After years of mini-game compilations on the Wii (it does turn five tomorrow afterall), one can't help but cringe at the thought of another, on any platform, ever. I was surprised to see SCEA was doing their own for the Move. Carnival Island is indeed a collection of mini-games, but it's done with a certain first-party moxy that makes it a pretty solid release, especially for families with younger gamers.
Carnival Island takes a little while to load when you first launch it, around 20-30 seconds, which was not a great first impression. But, beyond some strangely long load times when switching to different zones on the island, Carnival Island has a charming presentation. The game begins with a brief three-point controller calibration and then you are asked to choose from one of nine animals, or pets. These include Spats the beaver and Larry the lizard, even a triceratops and a mammoth are available. At this point you are creating your profile. All the while, some pleasant whimsical music plays in the background.
With the profile created, you are taken to the main menu, from which you can alter some very basic options, view unlocked movies, start party mode (2, 3, and 4 player support), and launch the Story mode. Story mode was my obvious choice, and it begins with a nicely animated cutscene depicting a young boy at a carnival. He finds two magical tickets and is apparently transported to the same carnival but in an alternate dimension. I may be mis-reading the events in the cutscene or making too much of it, but the gist of it is that your character is tasked with restoring the magic to Carnival Island. To do this, you must play the various carnival games and "awaken" the island animals.
The island is split into four sections, all of which you can go to at your leisure. Each area -- Boardwalk, Shell Beach, Treehouse Way, and Ferris Park, contains a pair of primary mini-games with five variants each that you unlock as you complete challenges. Boardwalk has mini bowl and ringers. Shell Beach has hoops and frog bog. Treehouse Way has perfect pitch and shooting gallery, and Ferris park has the coin toss and magic mirror events. So at Ferris Park, I had to complete a couple of the challenges in the first coin toss event before unlocking the second one. Each of the following four events that you unlock under the primary one uses the same motion control, the game just looks and plays a little bit differently. The first coin toss game had large areas where my coin could land for points, the second game changed the points layout areas drastically.
The Frog Bog games on Shell Beach change similarly. In each Frog Bog event, you use a hammer-swinging motion to get your frog to jump, but what happens after that will vary between the different Frog Bog mini-games. In one, you are sending the frog straight ahead or to the left and right to try to hit all of the points squares. In a later Frog Bog event, you are tasked with launching your frog and then slowly guiding him (like a helicopter that is on a constant descent) to the best possible points-landing you can.
Having several primary games, that use different motion controls, and then challenges (and rewards) and additional modes using the same motion works rather well. The differences between one mini-game and another, within the same tier, is enough to make it feel like a reasonably different game, even though the controls are the same. In any event, each game is short, with either a timer counting down or a counter indicating how many coins or hammer swings you have left.
Each game has Challenges, usually five to nine, that you can view and try to achieve. The more challenges you get the more content unlocks. Meanwhile, the more points you earn from within a mini-game, the more tickets you earn. Tickets are used to play other games and to also buy a variety of souvenirs from Granny's store. You can also buy balloons and photo-effects so that your pictures at the camera booth, which you can save, will have a unique effect applied to them.
Another really cool thing about playing and doing well in the mini-games is that you awaken new animals. Waking more animals is important if you want to get that old ferris wheel running again, according to Happy Jack, the old carnival worker that acts as the game's primary NPC. Additionally, the more animals you restore, the more lively the carnival environment gets. There are a ton of different animals, from hippos to ant-eaters, to fish, and all of them are presented with a unique-trait (the whale likes bacon, for example). Better still is that once you awaken/unlocked the animal, you will see it randomly in the game world.
All of these ideas come together to make a neat carnival-like environment that just gets more interesting as you play more. Players can learn little tidbits about the history of the island and its inhabitants by press X (which is labeled Gossip) when talking to an NPC. The character will reply with bit of information. It's a small feature, but a fairly interesting one.
As far as the motion controls go, some of the games take some getting used to, but the motion controls work well. Judging the intensity at which you need to move the controller was my biggest learning curve. Whether I was playing hoops, perfect pitch, or coin toss, it was hard to know how quickly I needed to move the controller. It took a few 'locators' to get the hang of it, but even if you fail, you get your ticket back and you can always restart a game as many times as you want.
To the summary...
Quite possibly the best mini-game compilation title I have played on any platform, Carnival Island does a great job of catering to a younger audience but simultaneously keeps things interesting enough for older gamers.