In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock directed a horror film about birds. Not super-strong hulk birds, or vagina dentata mouthed devil-birds, just regular birds. Pretty weak subject matter for a horror film, but some say that was the whole point. Legend has it that someone close to Hitchcock challenged him to make a horror movie about the least scary subject matter possible, and he chose birds. In case you don't know, Hitchcock was (and still is) commonly regarded as the greatest film director of all time, and by 1963, I'm sure he was looking for opportunities to prove he deserved the title.
What do Hitchcock and The Birds have to do with Let's Catch? Well, the connection may be a little loose, but from where I stand, it makes sense. Yuji Naka, the mind behind the original Sonic games, is one of the most well respected game developers in the history of the medium, but he's yet to prove that he doesn't need cute mascot characters to sell his game. As Hitchcock proved his inarguable mastery of film making by creating a terrifying movie about madly pecking birds, Naka may prove his mastery of game design by making a compelling game where all you do a toss a ball around.
So, did Naka pull it off? Hit the jump to find out.
Let's Catch: (WiiWare)
Let's Catch isn't for everybody, but it may actually win over some of the "hardcore" gamers out there who hate the Wii Sports/Fit/Play movement in gaming that's so big with the mainstream right now. By "some" I mean the type of gamer who loves Gitaroo Man, Elite Beat Agents, the Ace Attorney series, and other games that combine a bizarre, drama/comedy storyline with seemingly unrelated gameplay to form something that's greater than the sum of its parts. These are the types of games that only true fans of the medium are willing to take a chance on, as there is little frame of reference to use to predetermine if the game will work or not. Most Ace Attorney fans didn't know for sure that they would love the series before they played it, as there really isn't any other lawyer-with-a-psychic-sidekick point-and-click adventure game out there. The same can be said of Let's Catch. It looks like a basic motion controlled sports game, but it's actually a talk-to-strangers, provide-psychotherapy-while-smashing-UFOs simulator.
But lets begin at the beginning. Let's Catch is a game where you technically only do one of two things; throw a ball or catch a ball. To throw the ball, you hold A and B, then make a throwing motion with the Wii remote. Curve, angle, and strength of throw are all taken into consideration, though the motion controls aren't totally perfect. Like in Wii Sports Bowling or Golf, you can cheat the system a bit if you don't feel like doing the full range of motion, but that doesn't mean you can completely not try. Throwing the ball too hard or not hard enough will lead you to miss, and in story mode, you only get three "lives" to miss before it's game over.
The other half of the game consists of catching balls, which is actually a lot tougher than throwing. The game "auto aims" your hands for you, so you don't have to aim in order to properly snatch incoming balls. All you have to do is press A and B together just as the ball hit's your hands. It seems easy at first, but once balls start coming at you at +100 mph, it can get tough. Again, three misses and you're out.
There is a way get "lives" back though, and that's to catch or throw a "perfect" ball. That's not all it does though. In fact, throwing (or catching) a perfect ball is actually a pretty big deal in the game, and once you really get into it I guarantee that it will cause you to fist pump and "YEAH!". First, it causes your ball to glow, which is a nice touch. Second, it gives you the maximum amount of points possible for a throw (or catch) which is important for bragging rights and progression through story mode. Also, the game keeps track of how many perfects you can get in a row (via a "perfect combo" counter). Finally, it gives you an extra throw, and that's nice, because running out of throws is the other way you can get a game over.
All this throwing and catching is really just a means to an end, as the real goal of story mode is to get to know your neighbors. You start off as strangers with all nine of the NPCs you meet in the game, but if you can play catch well enough, they'll keep playing with you for long enough to find out all their innermost personal secrets. The game's characters may look cute, but they are dealing with some pretty serious sh*t in their lives. The first kid you play with is witnessing his parents heading towards divorce. Your second playmate is a slightly older girl who has no idea how to grieve her dead mom. From there, you'll meet potential philanderers, virgins, Norman Bates-style psychos, and professional baseball players with problems. As they tell you about their lives, they start to actually come up with ways to get out of all the screwed up drama they're embroiled in. You get to contribute to your new friends becoming emotionally healthier people, and they actually thank you for it.
You also witness UFOs flying in and trying to f*ck up your game. To throw such a videogame-y distraction into a game which can be at times soap opera-serious is a nice touch, and it actually makes logical sense by the time the credits roll. I don't want to give it all away, but lets just say that through playing catch and forming relationships, you end up saving the planet. The game definitely has a message, one of appreciating the little things and taking the time to get involved with the world around you. It may sound corny here, but when you experience this idea through playing the game, it's pretty darn nice.
Also worth noting is how calming this damn game is. I thought Animal Crossing or some of the Harvest Moon games were the epitome of relaxation gaming, but Let's Catch has them beat. The repetitive action of catching and throwing is so soothing it may just put you to sleep, unless you're playing with one of the guys who tosses 100 mph curve balls. In those instances, the game will make you cry, swear, and hate yourself. For a game that only involves two types of gameplay (throwing and catching), it's actually pretty versatile.
Speaking of which, there are quite a few options other than story mode. There is the single player only Speed Catch mode, which give the player a break from throwing and instead involves testing your ability to catch increasingly fast pitches. Conversely, there is Nine Trial mode, which only involves throwing. This is probably the stand out besides story mode, as it allows for 1-4 players, and requires a sizable amount of skill. The game forces you to throw your ball at specific directions and heights in order to knock down nine suspended tiles. Even if you play this one alone, you have direct head-to-head competition with the computer, which is a nice break from the constant cooperation in Story mode. Better though is playing the game with four people at once. The competition gets pretty intense, and as most people have a relatively similar ability to throw a fake videogame baseball, the playing field is pretty even for experienced and rookie gamers alike.
Rounding things out are "hot potato" Bomb Catch mode which also allows for 1-4 players, but is a more luck based than Nine Trial mode, and therefore less satisfying. There's also Free Play and High Score modes, which basically allow you to play catch with another person for no score or a high score, respectively. These modes are a little too slow paced for my blood, but if playing with the right person, I'm sure they could be fun.
The only real complaint I have about Let's Catch is that it still plays it a little too safe. The lives of the NPCs do get pretty shocking, and the UFOs are a bold leap from reality, but it would have been good to see more of that. When Story mode finally ended after just of four hours, I wasn't ready to stop playing. I would have loved to see things keep moving in that direction, with maybe some power-ups, new environments, some even weirder distractions that the UFOs (vagina dentata mouthed birds anyone?) and maybe even the integration of the above mentioned bonus modes into story mode. Throwing bombs at neglectful parents could have been a lot of fun. Hopefully Prope will put out Let's Catch 2: Catch Harder and I'll get my chance.
Overall, Let's Catch achieves what it sets out to do. The story mode will allow you to get to know nine surprisingly interesting characters, and in the process serves as a meditation on relationships, park life, and the glory of throwing a ball at a strangers head. There are also enough bonus modes to keep people interested in a multi-player experience coming back for at least a few weeks, longer if intoxicated. That said, the game's serene pace and simplistic gameplay wont be for everyone. Recommended to fans of weird RPGs and unconventional sports titles, sure to be shunned by haters of all things cute and quirky.
Score: 7.5-- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)