaces that allowed him to take another turn. Later on we played on the hardest difficulty setting, and the CPU only made it several spaces from the starting point before he ran out of movement cards and spent the entire rest of the game standing still while we proceeded without him. Hooray.
This might sound like nitpicking, but in practice, it reveals a serious flaw. Because you use cards to move (rather than dice or a spinner), you rely on the cards that you hold: if you have no movement cards, you can't go anywhere. Each turn you only get one card (at random) so it can take a very long time to get another movement card. This does not lead to exciting gameplay, and there really should be something for players to do other than twiddle their thumbs until their turn comes around again. And again. (And again...)
Also, you can only hold up to five cards in your hand, so if you end up with five cards and none of them allow movement (a pretty common occurrence), you'll need to use some of your cards to free up space. The trouble with this is that the game rewards "virtue" and punishes "mischief," which should have been a great game mechanic, except that you don't actually get to choose between the two behaviors. The game defines "virtue" as "not doing anything other than moving forward," I guess, and mischief as "interfering with the progress of others." But being as nearly all non-movement cards interfere with the progress of others, and you are forced to play them in order to free up space in your hand, you end up getting punished for decisions you didn't want to make.
The virtue/mischief aspect is enormously flawed, but it's still probably the best thing about the game. If somebody lands on the Book of Magick, some excellent music swells, a brilliant animation begins, and a gigantic book in the sky flips through pop-up pages of various god-like figures. Some gods are angry, some are benevolent, and most of them dish out their effects based on how virtuously each player behaved during the game. This sequence is actually kind of thrilling, despite the fact that the effects are limited to giving/taking coins or cards, and nothing more game-shaking.
But, as mentioned above, you have so little control over your level of virtue or mischief that this, too, might as well be random. This is a game designed, I guess, for people who want to participate in a game without actually having to play it, and that's an audience we have serious trouble even imagining exists.
A further problem is that the CPU takes an extremely long time to think about its moves. And, honestly, come on now... this isn't Risk. Heck, this isn't even checkers. No human players should have to stretch out and take naps while they wait for a CPU ninja to decide whether it wants a card or a coin.
On top of that, the game bombards players with far too many confirmation windows. You not only have to tell the game what you want to do, but you need to then confirm your choice. Then you have to read the game's confirmation of your confirmation. Then you watch your choice take effect. Then a window pops up telling you that the choice has taken effect. That's an awful lot of button pressing to accomplish literally nothing.
Really, it's difficult to say what happened here. Nintendo could have published far better games than this, and certain aspects - such as the very nice art scheme and the Book of Magick sequence - prove that somewhere, at the core of this project, someone was trying to take the game seriously. But in the end, we are left with a release so simplified that you're unable to do anything with it, and so randomized that it doesn't need you to begin with.
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It's difficult to find many good things to say about this game. The pop-up style visuals are decent, but repetitive, the Book of Magick is one gigantic missed opportunity, and the lack of mini-games and small number of boards means there's literally nothing to come back to later on. Children won't have the patience for this, and there are much better things to spend 800 points on. In summary, PictureBook Games: Pop-Up Pursuit is the perfect reason to discontinue family game night.