Despite nearly 350 current releases on the DSiWare service, we've seen only a handful of sports titles. Now with the release of Shawn Johnson Gymnastics, Zoo Games is looking to cash in on this lack of sports titles by offering up not only a fairly well-known name in the gymnastics world, but also the first release of this particular sport on the service. But despite featuring one of the sport's all-time greats in its title, the game focuses very little on actual gymnastics.
While the game revolves around gymnastics, the gameplay itself centres around tracing lines, so while your gymnast is executing her set of moves on the top screen, you'll be busy staring at the bottom screen tracing the lines of various shapes presented to you. Your goal is to stay on the middle line with your stylus which will release a flow of gold stars should you accomplish this task. Of course if you get outside the middle line, the stars become white and you lose points from the judges. You'll generally have a set number of chances to reach a certain score from the judges in order to move on to the next gymnastics meet in your quest to earn a gold medal.
There are two pieces of equipment to take on in the game. The balance beam allows you to choose seven different moves to perform, as well as your mount and dismount moves. You'll then be tossed a barrage of shapes to trace on the bottom screen in order to get your character to perform the moves on the top screen. You're then graded by the judges on your performance.
The vault reduces things down to choosing one specific move, but still presents you with a group of shapes to trace. The bad part here is that your character completes the move on your first shape and walks off the screen only to leave you tracing several more shapes in order to finish up. Of course you won't be seeing it very often considering you'll be too busy staring at the bottom screen to notice what's going on up top. You're then judged on your performance and awarded a score. If your score is high enough and meets the criteria of the tournament you'll advance, and possibly even score a medal to boot.
There are basically two modes of play in the game to choose from. You can take on the Career mode, where you'll alternate between the balance beam and vault routines in a quest to win all of the various tournaments and pick up various medals. You can also choose the Practice mode where you can choose between the two routines to bone up on your line-tracing talents, but since the game is a single-player release there's really not much more to it than that.
As you may have guessed, as a gameplay experience Shawn Johnson Gymnastics is a complete disaster. Not only does tracing the lines offer up no feeling of performing gymnastic moves whatsoever, but the controls themselves feel far more tedious than fun. The menu selection is also all over the map, with very small text that must be touched with the stylus just right in order to register. The game even forces you to use the Start button to move on and start the events, something that should have been made possible on the touchscreen, especially considering how much you'll be using it. It's yet another example of how poorly thought-out the gameplay system is.
When you first see the gym rotate around on the top screen, you're immediately given a false sense of visual quality because once that part is over, it's all downhill from there. The 3D design gives the visual movements a smoother look and feel, but the actual details are bordering on terrible. Even the normally beautiful Shawn Johnson is completely unrecognisable and looks almost inhuman in the face. It's clear that very little time and effort were put into the visual presentation of the game, a real shame considering how well things start off.
It's difficult to score the audio effort of the game, mainly because you can hardly hear it. There's also no way to adjust the volume inside of the game. The good thing is that once you put the system close to your ear to hear the faint music you'll soon realise that you're not really missing much, and overall the sound becomes just another facet of the game that feels thrown together and one that should have been much better.
It's difficult to tell what the developers had in mind when they began putting the game together, but it's fairly clear that accurately imitating gymnastic moves was not high on their list of priorities. Not only does the gameplay system fail on just about every level imaginable, but the other aspects of the game, like bland visuals and a completely forgetable musical effort, only serve to bring the experience down even further. In truth, not even being the most ardent Shawn Johnson fan will be enough to overlook the game's enormous flaws.