Reviewed: October 2, 2008
Released: September 10, 2008
There is something magical about the game of bowling. The greasy and overpriced onion rings, the accumulated stench of millions of cigarettes, the black-lights and disco balls, the video-poker games, the all-to-brief thought "I wonder how many feet have been in these shoes before mine" all contribute to the mystique of one of America's most beloved weekend activities. Although not quite as glamorous as bowling, miniature golf also has a special place in the hearts of its patrons. What better way to blow an hour and $5 than to use a club to maneuver a brightly colored dimpled ball through a series of obstacles and into a hole? So what's the best way to make two delightful games even better? Combine them, of course! Thus, RocketBowl was born.
RocketBowl was originally released in 2004 for the Windows PC, but has been revamped and re-released for the X360. The game was developed by the independent casual game designer, Large Animal Games using the Torque Game Engine built by Garage Games. In 2008, 21-6 Productions, Inc. was hired to port the game from PC to XBLA and the resulting arcade game was published by D3 Publisher.
The gameplay in RocketBowl is quite simple. Any player who is familiar with standard ten-pin bowling will immediately understand their objective and the rest of the game is intuitive enough to learn along the way. Much like a trip to a real bowling alley, every game consists of 10 frames, each containing ten pins arranged in a triangular pattern. The player aims and throws the ball in an attempt to topple the pins, and points are earned based on how many pins are knocked down. Beyond these similarities, RocketBowl has little in common with your last bowling experience.
The most obvious difference is the field of play. While ten-pin bowling is normally played on a flat and straight lane, RocketBowl takes place on an elaborate field of obstacles strongly reminiscent of a miniature golf course. Curves, ramps, bridges, lakes, loop-de-loops, and tight corners will all have to be navigated successfully to master a course. While this may sound pretty tricky for the average bowler, Large Animal has given the player several tools to help make their pin-crushing dreams a reality.
For example, once a player has aimed, powered, and released their shot in RocketBowl, the ball essentially becomes a vehicle for the player to drive down the lane and through the obstacles. These spherical 3-holed vehicles can be steered and also come equipped with rocket boosters which can be used to give a burst of speed in one of three directions (left, right, or up into a jump). The cheap low-end balls have poor handling and few (if any) rocket boosts available per shot. As the player becomes more experienced and wealthier, they can shop for more advanced balls with better cornering skills, more power, and more rocket boosts. These top-end balls can be used to execute shots that would be nigh impossible using the cheaper balls.
The scoring in RocketBowl is similar to ten-pin bowling. Clearing all ten pins with the first shot rewards a "strike", and a "spare" is earned by clearing them on the second shot. Both of these scenarios reward bonus points based on the number of pins defeated in subsequent throws. While the second shot normally signals the end of a frame in bowling, RocketBowl grants the player a third shot in a single frame if pins are still left standing. Clearing the last of the pins on the third shot is called a "sweep," but offers no bonus points.
Another twist is added to the gameplay in the form of power-ups and stars, which can be collected en-route to hitting the pins. These floating icons enhance ball-control in the form of extra rocket boosts, exceptional handling, and a time extension for long shots. This is an interesting idea and could have added an exciting layer to the game but unfortunately; there is no reason to take a detour beyond collecting power-ups and stars. Stars look glamorous and help stroke the player's ego, but at the end of a match, one star converts into one dollar, and winning a tournament can easily be worth several thousand. Collecting power-ups to grant the ability to collect power-ups and pocket change is easily forsaken when the player can just bowl a strike and move onto the next frame.
One final unique aspect of the gameplay is the concept of a "wild shot." As is the case on a miniature golf course, it is not uncommon in RocketBowl for a ball to end up in the area of a different frame than the player started on. The player can continue to guide their ball and if they manage to topple pins in a different frame than their current one, they earn a "wild shot." This is another example of an interesting idea with good potential being executed poorly. Let's say a player is looking at a split on the second throw of the fourth frame. Their throw goes right through the middle and ends up on the lane for the 8th frame. The ball is now way off course, but the player manages to boost into the corner of the 8th-frame pins and take 2 of them out. The game counts the entire episode as a miss for frame 4 AND as the first shot of frame 8. So a bad throw has been turned into 2 bad throws, and a wild shot awards one star, which is worth one dollar. Even in the extremely unlikely event that a player manages to bowl a strike on another frame, the reward (3 stars) is trivial.
The simulated physics in the game are powered by Ageia's PhysX engine, which does a satisfactory job of sending the pins toppling and bouncing in believable ways. On occasion, the ball doesn't behave quite the way you would expect a bowling ball to act on smooth, oiled, hardwood floor. However, until somebody actually builds these courses in reality, we'll just have to trust Ageia on this one.
The overall visual presentation is not particularly exciting, but it's also a notch above "bland." The entire game sports a 1950s retro motif, the bowling balls are unique and brightly colored, and glitter sprinkles across the screen when stars are collected. The game runs easily with no lag and short loading screens, but when you consider that the core of this game was freeware almost five years ago, a smooth run is less than impressive.
RocketBowl's audio quality is easily it's weakest link. Every course features a cheerful retro music track but unfortunately, every course features the same track and the music will quickly become repetitive and irritating to the average player. The sound effects are cheap and scarce, doing just enough to get the job done but ultimately underwhelming the audience.
There are three single player modes available. Practice mode allows the player to play on any of the unlocked courses to fine-tune their skills while earning a little cash from star-collecting. Practice mode is also the easiest way to unlock new and more difficult courses, as each of the ten courses can only be unlocked by reaching a certain score on the previous course. Challenge mode is a 1-on-1 match with the "master" of a course, and Tournament mode is a high-stakes contest with several AI opponents.
The gameplay in each of the three modes is completely identical, with the only difference between them being the potential for prize money. Winnings can be used to buy more powerful balls and entry into more difficult tournaments with bigger prize pools and the cycle continues until boredom sets in, or until the frustration of the quickly accelerating difficultly level takes it's toll.
Online multiplayer is available, but the deserted matchmaking area does not encourage an extended stay. The game can also be played with up to four players in a local multiplayer session, but this should only be resorted to during the most boring of sleepovers.
At its core, RocketBowl is a unique and potentially delightful mini-game. Unfortunately, much like the balls and lanes at a cheap alley, the end result could use more polish.