As a video game adaptation of Dreamworks' cave-dweller caper, The Croods: Prehistoric Party casts the film's characters in a Mario Party-style experience for up to four players. It borrows heavily from Nintendo's series, linking disparate mini-games together with a simple board game conceit. Like the movie's titular Neanderthal family encountering fire for the first time, gamers tend to approach movie tie-ins with apprehension, and unfortunately those reservations are mostly warranted here. Prehistoric Party is a collection of largely unexceptional mini-games wrapped up in a lackluster board game package, and its appeal will be limited to younger players for whom the lure of the license trumps the mundane gameplay.
The game begins in a hub world, where you can access the five different boards — unlocked one-by-one as you play — as well as individual rounds or tourneys of the thirty mini-games. The board themes all echo locations from the movie, with desert, jungle, gorge, and coral field areas all accounted for, as well as the brave new world of "Tomorrow".
Prehistoric Party follows the standard digital board game format: up to four players choose one of the seven Croods (Grug, Eep, Ugga, Sandy, Thunk, Gran, and Guy) and roll dice to advance along a board, landing on squares with various effects along the way. These can add or subtract shells from your total, grant you items, let you choose among multiple paths, 'invent' something that will open up new parts of the board, or start four-player mini-games. There are two ways to play through each board: Trailblazer and Hunter-Gatherer. In Trailblazer mode, players compete to be the first to the finish line, while in Hunter-Gatherer, the player with the most eggs — won from coming out on top in mini-games — takes the prize after a set number of minutes or turns has passed.
While collecting shells is a goal in each game type, they don't actually seem to serve a purpose besides purchasing items at the rare shop spaces. They don't factor into winning or ranking, so whether a space gives shells or takes them away feels largely irrelevant. The invention squares are also disappointing — while they sound exciting, they're completely non-interactive. Your character simply "invents" fire, tree bridges, or fish shoes without any input from you or fanfare of any kind, and that invention allows everyone to progress past that square on the board.
Each time you play, you'll earn Prehistoric Points which can be used to unlock extras in the game's gallery, including concept art, stills from the movie, and creature cards with information on the world's odd animals. The concept art is interesting and younger fans will enjoy reading about their favourite fanciful Croods critters, so it's definitely a welcome addition.
As with the Mario Party series and similar games, however, the mini-games are the star of the show. There are thirty in all in Prehistoric Party, and unfortunately they're extremely uneven in terms of quality and fun. Several of them would be better labeled "micro-games", like 'Drop 'n' Chomp', where you press a single button to lower your carnivorous plant onto Croods as they pass underneath. 'Popcorn Punch' is similar — hit the button at the right time to smash popcorn thrown at your character. In fact, several of the mini-games seem built around the idea that pressing buttons is inherently fun. Prime examples are 'Zany Xylophone', a misguided "rhythm" game where rhythm doesn't actually matter, and players repeat a pattern on the D-pad to win, and 'Fish Shoe Shuffle', which is really just a minute-long Quick Timing Event.
Many of the games are solid ideas held back by poor execution. 'Croods Bowling' sounds promising, as it involves an enormous boulder, but the control is so oversimplified — you can only move your bowler left to right, and can't adjust the angle of attack — that it's impossible to play with any technique. 'Bird Herd' is a game where it's exceptionally difficult to direct the birds, and the Balloon Trip-esque 'Dandelion Dash' could be great fun if it weren't over way too quickly and fraught with frame-rate issues.
It's not all bad news, however, and there are plenty of games worth playing. One of our favourites is 'Cave Painting'. It's so mind-numbingly straightforward that it makes the above-mentioned games seem like brain surgery in comparison, but it's also one of the funnest: players mash the touch screen or 'A' button to fling paint at a wall, aiming to have the most splatters standing when the timer runs out. Other highlights include several four-player variations on the iOS-style runner genre. 'Fear the Fur' and 'Ramu Rampage' are run and jump races, 'Corn Rocket Ride' has players switching between height levels to blast through rings as they fly to the right, while 'Trip Gerbil Hurdles' is an endless runner mashup of hurdle jumping and the limbo. There are also competent clones of Hungry Hungry Hippos, Tron, the classic memory game, and a free-for-all version of Bejeweled that's frantic fun in spite of its sluggish control.
Even if the mini-games were universally brilliant, however, Prehistoric Party would still come with a major caveat: aside from a few fun touches (like being able to throw the dice in any direction to roll), the board game itself isn't very compelling, and there are a few issues with the board design that really grate. The first problem lies with the trap spaces. These marked squares either collapse or have creatures standing by to knock you into the abyss when you land on them, warping you back to a recovery spot further back along the path. That's fine as a concept, but traps often appear in pairs, right next to each other, which means for the five spaces before them you have a one-in-three chance of rolling yourself back to where you started. If you're reasonably lucky, it's a non-issue — but we played more than one game where one player was still stuck behind an early trap blockade when another had crossed the finish line. Plenty of enjoyable board games are based entirely on luck, but for whatever reason the trap placement here can be a real snag.
The second — and larger — problem is with the mini-game spaces: there aren't nearly enough of them. In our experience, most runs through the boards last around twenty to thirty minutes, with four or five mini-games taking up less than a third of that playtime - but it's all up to chance, and we also played one match that lasted thirty-five minutes and featured exactly one mini-game. As a frame for the fair to middling mini-games, the board game aspect of Prehistoric Party is passable; as the majority of the experience, it's simply not much fun. It's slow, dull, and basically boils down to pressing a single button to roll every few minutes, and items and branching pathways aren't enough to make up for that fact.
Like most party games, Prehistoric Party is technically playable as a single-player experience (both on- and off-screen, using the GamePad) but we don't recommend it. There's no way to speed up CPU players' turns, so you'll have to watch all the rolls and movement as if you were playing with three pokey poltergeists, and wait several minutes in-between each press of the 'Y' button that constitutes your turn. One redeeming feature is that when computer players land on a mini-game square, you get to choose which of the three options to play — but again, since that's a relatively infrequent occurrence, you're still left with nothing to do for the vast majority of the game. It could certainly be an enjoyable option for younger players with an attachment to the characters, but it won't hold most people's interest for long.
For multiplayer, The Croods requires a Wii Remote for each player beyond the first, and no other control options are supported. This makes sense, as some of the mini-games involve pointing at the screen, but that brings up a rather large balance issue. In these types of games, while the Wii Remote players need to aim at the television, the GamePad player uses the stylus to tap the relevant areas on their own screen. This creates a massively unfair advantage for the player holding the GamePad; imagine three people chucking red balls at milk bottles while a fourth just points at them to knock them over using their mind. In the Bejeweled clone 'Shell Sweeper', for instance, the Wii Remote players don't even stand a chance. Granted, for the presumed target audience of friendly family-game-night contestants, this probably isn't a huge issue, but it's there nonetheless.
Regardless of which interface you're using, the controls can be hit or miss - several of the mini-games are marred by imprecise collision detection or ambiguous timing. The aforementioned 'Popcorn Punch', where you smash popcorn as it's thrown at you, is made more difficult than it needs to be because of massive lag between when you press the button and when the ensuing animation is programmed to actually smash popcorn. 'Cloud Bounce', a trampoline item-collection game, encourages you to jump on your opponents' heads to reach higher pick-ups, but it seems entirely up in the air whether the game registers a head-bounce or ignores the player underneath you entirely.
Finally, the interface has an annoying habit of switching between the buttons and touchscreen (or pointing with the Wii Remotes) for no apparent reason. You'll press the 'Y' button to enter a stage, and then need to switch to the stylus to select a mode. The '+' button pauses the game, but you can't navigate the pause menu with buttons at all. Even choosing an item and selecting your path on the board are only possible with touch or point controls. It's a mild inconvenience for the GamePad player, but it's downright clunky with a Wii Remote.
Players who can get past the gameplay and control issues will at least be treated to a pleasant presentation; Prehistoric Party is a decent looking game and young fans will certainly be pleased with the graphics. The opening desert stage is (appropriately) sparse and uninteresting, so it doesn't really start out swinging, but the other areas are much prettier, with some especially nice water effects in the jungle and coral field stages. Character models look good and the animations mostly follow suit — aside from when players spin smoothly in place like jewelry box ballerinas en pointe while aiming the dice throw.
Far eclipsing the visual presentation, however, is The Croods' excellent soundtrack, a surprise highlight. Fun melodies full of wistful whistles, steel drums, strings, and flutes bounce over ambient sounds and steady percussion, creating a genuinely delightful prehistoric atmosphere that goes a long way towards making the gameplay more palatable. Though only one of the voice actors from the movie is on hand to reprise their role (director Chris Sanders as the adorable sloth Belt) the replacements for Prehistoric Party do a good job with the characters. There's a lot of spoken dialogue, although it does start to repeat after a few rounds and stays fairly predictable throughout — the Croods are a family uniquely preoccupied with announcing whose turn it is at any given moment. One audio disappointment is the relative paucity of punchy sound effects; there are many moments in this game that could use a good 'thud' but are left sadly silent.
For the right price and the right audience, Prehistoric Party could be a fine way to pass the afternoon, but aside from the presentation, it's mostly a disappointing experience. The mini-games on offer vary wildly in quality, and even the best of them are derivative and largely forgettable, while the board game frame is slow and uneventful. Younger fans of the movie might very well enjoy the settings, characters, and charming musical score enough to deal with the monotonous gameplay, but uninvested players should head elsewhere for their party game fix.