Games 12/14/10: uDraw GameTablet, uDraw Studio, The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, The Moonsters

uDraw GameTablet (includes uDraw Studio)
For: Wii
From: Pipeworks Software/THQ
Price: $70
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It probably goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, the uDraw GameTablet and accompanying “uDraw Studio” software are not optimized to facilitate the creation of serious artwork. The tablet isn’t as pressure-sensitive as a comparably-priced PC tablet, and while you can export your artwork to an SD card, the dimensions of the image (576 pixels wide, 396 pixels long) and the presence of a “uDraw Studio” watermark in the lower left corner aren’t exactly conducive to any kind of presentation beyond sharing with friends.

But just as “Mario Paint” became a sensation in 1992 despite coming nowhere close to playing in Adobe Premiere’s ballpark, “Studio” need not mimic Corel Paint to fulfill its promise as a fun and inexpensive outlet for kids and casual artists to flash some creativity. And because THQ has accompanied the uDraw’s launch with two other games that take advantage of the device in wholly different ways, it has positioned it as perhaps the only Wii peripheral besides the Balance Board to receive meaningful software support going forward.

Quibbles with pressure sensitivity aside, the uDraw is otherwise gifted with smart design choices. It contains a slot in which to pop a Wii remote, which gives the device a familiar array of buttons on the left side and access to the B trigger on the underside. The remote also provides all power to the tablet, which means that in addition to requiring no extra batteries, the tablet is as wireless and easy to pass around as any other controller.

The large stylus contains a useful two-function button (imagine a computer mouse’s two buttons fused into one) on its side, and while it is tethered to the tablet, the cord does not detract from the comfort of holding it. In a nice touch, the tablet includes two spots for storing the stylus — flat on the underside or like a quill in the top right corner — when not in use.

“Studio’s” design isn’t quite so elegant, and parents should make a point to run through the manual in order to help kids get comfortable with what initially is an intimidating and clumsily-arranged menu interface. “Studio’s” range of tools — multiple painting and drawing tools, multiple color pickers, stamps, filters — is impressive, but its interface organization requires some patient acclimation before it feels natural. (Tip: Though you can activate and navigate the tools palettes with the stylus buttons, using the remote is considerably more convenient.)

The good news is that once it feels natural, actually drawing with the uDraw works well. The limited pressure sensitivity provides some roadblocks, but it’s still entirely possible to create some legitimately great art using the tools on hand. The limitations placed on exported files is a real downer, but anyone who simply wants to sketch, save and share their creations can still easily do so if those limitations aren’t a problem.

It’s entirely feasible, anyway, that THQ could follow up “Studio” with a more powerful, more streamlined sequel, because the studio so far has backed up its claims that it will support the uDraw with more software than Nintendo usually produces for its own neglected peripherals. Already, the puzzle adventure game “Dood’s Big Adventure” provides a great showcase of the tablet’s strengths as applied to a traditional video game, while “Pictionary” freshens up a classic party game and demonstrates how much fun it is to pass the tablet around the room. THQ claims it has software tentatively lined up for release through the beginning of 2012, so the tablet’s future appears to be a bright one.

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The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Blitz Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The paradoxically great news about “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” is that while it makes an alarmingly unfavorable first impression by botching the easy part, it redeems itself 10 times over by getting the hard part right — and, in doing so, demonstrating how viable Kinect is as a fitness tool.

Before you find that out, though, you must contend with the game’s menu interface, which is an exercise in itself. Very few Kinect games have demonstrated an aptitude for controller-free menu navigation, and “Workout” is especially poor. The buttons are too small, the time needed to hold your hand in place to activate them is too long, and the cursor compounds these issues by having a slight mind of its own and occasionally wandering off the button just before it activates. With practice and some familiarity with the wandering cursor’s ways, the problem becomes surmountable in the main menus. But when the interface calls for more precision — most notably, during the character creation area — you’ll just wish Microsoft would force developers to enable the controller as an optional means for menu navigation.

Fortunately, “Workout” demonstrates a whole different level of savvy when the task of actually working out is at hand.

Though “Workout” lets you take on its exercises as you please, its best offering is the availability of circuit-training sessions designed by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, whose likenesses appear in the game as personal trainers. “Workout” allows you to design your own sessions, but its strength is its ability to tailor routines around basic settings (difficulty, length) and lay them out in a Fitness Program mode that gives you a calendar, goals and a clear picture of forward progress.

In action, the game absolutely shines. During all activities, a solid-colored likeness of your real self appears in the lower right corner, and the color of that likeness — ranging from green (perfect) to yellow (OK) to red (bad) — provides simple, continual feedback on how closely you’re replicating each exercise. Additional details above and below the likeness offer more specific feedback, making it easy to see what you’re doing wrong and what adjustments are necessary to correct it. The trainers repeat their lines a lot, sometimes consecutively, but for exercises that have you facing sideways, the spoken feedback’s value outweighs its repetition. (Thanks to the Kinect’s microphone, you can even talk back when your trainer asks if you need a break or are ready for something tougher.)

All this feedback checks out, too, because “Workout” is surprisingly good at reading and diagnosing the specifics of its exercises. Misinterpretations are inevitable, but the game never completely fouls up even when an exercise seems too complex for Kinect’s eyes, and the constant feedback makes it easy to understand and correct the source of the confusion when it pops up.

“Workout’s” impressive capacity makes it easy to let the Fitness Program take the lead and throw out whatever workout sessions it feels are best for your personal progress, and those willing to let it go further can also utilize the game’s secondary features, which include fitness tips, a calorie tracker, body analysis, extracurricular activities and mini-game challenges inspired by the challenges seen on the show. Those who want the full show experience can even participate in weigh-ins and record video diaries for posterity. You can’t plot against your fellow ranchers like they so often do on the show, but up to four players can play challenges and participate in multiplayer workouts over Xbox Live.

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The Moonsters
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ars Thanea
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Though it’s easy and helpful to compare the basic controls of “The Moonsters” to those of “Angry Birds,” the game does too much differently — and does it too well — to simply dismiss it as yet another “Birds” imitation product. Instead of launching birds sideways, you’re launching a trio of silly looking aliens (called Moonsters) upward. The goal is to collect pieces of space tofu sprinkled around the area rather than wreak havoc. The key to a perfectly-placed shot relies more on geometry than physics. And instead of allowing multiple attempts per round, “The Moonsters” wants you to collect all the tofu in one strike. Perfection isn’t mandatory, and so long as you collect enough pieces to meet each level’s quota, the game scores and grades the effort and opens up the next level. But “The Moonsters” is most fun when it comes down to discovering the secret angle that results in a perfect score in each of the 100 levels, and it further encourages chasing perfection with Game Center achievements, high score leaderboards, a completely painless trial-and-error interface, and a story with three unlockable endings. Those secret endings hold more value than is initially apparent, because in addition to playing well, “The Moonsters” is gifted with a charming story, great character design, a sublime graphical style, and some of the most pleasantly catchy music to grace a mobile phone game.