When popular films are adapted into video games, publishers tend to cover their bases by releasing the results across as many platforms as possible. This often leads to portable systems receiving scaled-back ports from their big-screen brethren, and The Croods: Prehistoric Party on 3DS is a prime example of a handheld hand-me-down. We were unimpressed with the Wii U version's attempt at Mario Party-style board-based mini-game action, and things haven't improved in the journey to the small screen. In fact, they've gotten much worse — Prehistoric Party on the 3DS retains the mediocre mini-games of the console version while jettisoning its board game frame, multiplayer modes, and pleasant presentation.
Prehistoric Party is, in its entirety, a collection of thirty "party-style" mini-games. You'll pick one of seven Croods and compete against three other randomly selected family members in either a single game, or a tournament of up to twenty in a row. If that sounds like a shallow experience, it is — there's really not much to the game. However, the right collection of mini-games could make it an excellent time-waster for younger gamers and fans of the movies. This is the wrong collection.
For starters, many games are variations on very simple themes, like "press the 'Y' button". You might mash 'Y' to drop your Bear Pear onto the panicking Croods family below, smash popcorn when it's thrown at your character, or break open shells placed in front of you, for instance. The visual setup is different in each one, but they all boil down to the same concept, and it's not a particularly enthralling one. Similarly, there are plenty of games that have you picking up things and moving them from one place to another, and several that require you to tap the touchscreen where certain objects appear.
Most of these games aren't much more fun than the button presses or touchscreen taps themselves; they're so simple and the AI is so incompetent that winning is often just a case of going through the motions. Worse, a few games seem to miss their own point. One of the biggest offenders is a 'rhythm' game in which you're supposed to play back a pattern from Belt's bone-marrow-marimba. "Speed and timing matter", reads the game's dishonest description — in reality, pressing the buttons as fast as you can (in no rhythm at all) wins you the most points, while playing along with the beat nets you nothing.
Not every game is a flop, however, and players who take the Prehistoric plunge will definitely find a few gems among the rubble. There are competent clones of Tron and Bejeweled, an interesting if short-lived experience inspired by Balloon Trip, a paint-flinging simulator that we find oddly therapeutic, and several rather fun riffs on the endless runner trope that are among the best of the bunch. One of these has you shifting altitude levels as you ride on a corn rocket, another is a run-and-jump race atop rampaging Macawnivores, and a third combines gerbil hurdles and trip-wire-tails into a fun run that feels a lot like the iOS runner Sonic Dash.
Sadly, the relative promise of these mini-games drives home the single biggest problem with Prehistoric Party on the 3DS: it is a party for one. There are no multiplayer options of any kind — no Download Play, no local or online play, not even pass-and-play — and for a game that bills itself as a collection of party-style mini-games, that's a huge limitation. On the Wii U, these mini-games were made infinitely more palatable with the addition of human opponents, and the absence of that option makes this version an markedly inferior experience.
The other big change the Croods underwent in their transfer to the small-screen is that the Mario Party-esque board game frame of the console version has been done away with entirely. That might not seem like such a big deal — after all, we weren't all that impressed with the board game component of Prehistoric Party on the Wii U — but the problem is that this 3DS version hasn't been retooled to reflect its absence. Instead of feeling like a mini-game collection, it ends up feeling like a Mario Party clone with the boards ripped out. The interface used to access the mini-games is the same as in the Wii U version, where it played a decidedly secondary role: your two options are to pick an individual game, or play a tournament of between five and twenty randomly selected mini-games. That's it; there's no way to customize a tournament beyond the length, no way to pick which Croods play alongside you, no way to select certain mini-games or exclude others. It would almost seem easier to play five or ten individual mini-games in a row, but finishing a single mini-game inexplicably boots you back to the main hub world instead of the mini-game menu, putting an inordinate amount of downtime between each sub-sixty-second experience.
Of the thirty mini-games included, twenty are available from the start, while ten more — including most of our favourites — need to be unlocked for five "Prehistoric Points" apiece. This system might have worked on the big screen — you could play any mini-game on the board, but had to unlock them for individual play separately — but it doesn't make sense in the context of this handheld version. First off, you'll earn just one Prehistoric Point per play, so it will take a while before you're able to open up all the mini-games. Secondly, even though it's the only way to unlock the best games, "best" is strictly relative praise here — we're not entirely sure it's worth slogging through fifty minutes of extremely monotonous mini-games in order to play slightly less monotonous mini-games.
Any extra Prehistoric Points you earn can also be used to unlock concept art and creature information cards in a gallery. It's not a particularly extensive collection, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless, and we could see younger players in particular enjoying reading about the various creative creatures from the film.
One improvement in this 3DS version worth mentioning is the controls. The input lag that plagued several games in the console release is absent here, and barring a few odd timing or collision detection issues, all of the games control reasonably well. The interface does still have an annoying habit of switching back and forth between the buttons and touchscreen arbitrarily, but it's much easier to deal with on a portable system.
With licensed games like this one, an attractive presentation can go a long way towards evoking the atmosphere of a movie, and bringing its characters and settings to life. That was the case with Prehistoric Party on the Wii U, but on the 3DS, its presentation is particularly poor. Graphically, the game resembles an average-looking DS game, with low-res textures, plain environments, and blocky models. Characters' faces are so blurry as to be nearly invisible, and the film's signature creatures suffer from their transition to poorly-detailed polygons. The 3D effect is especially mild, though that's likely a thoughtful consideration of the game's young target audience.
On the audio front, there's both good news and bad news: the good news is that the game pulls its soundtrack from the same excellent score as the Wii U game. The bad news is that some of the best of those tracks played during the now-nonexistent board game sequences, and so aren't present here. Worse, the sound quality on the songs that are accounted for is noticeably compressed, and some tracks are downright unlistenable — you can practically see the gain meter redlining during the menu music, and the fuzzy static makes it feel like you're listening in-between radio frequencies. This obviously isn't a technical limitation — we've seen plenty of 3DS games pack more music and content onto a cartridge without this kind of quality loss — and it's particularly disappointing since the soundtrack was one of our favourite parts of the Wii U version. There's also very little voice work, with the fun and frequent character quotes from the home release replaced by generic, single syllable grunts. More historically accurate, perhaps, but also much less fun.
This portable Prehistoric Party takes the best elements of the Wii U version — the fun of playing with friends and a personable presentation — and throws them out the window. What's left is a half-hearted collection of mediocre mini-games, with nothing to tie them together and no compelling reason to play them. Not even the license can save the day; the chunky graphics and absence of spoken dialogue mean there's only a tenuous connection between the characters in this game and those in the movie, and diehard Croods fans will be just as disappointed as everyone else. Heed Grug's motto of "Never not be afraid" and give this one a wide berth.