- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Here’s a look at some hardware and software: Thrillville from LucasArts (for Xbox, Rated: Everyone 10 and older, $39.99)

The company known for Star Wars video games asks players to concentrate on G-force rather than the Force in a fun theme-park-building challenge.

I know it sounds odd, but LucasArts has teamed up with the makers of the PC favorite Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 to deliver a less intimidating version of its real-time management simulator.

In Thrillville, the player personalizes and becomes a park manager and, with help from eccentric founder Uncle Mortimer (who looks like a cousin of “Back to the Future’s” Doc Brown), must take control of all aspects of five theme parks and turn them into economically profitable businesses.

The manager not only must watch finances and utilities, hire employees, gauge the reactions of park attendees and build new attractions and facilities (with 75 types available), but also must ride the rides, have long conversations with guests and even train new employees as he walks around and interacts with his dominion.

The daunting task is monitored via a drop-down menu system that offers 150 missions to make the experience more focused and less overwhelming for the new manager.

The high points of the simulation come down to the construction of slick roller coasters, race tracks and miniature golf courses, and taking part in the midway games.

A coaster builder lays pieces of track and deducts the cost with the press of a button and analog stick. It also can suggest various layouts. The other track/course builders are just as easy to design. Blueprints in a range of themes also are available.

The manager can try out the completed coaster (with multiple camera angles), race a vehicle or tackle his golf course.

Twenty-two playable midway games include arcade side-scrolling classics, first-person shooters, over-the-top fighters and puzzlers.

The manager must train his staff through more minigames that will have him mimicking dance moves by following on-screen directions for his entertainers; connecting circuits to help the maintenance men; and even helping the janitorial staff clean up.

The weirdest part of the simulation is conversations with guests. To make friends with them, the player must select dialogue topics to fill up a friendship meter.

Mangers can ask about the park experience, offer a hug or spout out strange trivia to get guests to warm up to them. I was fascinated by quips about the fly being the most dangerous creature in the world and the information that a piece of paper can be folded just seven times, but I’m not sure how they came to fit into this game.

Even more bizarre, the manager can flirt with guests to the point of one of them falling in love with him. Unlike real life, this doesn’t require a lawyer mode for the manager to defend himself against the sexual harassment suits that probably would follow.

Additionally, up to three other players can join in for the minigame portion of the show, as they can challenge one another or work together on 18 of the games.

Viva Pinata from Microsoft Game Studios (For Xbox 360, Rated: Everyone, $49.99)

Those tired of managing an amusement park can take control of a beautiful world inhabited by cute creatures in a simulation that is Microsoft’s more robust version of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing.

Just after the opening animation, the player is awarded a piece of real estate and given a shovel to clear out a piece of land and create the perfect garden to attract some of the 60 varieties of pinatas.

Once a few stop by, if the creatures find their new area suitable, they will transform from black-and-white to color and stick around. The gardener must manage, customize and take care of his new flock.

Chores include planting grass and picking produce, weeding, keeping the peace among pinatas and collecting chocolate coins to upgrade equipment, purchase landscaping material and even build habitats specific to species.

To add an industrial livestock twist to the action, the owner can mate his animals and sell them to make additional income, a rather lucrative venture. However, the emotional precipice is steep — cutting loose a friendly pet pinata might be tough to handle for children and even adults.

On a humorous note, my young tester called it an “arguing game” because when the entire family tries to tend to the ever-evolving garden, there is plenty of discussion, occasionally heated, as Junior tells Mom or Dad what to do next. Or worse, both have controllers and try to coax each other cooperatively into a selection.

Still, Viva Pinata will thrill younger players and parents with an engaging simulation that looks ready to pop out of a high-definition television screen as the lush growth and colorful creatures interact with their surroundings.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).

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