Crackling with molten heat, lava engulfs the room.
An archetypal demise in most games. I held my breath for a sea of charred bones, anticipating those baleful words of "Game Over" to flash across the screen at any moment. It didn't happen.
Instead, a slightly smirking Tim Schafer stooped, packed a handful of lava into a fiery ball, and flung it into the face of the person beside him. Just like that first flying slice of bologna that kicks off a food fight, everyone joined in for the resultant magma mosh.
Happy Action Theater isn't about winning. Nor is it about following rules or memorizing controls. Failure conditions? Absent. The only objective of its 18 minigames is how big of a grin they'll tease out of you. The pitch: Have fun.
Built for Microsoft's Kinect peripheral, HAT hits the sweet spot of appeal for young children, adults, and roving housepets. Developer Double Fine locked the Kinect's fundamental purpose — namely, having people flail like headless chickens in front of the TV — into a wonderfully uncomplicated collection of video toys that evokes memories of simple childhood pastimes such as Hitting Things and Kicking Stuff. In essence, explains Schafer, Double Fine's founder, "It's a series of activities for either a three-year-old's birthday party or a college dorm full of drunk 20-year-olds."
Of course, accessibility is the Kinect's baseline, and HAT's mechanics doesn't stray too far from the same formula we've seen hundreds of times before. The redeeming factor here is Double Fine's creative talent for crazyness generously ladled into every mode.
Some of the game's galleries just fill the room with interactive objects such as pop-able balloons and bowel-blasting pigeons. Others provide a sensory blast of color and sound; an experience carrying a fairly obvious opportunity for enhancement with certain…er, "substances." Others take a tad more finesse for maximum payoff, like chucking pine cones at woodland creatures and blocky lumberjacks. My fast favorite was an activity that had the Kinect's camera snapping a number of overlapping photos of the players. Not only did I pull off some truly ridiculous poses (like giving myself multiple arms — take that, Shiva), but it was probably the only time I'll witness Schafer (willingly) feed a knuckle sandwich to himself.
Happy Action Theater has a planned holiday 2011 release for the Xbox 360. And when the lava rolls in again, I'll be ready with my appropriately themed thumbs-up.