A pen and a sheet of paper. Are there any two instruments on the face of the planet more conducive to unrestrained creativity? Think about it. Take a moment to consider all of the things you can do with either one. Think about the worlds that you can sketch out, or write about; think of the games you can play, think about the paper airplanes or origami swans. Think of the love notes, the poetry, the letters to a pen pal; the emotions you can stir, the joy and the heartache. Think of the power inherent in that pen and that paper, the empires that have risen and crumbled on the strength of the written word.
Now forget all of that and think about Tic-Tac-Toe. Hmm. So much for the magic, eh?
Family Games (unpromisingly subtitled "Pen and Paper Edition!") is a collection of eight (arguably nine; read on) simple games that, as the game itself helpfully reminds you, can be played without having to buy this game at all. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot.
While it's not a bad collection of games, this release does – somewhat puzzlingly – seem to want to keep reminding you that you'd be better off playing these games for free. Granted, a small number of them are adapted from board games rather than pen and paper games, but their inclusion here just serves as a reminder that a sheet of paper and a writing utensil is all you need to play them anyway.
Family Games includes Battle Fleet (a paper-based adaptation of Battleship), Squares (known in certain regions as Dots), Matchsticks, Hangman, Four in a Row (a version of Connect Four), Morris, Naughts and Crosses (also known as Tic-Tac-Toe) and Safe Cracker (the Family Games answer to Mastermind). In addition, a round of Rock, Scissors, Paper is played before each game in order to determine who goes first, and since it's probably as much fun as any other game here, you might as well consider it a bonus ninth event.
First of all, the hand-drawn visual approach works contextually – it suits the approach of the game, and leads to some genuinely nice flip-book style animations. Unfortunately these animated flourishes are constrained to brief post-game celebrations, and their spirit of inventiveness does not bleed into any other aspect of the package. It's a frustratingly missed opportunity, as the charm of these animations would go a long way toward making Family Games a more interesting gaming experience.
Instead, however, we get streamlined, sterile approaches to streamlined, sterile games. Never before has Battleship (erm... Battle Fleet, sorry) seemed so lifeless, and watching your screen fill up with meaningless numbers in Safe Cracker has to be among the least rewarding gaming experiences we've ever had. There's something inherently sad about sitting in one's living room, jigging numbers back and forth on a TV screen against a white background, devoid of sound, charm, cleverness or emotion. Say what you will about the hit and miss nature of WiiWare, this is the first time it's left us with a sense of disarming introspective emptiness.
Back to the positives: each of the games has some amount of customisation available, whether it's the level of difficulty (when facing computer opponents) or the size of the game board (where applicable). There are also achievements to be unlocked, some of which are spelled out for the player and the rest of which are hidden. This might serve to make the games more replayable in theory, but last time we checked nobody was questioning the replayability of Hangman or Connect Four to begin with.
Otherwise, there's not much good to say about Family Games. It controls competently enough, but when all the games require is the ability to move a cursor around a screen that's not a particularly tall order. Visually and aurally, the game is a disappointment. As stated previously the game seems to avoid visual creativity at all costs, which is a serious disappointment when one considers the great potential that a hand-drawn notebook style should have presented. and musically there's nothing: you'll get a little menu ditty and some library sound effects to indicate pencils scratching, but without in-game music it just serves to again raise the question of why you're not actually playing these games on paper.
If Family Games wants to be a video game, it either has to consist of games that can only be played electronically (or, at least, can best be played electronically), or it must make enough use of its medium to be worth the experience. As it stands, however, Family Games offers nothing more to its customers than Mead and Bic already do to theirs, with only minimal effort invested in the visual presentation of the game, and none at all sound-wise. The net effect here is a game that doesn't so much feel simplistic as it does feel utterly unfinished.
The game – as one might expect – is much better played with a second person, and that's fine. In fact, it appears that the AI often cheats, and makes no effort whatsoever to hide it. (You just happened to hit our ships with every single shot, computer? Really?) But again this is okay, as most of these games were not meant to be played alone, with the exception of Matchsticks, a puzzle game in which you have a certain number of moves to turn one shape into another. The problem, however, is that the nature of playing these games on a single television screen leads to the necessity of relying on your friends not to peek, and that's just clumsy.
Asking your friend(s) to leave the room while you decide where to place your ships or which phrase to pick for the Hangman competition just highlights everything that's wrong with the concept behind this release. On paper (or as a board game) you can just conceal what you are doing, and nobody has to sit quietly behind a closed door while decisions are made. These games are social activities – or at least they should be – full of life, creativity and genuine bonding.
In the hands of Family Games (a misnomer, as these games are best suited to either one or two players) however, they are clinical, lifeless, and devoid of charm. It's got to be some kind of accomplishment to make Tic-Tac-Toe feel like an even more pointless activity than it already was, but, as Family Games: Pen and Paper Edition! demonstrates, it's not impossible.
When a video game outright admits that you can play it just as well (if not better) with a sheet of paper and a pen, you've got some problems. The flip-book style animations are quite nice, but the rest of the presentation is so barebones that there's literally nothing to be gained – at all – from owning these games electronically. Family Games is composed entirely of smaller, simple games that are readily available (free, or for the cost of a notebook) elsewhere, and therefore just being "good enough" isn't good enough. There needs to be a reason to buy this game and Family Games, while passably competent, just doesn't have one.