If you were fortunate enough to grow up near a bowling alley, you might have fond memories of family outings full of comically unappealing shoes, embarrassing bowling stances from certain members of your clan, and slipping spectacularly on finely polished floors at least once. You probably didn't get to throw a twelve-pound ball at a lineup of miniature salarymen on a moving metro car, though, and that's where Arc System Works' Family has the advantage. The latest in the Guilty Gear developer's surprisingly prolific series of Family sports games, Family Bowling 3D is one of the very best of the bunch, delivering arcade action and tenpin thrills in a friendly, colourful frame.
Instead of the usual extended family of eight characters to choose from, Family Bowling 3D sticks to the nuclear four: Billy, Sarah, Mommy, and Daddy. The smaller roster is made up for by the fact that each family member bowls quite differently and has their own unique "Ultimate Bowl" - a pin-obliterating super shot with a psychedelic screen-filling animation that would make Sailor Moon proud.
If you hadn't guessed by now, Family Bowling 3D doesn't take itself too seriously, a fact made clear in both its instant-strike Ultimate Bowls and its five fantastical "alleys". Each stage, aside from having a unique visual theme, also boasts a distinct gameplay hook: the traditional bowling alley which opens the game is unevenly waxed, giving greater spin at the end, the Fairy Tale Cottage course has a jump ramp in the middle of the lane, Paradise Beach is littered with randomly placed obstacles, the Slippery Skate Rink has neither gutters nor the traction necessary for spin - inspiring frenetic bank shots off its iceblock walls - and the final stage - by far our favourite - lets you roll your ball down the wide aisle of a sloping subway car as it tilts from side to side with each frame. As you can imagine, no two lanes play alike, and changing levels can almost feel like changing games; you'll definitely develop a favourite, but they're all fun in their own way.
The creatively named Main Mode of Family Bowling 3D sees your character taking on a three-game tournament against the other members of the family, one at a time. The A.I. initially seems a bit nuts - Billy bowled four strikes in a row on our first game and beat us handily - but after a few games you'll pick up the skill and strategy needed for ten-frame fratricide. Still, we couldn't help but feel that selectable difficulty levels would have been nice, especially considering the game's appeal for younger audiences.
Anyone will be able to enjoy the game's Free Play mode regardless of skill, however - it lets you pick a character, stage, and whether to bowl for five or ten frames at a time. Working on your best bowl can be surprisingly engrossing, and the game saves your top scores for ten-frame games in a Records menu. Free Play mode is also where one of the game's best features lies: same-device multiplayer for up to four players. The arcade action is fun for one, but it really comes alive with friends - passing the 3DS back and forth, secretly hoping for gutter-balls when an opponent steps up to the line, and grinning with glee each time you get an Ultimate Bowl; five or ten frames can be a blast with the right group.
Even after everyone's gone home, you'll still have Challenge mode to keep you busy - a collection of twenty missions where you're tasked with taking out different pin formations in a single shot. They're fun little brain teasers that feel as much like puzzles as they do tests of skill, and make for a nice change of pace after a bowling your fill of the main game.
No matter the mode, smooth controls make the difference between a strike and the gutter, and thankfully, that's where Family Bowling 3D really shines. It might not have the immediacy of Wii Sports Bowling's legendary (and potentially TV-smashing) swing, but its multistep process of careful aim and precisely timed button-presses will be a familiar comfort to gamers of the pre-Wii era. You'll choose your character's stance in the lane, then aim the shot - in both cases using the Circle Pad for quick movement and the D-Pad for finer incremental adjustments - and finally, when the power meter on the righthand side of the screen is at the level you'd like, press 'A' to lock in your shot. As your character winds up to send the ball rolling down the lane, you'll have a few seconds to hold the Circle Pad steadily to the left or right to apply spin - the farther from centre you keep it, the more spin you'll add - an awesomely kinesthetic challenge that's much more immersive than a simple button-press.
One oddity is that - according to the manual - the Ultimate Bowl gauge fills up by either "missing pins" or "getting strikes and spares" - which, to us, sounds like basically everything. In practice, it makes it difficult to know whether you're actively doing anything to fill your gauge unless you're bowling strike after strike, so the super-shots come off more as surprise bonuses than something to plan for. The second - and far more annoying - balance issue is one with the pins themselves: they can sometimes show a rare talent for sliding confidently across the lane after being hit, without actually toppling over. When that happens, they'll be returned to their original places on the next roll, even if you'd knocked them clear across the lane (but not, as it happens, over). It's not a consistent enough problem to ruin the fun, but it can definitely be frustrating when it does happen.
Graphically, Family Bowling 3D is simple, but a step up from previous games in the series, and its colourful presentation will strike the right notes with both kids and kids-at-heart. It's still no showcase for the power of the 3DS, but a well-implemented stereoscopic effect (that only rarely leads to eye-crossing pin-doubling phenomena), bright, appealing (and varied!) environments, and charming anime-inspired character models give the game a vibrant, fun atmosphere.
The menu music is borrowed from the other Family titles, but each stage also brings its own unique background track, all of which are upbeat, synthesized, and supremely hummable - like the opening themes to various Family sports anime spin-offs that have yet to be created. As always, the Japanese voice-acting adds personality to both the characters and the game itself, with a kindly and enthusiastic announcer calling out every one of your strikes, turkeys, hambones, and - of course - gutter runs.
With fun arcade bowling on fantasy lanes - each with a unique gameplay hook - great controls, and single-system multiplayer for up to four players, Family Bowling 3D hits a three-strike turkey that brings back memories of Super Monkey Ball's excellent Monkey Bowling. A few balance issues and sometimes-wonky pin physics keep it from bowling the full 300, but anyone interested in some lighthearted tenpin will find this right up their alley.