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Developer: Large Animal | Publisher: D3
Players: 1+ Player Game | Release Date: 09/10/08 | Genre: Sports

rocketbowl.jpgAs Microsoft winds down their Summer of Arcade we’re left wondering what new releases are on the horizon between now and the holiday rush. Typically, this is a down time for new releases, with the Xbox Live crew basically cleaning out the closets and releasing the junk titles in order to make space for the big names coming down the pipe. Thankfully however, RocketBowl stands out from the clutter, offering us a fun and refreshing take on traditionally bowling.

While RocketBowl is technically a bowling game in the fact that you use a ball to try and knock down ten pins in as many shots as possible, the similarities end there. Most notably, the courses in the game are about as far from a typical bowling alley as you can get, and more closely resemble a miniature golf course. Hills, ponds, ramps and even loops stand between you and the pins, and just trying to get your ball to its prey is an adventure in itself.

You aren’t left completely defenseless in this alien world however, as the game provides you with a few tools to help get the job done. The first is a rocket boost (from which the game gets its namesake) that allows you to suddenly alter your ball’s trajectory to the left or right, or even up in the air. This little addition is an integral part of the game, as you won’t make it far without mastering the rocket boost. The only real downside to the boosts are that they are nearly uncontrollable, making them difficult to deploy in a consistently useful manner. They’re a great tool when they work, but when a last-second boost causes you to miss the pins entirely, it can cause a fair amount of frustration.

Not that missing the pins is a big deal in RocketBowl, as you are actually encouraged to eschew the frame you are on and take shots at other areas on the course. You see, since all ten pin sets are situated around the arena, you can simply skip the group you’re working on now and aim at an entirely different set on the other side of the level. In fact, you’re encouraged to take these “Wild Shots,” and success earns you stars, which is the game’s version of currency used to buy new, better bowling balls. You can also earn stars by finding them scattered around the course, so this is one title where the traditions of the sport are thrown out the window in favor a more laid-back, exploration-based approach.

Further reinforcing this notion of an entirely different take on bowling is the fact that you are given three shots per frame instead of the standard two. The leeway this offers gives you the opportunity to size up your second shot, and if you think a spare is in hand, simply go hunt for another set of pins, secure in the knowledge that you can grab those stragglers on your third shot and reap the same reward. Also, the extra shot gives you a chance to clean up missed pins, so if you left a nasty split on the 4th frame then now you can go back and pick it up by attacking it from a different angle. The idea of being able to shoot any pins at any time as well as having an extra throw to play with really opens up the game and sets it apart from every other bowling title I’ve ever played.

Of course, all of this neat course design and special power-ups wouldn’t mean much if there wasn’t anything to do, but thankfully RocketBowl features 10 very unique courses and a bunch of modes to keep you busy. On the single player side you can choose to engage in Free Play, where you head out to a course and try for a high score, Challenge, which pits you against an AI foe for a little bit of cash, or a 5-player tournament with winnings for finishing first, second or third. Of the three modes, Challenge is the weakest due to the fact that your opponent exists as nothing more than a picture and a quick blurb, and you don’t even have the option to watch his shots or interact in any way. Free Play is deep on replayability due to the fact that you have to get a certain score on each course in order to unlock the next one. The difficulty on these scales nicely, with early courses offering little resistance, but later affairs cause you to consider each and every shot very carefully in order to maximize your score.

Multiplayer offers both standard and alternating shot varieties, both available either locally or via Xbox Live. Unfortunately, it can be rather hard to find an online game since it appears there aren’t a lot of people playing this one online. Of course, if you’re inspired by reading this and decide to give RocketBowl a try you’ll be contributing to the solution, meaning that eventually the lobbies will be full and matches will be going off continually.

There are a couple other small issues to note about the game, none of which should dissuade you from a purchase. The first regards ball control after you hit the pins, or rather the lack thereof. Once your ball even glances a pin, you are completely locked out of controlling it, and all other pin sets basically turn into concrete. While the pins will still carom wildly and the ball can still come back and knock down anything still standing, all other parts of the course are essentially locked, and there’s no way to guide your ball back to try and finish off a shot. For a game that embraces the unorthodox, why place these restrictions? I think it would be great to attack two or three sets of pins with a well-considered shot, or even to be able to bring my ball back around for a chance to clean up missed pins, but once initial contact is made, that option is out of your hands. It’s too bad, as it’s easily one of the game’s biggest drawbacks.

The other potential issue is the music, which you’ll either love or hate. The game mixes a sort of 50s light-pop with modern techno, creating a mash-up that some will appreciate while others abhor. I personally enjoy the tunes, finding them to be peppy and fun, but I know of others who believe it to be grating. The good news is that you can always boot up your personal playlist, so the music choices really shouldn’t prevent you from buying this title.

While RocketBowl doesn’t share many of the common sensibilities of a traditional bowling game, the changes it makes are nearly uniformly fun and really add to the experience. The fusion of traditional bowling with miniature golf style courses and balls that can quickly veer from side to side or even up in the air create an experience that is unlike any other, and ultimately a lot of fun to play. If you’re looking for a fun, fresh twist on a classic sport then look no further, this is the game for you.

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By Brad Hilderbrand - 10/01/08

Screenshots for RocketBowl

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