I think it’s fair to say that the two most maligned game genres today are movie tie-in games and party games. Movie tie-in games are, I imagine, viewed a little worse by gamers, probably because of the cynicism involved; they are usually sloppily put together cash-grabs designed to attract less discerning shoppers on the name of their licensed property alone. Party games, meanwhile, are now seen mainly as shovelware thanks to the Wii and its hunger for games that take advantage of its motion control scheme, a scheme that often lends itself to short bursts of multiplayer goodness the Wii specializes in. It’s too bad that for every decent party game, there seem to be 20 bad ones that simply ape the formulas that worked before but manage to miss the fun.
So what does it mean for a game that manages to exist in both of those much-maligned genres? To me it means that the game in question is going to have to double-down on what it does right and squeeze out every last bit of fun that can be had without overstaying its welcome. To fail at that means success for such a game is less likely than summitting Everest with no legs - while on fire.
That’s the unenviable position that THQ’s Rio finds itself in. It is a party game and
a movie tie-in game, and the movie it ties into isn’t some comic book adaptation with a built in audience of fanboys. Rio is a childrens' movie about anthropomorphic birds from the movie studio responsible for the Ice Age franchise. We’re not talking about heady, intellectual stuff. We are talking about talking birds in Brazil, the land of beaches, big butts, and bikinis. So, arguably, from the perspective of an average gamer, Rio has an extra strike against it because it’s childish. But, of course, the game is not for them; it is aimed firmly at the same audience as the movie - children (or, more importantly, their parents’ wallets). To me, that fact works both for and against it.
As a party game, it is, of course, nothing but Rio themed mini-games using characters from the film and environments that seem only loosely connect to it. They consist of simple variations on “beach,” “city,” and “snow.” (the “snow” will make more sense to those that have seen the movie - but no spoilers here) The idea of simple variations on repeating themes is pervasive throughout the entire game, leeching from the environments to the actual games themselves. There are actually 43 different mini-games in Rio, but there are only about four or five different types. It can be disappointing when a mini-game with an interesting title turns out to be nothing but the same kind of rhythm matching or musical chairs variation you’ve already played 20 times.
Anyway, there are five modes: Story, Party, Carnaval Wheel, Garland Gala, and Carnival Dance. However, again, these are all just variation on the same theme. Except for the Story mode (which sees main character, Blu, taking part in various mini-games while roughly touching on the film’s plot), the other modes are essentially identical, save for the arbitrary method for which the winner is determined. For example, in Carnaval Wheel, which is hosted by a far too talkative marmoset, the players take turns spinning a wheel to select the game and the point total the winner receives (anywhere from 10 points to 100 points). Wild Cards (up to three over 12 rounds) can be played that double the winner’s point total. At the end, the winner is the one with the highest point total. The other three named modes are similar but with different hosts and slightly different winning conditions. The mode’s host will choose the mini-games, you will play a certain number of rounds (usually 10), then a winner will be crowned and you will get a dull podium shot where the winner is all smiles and the losers all look like they need to be put on suicide watch.
However, mode that will most likely get the most play because of its simpler rules and ability to select mini-games yourself will be Party mode. Party mode allows the players to play 1, 5, 10, or 20 rounds with each finishing position assigned its own point total, and then at the end the player with the highest point total wins. This separates it from the other modes in that you need not ever finish first in an individual round to have the highest overall score. The other modes are often brutal to the losers, ensuring one player can, by winning a few rounds, dominate the final scoring. Party mode is much more forgiving in that regard. Another nice feature Party Mode has that the others don’t is the ability to select what games you want to play or let the AI randomize them from all 43 possibilities.
So from a gameplay standpoint, that’s really all there is to Rio. You get 43 mini-games to challenge your friends, family, or the AI (sorry, but there’s no online multiplayer). The graphics are better than to be expected (the game look pretty freaking nice, if you ask me), the sound is appropriate, if a tad bombastic and assaultive, there is little in the way of voice acting, and the story, such as it is, follows the movie. It seems like the perfect game for adults and their children to play together; however, there are a few issues that pop up that could significantly affect the enjoyment you and your family might find with Rio.
The biggest problem for me is that the constantly shifting games, with their disparate colors, playing fields, rules, and gameplay angles, could make the game tough for the younger gamer, and, frankly, it was almost too much for me sometimes. It was very easy to lose track of my character or miss minor variation in the rules between one game and the next if they were of similar styles. Maybe that makes me sound like an old fogey who just can’t handle modern games, but I’d challenge anyone to not be distracted by the shifting kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and angles Rio often throws at you, especially if you’re partaking in one of the longer, say between 12 and 20 round, matches.
Another issue I had was that there is just too much talking. Hosts go on and on explaining the rules of their particular mode and offering between-round snark. Sure, you can usually just hit A to skip through all that stuff, but maybe that just means they knew there was too much and it was too annoying. Why go to the trouble of putting it in there if you know you’re just going to need to give the player a way to not see or hear it? That screams sloppiness and inattention to what the game needs for it to work and be entertaining.
On top of hosts that talk too much, your opponents in each mini-game mug for the camera too much and all come with creepy, dead-behind-the-eyes expressions plastered across their faces. The assortment of birds that make up the selectable characters aren’t very expressive to begin with, and that’s just magnified when the same one wins a few games in a row and you’re treated to their plastic doll face pulling extra smug off the shelf and then stabbing you in the eye with it. Disembodied expressions just creep me out and Rio has that particular brand of nightmare fuel in spades.
Ultimately, the biggest failing for me is that Rio is just a movie tie-in and as such, is far more concerned with selling the movie than it is at being a solid game. One look at the loading screens that are essentially character one-sheets you might find hanging in a movie theater, or the cut-scenes from the story mode that are like worse looking scenes from the movie and you’ll see it for what it is: a movie advertisement. That fact would be so much more palatable if the game wasn’t riddled mini-games and modes that lack real variety and everything wasn’t just a variation on an established theme. From the talking birds that are just like every other talking animal since Mister Ed, to games that all fall into one of a shockingly small number of basic templates, nothing in Rio is original. It is competent, sure, and it can be fun in small doses, but it is not interesting and it certainly won’t have legs with anyone other than children who have seen the movie, and even they might find themselves turned off by its little annoyances sooner rather than later.