The DS sparked an industry-wide craze for casual games, as publishers realized that there was a whole new market to tap. Hardcore gamers weren’t the only people with disposable income, and if given the right product, the casual demographic could potentially be more profitable than the hardcore crowd. Game Factory has capitalized on this trend by specializing in licensed titles, and the most recent of their titles I’ve reviewed is Build a Bear Workshop.
This game does pretty much what you’d expect: it translates the Build a Bear store into a virtual experience. The opening setup of the game is a step-by-step process where you build the stuffed animal of your choice. The amount of options in this stage was impressive, and reflected the customizability that the Build a Bear stores are known for.
You start by picking out your animal, and the game gives you some good choices. In addition to the standard Teddy bears there’s a cat, a dog, a monkey and even a frog, as well as a couple others. I chose a little brown spotted dog and named him Winston (after the apparently dead Guitar Hero character, may he rest in peace). Winston was then hooked up to a “fluff” machine, which let me stuff him with huggable filling. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t keep funneling in the fluff until Winston exploded, but then again this game is rated E for everyone. The game prompted me to poke Winston’s tummy to make sure he was huggable enough, and then he was off to get stitched up.
This little minigame was a tad more realistic than the suturing in Trauma Center. Instead of a simple zigzag motion, I had to thread a needle through Winston’s hide and close up his back. The final step was putting in his heart—this was accomplished by rubbing four small colored hearts that appeared on the screen, and then “whispering a secret wish” into one of them. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that, so I just shouted into the mic, which seemed to work. In any case, it’s cool that they used the mic and it should seem magical for little children.
Apparently the Build a Bear world has public indecency laws, because Winston couldn’t leave the factory in the buff. I decked him out in a T-shirt and jeans, and then headed for his house, or “cub condo” in Build a Bear speak. Incidentally, the writing in this game is almost painfully adorable. Words like “pawesome,” “furbulous,” and “beary” show up everywhere. In fact, the writers tried to work paw, fur and bear into the writing wherever they could. The game’s motto was “don’t worry, be furry,” and since I hadn’t shaved when I was playing it, I felt right at home.
Unfortunately, after the decently interactive building phase, the game takes a turn for the shallow, dialogue notwithstanding.
Winston’s pad had several activities displayed on the touch screen, and I played around with each of them. The first was a cooking game where I had to place several ingredients in a pot, stir well with the stylus, and then bake the concoction in an oven. I tried my hand at chocolate cake (in this game, it isn’t a lie) and decorated it with some icing. It looked pretty tasty, but Winston took only a couple bites and decided he wasn’t very hungry. Most of the other dishes I prepared were desserts, so I must assume that the citizens of Build a Bear world subsist mainly on confectionaries, much like their friends over in Strawberry Shortcake land (incidentally, another Game Factory property). The cooking game had a very cool interface, with a sliding oven door, little bowls of ingredients, and even tiny forks, spoons and napkins so that Winston could eat with civility. Other than that, there wasn’t much to do in the cooking game besides stir and bake, a far cry from the punishing recipes doled out by the draconian taskmaster, Cooking Mama (those fiery eyes still scare the hell out of me). I know this game is for kids and it isn’t meant to be as hard as Cooking Mama, but some more kitchen activities would have been nice.
When he wasn’t eating, Winston could take a walk in the park near his condo. I was hoping this place would be like the living room in Nintendogs, a place where I could hang out with my virtual pal and interact with him, but the interface was rather limited. I could toss a ball around (Winston invariably ignored it), but the main point seemed to be dance practice. By scribbling certain shapes on the screen, I could make Winston do different actions, like wave, blow kisses, and even moonwalk. This came in handy for a minigame (more on that later), but after two or three times “practicing,” I had all of the scribbles down. More were unlocked later, but they were all pretty easy, probably to appeal to the game’s kid audience.
The other half of the park was a playground with all sorts of fun equipment, but I could only play one game with all of it. Winston would sit on a swing, with the aforementioned soccer ball held in his feet. By stroking the screen left and right, I made Winston swing back and forth, and when he built up enough momentum I could tap the screen and make him launch the ball. Depending on the timing, it would either roll through croquet brackets, fall through a basketball hoop or make a field goal through a goal post. I never quite understood the point of this game—there wasn’t a way to score points, and the only indication of success was a collection of turtles that showed up and cheered Winston on.
In the attic, I could control Winston in a number of minigames, which were also playable in two-person multiplayer. This unfortunately requires that both people have copies of the game, so there’s no download play. The first was a dance contest, where I put the moves I had learned in the park to the test. The minigame had a DDR vibe to it, where I had to scribble the patterns on screen as they passed a marker. The patterns would move faster as the levels progressed, but it never got very hard. The second game was musical chairs, played from an overhead view. Winston was continuously walking in a circle around the chairs, and I could slow him down with the stylus and drag him into a chair when the music stopped. Again, not very challenging or deep, but hey, it’s musical chairs. The attic also had the cooking game from earlier, which “tested” me by not giving me any on-screen instructions. The final game had me controlling two small bears and collecting honey which dripped from moving beehives.
The point of all these minigames was to earn buttons, the currency of Build a Bear (I doubt you could go into a real Build a Bear store and pay them with buttons, though). The store in the game is filled with clothes and accessories. There was a wide variety of insufferably cute outfits that would give Japanese dress-up games a run for their money; I could even dress Winston in drag if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to put him through the humiliation; Winston is a very masculine stuffed animal. After decking him out in some cool duds, I could put Winston into a photo shoot, which let me add backdrops and change camera angles. The clothes and pictures are saved to the DS card, and with multiplayer I can trade them with friends.
After a hard day’s work of, um, buying clothes, Winston could clean up his room (an organization game where you stack toys into cabinets), comb his fur and brush his teeth. These tasks were accomplished with similar scribbling motions, and then Winston apparently went to bed.
Buying clothes is the only thing to do after you get bored with the minigames. All of the activities are fun for a few minutes, but there just isn’t enough depth to them. Nintendogs was admittedly shallow once you got past the contests, but even then I could boot it up and just play with my dog which was fun all by itself. In contrast, the stuffed animals in Build a Bear feel static and mechanical. Winston never expressed much emotion, and aside from the movements he made to eat and dance, he did seem like a stuffed animal. I couldn’t take him for a walk, I couldn’t pet him or throw him toys to play with. I couldn’t even give my virtual friend a virtual hug, which seems like putting all that stuffing to waste. Maybe they’ll add a hug feature if they make a Wii version.
Build a Bear Workshop feels like a classic case of rushed development. The production values are high, the graphics and sound are good and the concept has promise. The dev team probably spent so much time working on the graphics and interface that they didn’t have much time for the gameplay. The game has numerous features, but none of them are fleshed out; the end product feels more like a tech demo than a finished game. The material is geared toward young kids, but I have a feeling that once they see how static their virtual pet is, they’ll quickly lose interest. I suggest that for a sequel, the developers work on making the minigames more engaging, and giving the pets more personality, so that they’re more fun to play with. Kids like stuffed animals because they are soft, huggable and surrogates for imaginary friends. The puppies in Nintendogs filled this role by being playful and responsive, which is why they are so popular. In that line of thought, maybe including a tiny stuffed bear with copies of a sequel might be a good idea.
Build a Bear Workshop captures the magic of actually building the bear, but after that the game mostly falls flat. There are a lot of activities, but most of these only reward the player with money to buy virtual clothes. With very little interaction with the actual stuffed animals, and minigames that don’t offer engaging gameplay, this game feels more like a proof of concept than a fully realized game.