EA Playground X Wii Sports Lead
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, on its 15-year anniversary, Jim pleads the case for a forgotten Wii classic...

If there’s one thing that you could always rely on the Wii to achieve, it was family-friendly multiplayer. Gone were the days of explaining to an elderly relative what various triggers and button combinations did, instead it was a case of swapping out your grandma’s sherry with a plastic white rectangle, standing her in front of the screen watching her beat seven shades of hoo-ha out of an animated opponent in the boxing ring.

The console’s simplicity was its biggest selling point, and boy-oh-boy did it have the games to match. For the most part, first-party titles like Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Music, and WarioWare Smooth Moves, are always going to dominate these conversations, and rightly so – they were, and still are, incredible fun. This is by no means going to be a piece saying, "hmm, actually, Wii Sports wasn’t all that," because that would be a straight-up lie — don't ever be that person. There is, however, one title that is almost never included in discussions of family-friendly Wii titles, especially in the sports genre: EA Playground.

it was all about good-natured fun with your dead-eyed, ever-staring avatar pals

Let’s start right off the bat by saying that I do not believe that Playground was necessarily better than Wii Sports. The playable avatars had cold dead eyes, the motion controls were a little janky, and the single-player mode was all about collecting stickers or marbles or whatever else a board of 40-something-year-old men thought was a hip currency with the kids at the time.

But what I do believe is that this title has been well and truly slept on for the past 15 years, and it is about time that somebody put that right.

The Wii had enough games in the sports genre to fill its memory banks three times over. Aside from the ports of NBA Live, Fifa, Virtua Tennis, and Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour (which always felt very much out of place on the console), the sports collections — your Wii Sports Resorts, Mario Sports Mixes — were where the motion controls could really shine. These were titles where the whole idea was to throw a bunch of sports together, safe in the knowledge that, while some would be better than others, that was ok because you could always move on to something different.

For EA Playground, though, the game collection had no weak links. Sure, it is difficult to actually call any of the game modes ‘sports’ in the same way that we would boxing or baseball, but were they competitive and challenging? If you could have seen the sweat that I produced playing this game in my youth, there would be no doubt in your mind.

Playground’s main game contained seven different ‘sports’ – yes, that’s right seven – ranging from the uber athletic (Wallball, Dodgeball, a weird volleyball-football hybrid called Kicks) to the sort of games that only belong on, well, the playground (paper aeroplane and RC racing). With it, this range brought a certain low-stakes charm that couldn’t be found in other sports collections. You weren’t playing in a huge baseball stadium or against a team of dragons and mushrooms, it was all about good-natured fun with your dead-eyed, ever-staring avatar pals.

While Wii Sports was all about bringing the thrill of the big game to Nintendo’s newest console, Playground was one for the little guy.

To the game’s credit, each of Playground’s sports felt distinct despite effectively reusing the same controls time and again. What are the controls for Dodgeball? Well, you move with the d-pad then swing the remote to throw the ball. What about Kicks? Well, you move with the d-pad then swing the remote to kick the ball. Tetherball? This one's a little different: there's no movement so forget about the d-pad, just swing the remote to hit the ball. But these were not the same game time and again. There were different techniques that you had to learn to employ for each which amounted to the game requiring some semblance of skill and practice. Don’t expect to bring your same d-pad moving, remote-swinging play from Dodgeball over to Wallball. Those AI kids will eat you alive.

Each mode’s distinctiveness was helped along its way by a series of game-specific music tracks to differentiate between the relaxation of, say, Paper Racers and the intense battlefield of Dart Shootout – a foam dart FPS that was in no way anything to do with Nerf™. While there is no part of the soundtrack which comes close to the breezy mastery of Wii Sports – providing some of my favourite gaming tunes of all time – it helped Playground feel like you weren’t doing the same thing time and again.

Except, of course, you were. This game had fantastic replayability. Imagine how personally attacked you felt each time Wii Sports’ Matt beat you in Tennis, now bring that to a story mode and you can imagine how intensely the rivalry ran. Yes, there was a strange amount of the single-player ‘campaign’ which involved collecting stickers to improve your athletic performance (seemingly, this primary school let doping slide), but providing a rival in each sport meant that you weren’t just going up against a CPU. It was personal.

Simply put, the reviews for Playground at the time were mixed, to say the least. They would improve ever so slightly for the game’s DS release, but ultimately the title was thrown by the wayside. And why? Because it was not Wii Sports.

But just because a game is not another game, is that reason enough to forget it? It is true, EA Playground is not Wii Sports – the avatars have legs for one thing – but nor is it necessarily trying to be. While Wii Sports was all about bringing the thrill of the big game to Nintendo’s newest console, Playground was one for the little guy, courtesy of that little indie label, Electronic Arts.

Yes, it may not reach the heights of some of the console’s other releases, but it well deserves the right to be held up and remembered alongside them.

Got any fond memories of EA Playground? Assumed it was shovelware and never gave it a chance? Let us know below.