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.
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