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Double Fine's Happy Action Theater conjures up Kinect magic


Double Fine's next project, Happy Action Theater, just appeared on the floor of CES, right on time according to Tim Schafer's Twitter account. The game, available in February for what a Microsoft rep called a "reasonable" price, is basically a collection of 18 different minigames, featuring sandbox-style fun for the younger audience.

But don't let that tame description fool you: Happy Action Theater isn't just a standard minigame collection made for kids. Instead, it appears to be one of the best experiences on Kinect yet, and a perfect marriage of Double Fine's expertise at finding almost instant fun, and its skill at wringing some impressive feats out of that Kinect camera.

As with any minigame collection, you'll probably like some scenes better than others. Even the tamest ones, however, conjure images of some Double Fine dev giggling with glee: One of the scenes puts players in a bouncing jell-o plate (complete with orange slices) on a dinner table, with player movement making the jell-o bounce around. There are a few kaleidoscope scenes as well, with various player images pasted onto acid-trip graphics, while an original piece of Eastern-style music plays in the background. They're fun, but not too wild, and they seem more like the pet ideas of Schafer and company than full-scale experiences.

The rest of the scenes, however, are full of Kinect-enabled magic. One has balloons dropping from the ceiling; players can run around through them in 3D space, bouncing and popping them to reveal prizes and objects. One scene puts sparklers in players' hands that they can draw with. Clapping in this minigame creates a big explosion, though not as big as the one created by two players high fiving.

Each scene that pops up presents new ways to use and play with Kinect. Players in one can stop moving to freeze, and then jump to break out, sending ice shards everywhere. The curtains close and open again, and a volcano warning pops up, until lava flows across the floor. Lay down in the lava, and not only does it realistically splash as players go in, but they can then throw fireballs with their hands. There are Space Invaders and Breakout clones to play by moving around the game space, and one of the scenes casts the players as Godzilla, walking through a giant city and knocking over buildings. A terrified photographer even pops up in the corner at one point, and when his camera flashes, the picture shows up on a newspaper, complete with a monster movie headline.

The tech is almost as jaw-dropping as the graphics: Double Fine has somehow worked out a way for up to six different players to appear and play in every scene, and while only the front two actually have skeletons rendered, even the back players can do things like move around and point in various directions (at one point, each player gets a platform to fly around 2D space, and can point to throw spells at each other). One underwater level even monitors the players' faces, to create air bubbles that float up from mouths when they're open.

There's no overall "game" -- it's basically just a bunch of chances in a row to play with all of these weird settings. There will be achievements for each scene to go after, but Double Fine is basically letting the play speak for itself. Get in, wave your arms around, and just see what happens.

Even on the floor of CES, with business people from all over the world walking by slowly, this game just emanates magic. One Japanese suit walked up tentatively to play in the lava level, and carefully dipped his hand down so that on screen, it appeared to reach the lava. He pulled it back up, threw it forward, and on screen, he tossed a flaming fireball out in front of him. Instantly he became three again, and turned around with the biggest smile on his face to see if his companions had seen what he'd just done.

The joy was obvious -- a huge smile in just 30 seconds. That's exactly the kind of experience Double Fine is aiming at with this one, and I can't wait to see the how finished product does it in February.

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