Carnival Games is an unwelcome trip to the past

Posted on November 15, 2018

“This is the greatest carnival show on Earth!” says the Carnival Games announcer during my game of Batter Up, possibly sarcastically. “We’ve spared no expense…or spent no expense, something like that”. It’s almost enough to believe the game has some semblance of self-awareness of how cheap and barebones its presentation is.

Carnival Games on the Nintendo Switch is a remaster of sorts of the original Carnival Games on the Wii and DS. It wasn’t very well received back in the day, but clearly sold well enough to warrant being re-released 11 years later on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Doing so in the same year as a new Mario Party instalment (and selling it at the same premium price) certainly shows confidence, but I don’t think it was particularly warranted. Carnival Games is harmless enough as a party game, I suppose, but I still can’t understand the logic behind many of the design decisions made with this port.

Firstly, some details. Carnival Games is a collection of 20 minigames, all loosely centred around the theme of carnival attractions.  The minigames are quite brief and last for about a minute each. Here, we hit the first hurdle, as whilst there are theoretically 20 games, the player only has access to 8 to begin with. The rest must be unlocked by spending Bonus Tickets that are earned from playing the games. The problem here is that party games thrive on variety. Whilst 20 is already pretty threadbare, 8 is downright anaemic. If you have purchased Carnival Games ahead of a gathering to play with friends and family, you had better hope they would be entertained by those eight games, otherwise you’ve got some grinding to do to expand the selection.

Whilst the price for some of them isn’t too bad at around 25 tickets, the most expensive is 1000! Considering you only get around 10-20 tickets if you win (and as few as 1 if you lose), the amount of repetitive minigames that Carnival Games expects you to play to access all of its content is ridiculous.

And repetitive is the right word to describe these games. Back on the Wii, these games were designed to be played with only the remote, without any nunchuck support. On the Switch, this translates to every game only using the A button and the analogue stick for input. Simple design in party games can be a useful asset, as a means of making them accessible to people who may not play many other games. However the shallow mechanics and lack of variety really starts to sink in after a while, especially considering how often you have to replay the same games over and over again.

There are motion control options, but this is related to Carnival Games’ other baffling design decision: you’ve got to unlock those as well. Weirdly, for a game originally made for the Wii, and re-released on another console with motion control support, the ability to play these carnival games with motion controls is something that has to be unlocked via achieving a high score. That’s a specific high score per game, as well, so you have to be good enough at each game with the manual controls to unlock the motion control option. Whilst not every game in the Carnival Games collection is improved by motion controls, there still isn’t any reason to lock that functionality behind a high score.

Carnival Games isn’t really designed for single player. If you’re buying this at all, make sure you have other humans to play it with locally. There is no online support, nor any game modes beyond free play or various tournaments against AI players chosen from the minigames you have unlocked.

As for positives, the game’s carnival aesthetics are kind of charming. It makes the corny dad jokes uttered by the narrator and the otherwise dated graphics kind of endearingly nostalgic. Whilst the presentation looks quite cheap, so do many of the real life carnival attractions that the video game is evoking. The player is able to design and customise their own little avatar and buy accessories for them with tickets. Obviously, I would suggest saving up tickets for buying new minigames first, but it is fun to kit out your avatar with new hats and shirts.

So is it worth your money? Certainly not at a premium price, at least not whilst there are better party games out there on the Switch. If you have young children or more inexperienced gamers who might be drawn to Carnival Games’ simple design, this game might be appropriate. However, in terms of value for money, there are far superior options out there. Carnival Games is a kind of trip back to the era of the Wii, which  became a bastion for this kind of cheap shovelware . These games were designed less to be engaging experiences, and more to be cheaply cobbled together, hoping unsuspecting parents pick it up for their children and not notice the lack of effort put into the game itself.  That kind of design philosophy has mostly migrated to mobile platforms nowadays. That a game like Carnival Games is getting a full-priced boxed retail release on modern consoles is fairly surprising, to say the least.

Fundamentally, there just isn’t much to recommend about Carnival Games, and the grind required to unlock most of the content makes it hard to recommend to anyone looking for a simple party game. Carnival Games will certainly pass the time, but you could be having much more fun with almost any other local multiplayer game on the Switch.