Bowling is such a weird sport. It’s barely even really a sport. It’s more of an activity. Calling bowling a sport is almost like calling pinball a sport, Then again, there are people who unironically use the world “e-sports” to describe Starcraft and DOTA/League of Legends so that particular hair has been split so many times that it would give a beautician a heart attack.
What makes bowling so strange is that it’s almost exclusively a secondary activity. When most people go bowling, they don’t really want to bowl. It’s an excuse to socialize, hang out, eat crappy food, and drink beer if they are over 21 or bowling at an establishment that cares more about cash payments than state IDs.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who enjoys bowling. It’s just a thing to do. If you’re not rich enough to go yachting, not coordinated enough to go dancing, and not addicted enough to shoot up heroin in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, you and your friends go bowling. Nobody likes it, but everyone tolerates it well enough. At least that’s been my experience.
This makes bowling a difficult sport (or activity) to translate into a video game. It isn’t particularly fun on its own, and its entertainment value is usually entirely dependent on the people who you are bowling with. Video game golf carries similar baggage, in that the game is often more about socializing than playing, but there is far more appeal to virtual golf. Golf fans can appreciate the replication of real world courses, and there are at least a number of high-profile golf tournaments that can be leveraged into a game. Bowling alleys, on the other hand, all look alike. And unless you can somehow get the smell of stale nachos to waft out of your Xbox 360’s cooling vent, there is nothing about the ambiance that a video game can replicate.
The best bowling game ever made, by far, is Wii Sports. Not because it pays any attention to detail or makes any attempt to accurately portray the game. It doesn’t. Rather, it successfully simulates the social aspect of bowling. It turns bowling into a party game, which is what bowling has always really been. Bowling and Wii Sports are both something to do in the background, with family or friends, while talking and eating and having a good time that only tangentially has anything to do with the game you’re playing. And that’s fine. Hell, the bowling in Wii Sports may have single-handedly supported the entire Wii Console. It was the best part of Wii Sports (Tennis being a close second) and Wii Sports was everything to the Wii.
Where Wii Sports succeeded, someone had to fail. Someone had to think that an accurate simulation of bowling was a good idea. Someone had to misunderstand the appeal of the game, and strive to impart every aspect of bowling except the discomfort and horror of wearing someone else’s shoes. And someone had to think that the best platforms for this game were the PS1 and N64. And so we are brought to this week’s game: Brunswick Circuit Pro Bowling.
Brunswick Circuit Pro is another product of the late, somewhat great folks over at THQ. It’s not surprising that THQ keeps showing up as I go through these games. THQ is responsible for many high quality games, but has a history of misguided ambition and questionable decisions in chasing the mass market. Recently, this was their undoing as they bet their company on a conceptually terrible Call of Duty clone Homefront and the frankly bizarre uDraw peripheral.
The uDraw sought to respond to the needs of a chronically under-served audience, people who wanted to play video games using a Wacom tablet. These people realized the faults of the controller and the mouse/keyboard and had spent years wishing for a better option, like a tool designed exclusively for drawing and digital art. Now, I don’t own a uDraw, but I have at least heard that it is reasonably well-designed hardware. For its price, apparently it worked quite well. Unfortunately for THQ, the only people who wanted to hook up a tablet to their video game consoles all either owned Wiis and were desperate for anything that didn’t require waggle to play or worked at THQ. The PS3 and Xbox 360 uDraw tablet was a disaster and so many uDraw devices were manufactured, left unsold, and liquidated in bankruptcy that the tablets are now a secondary currency throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Like the uDraw, Brunswick Circuit Pro is a product designed for an audience that doesn’t exist. It wants to be the Madden or Fifa of bowling, except that unlike football or “football”, if someone wants to go bowling they don’t have to lower themselves to a blocky n64 representation of bowling. They can just…go bowling. There are bowling alleys everywhere, and in my experience they’re not usually packed.
I hesitate to go into much detail regarding the gameplay of Brunswick Circuit Pro because it is about as generic as possible. Pick a trajectory for the ball, then two meters pop up on the screen for power and accuracy. You want to stop both of these meters in the green to keep the ball on target. Variations on the dual power/accuracy dynamic has been around forever, and it’s nothing special. I don’t mean this as a knock on Brunswick Circuit Pro specifically. This is a control scheme well implemented in a bowling game. The fact that the entire game can be boiled down to the same mechanic used for kickoffs in Madden is mostly an indictment of bowling itself.
Despite my criticism, I will say that Brunswick Circuit Pro is faithful to my experiences bowling, which have taught me that no matter how well you think you hit the pins, two or three will always stay standing. Yes, there are factors to consider like spin and hook that would solve this problem and these factors probably make sense to the kind of people who would appreciate Brunswick Circuit Pro. As for me, I learned early on that I had my best success at bowling when I threw the ball relatively slowly, in an awkward fashion that probably would have destroyed my wrist if I attempted to do it on a regular basis. I never did attempt to do it on a regular basis because it made me look like an idiot and I had enough of that outside of bowling.
Not only does Brunswick Circuit Pro attempt to faithfully recreate bowling as a sport rather than a social activity, but it also features the names and likenesses of a number of famous bowlers. That’s right; there are exist people who have some right to be called famous bowlers. This isn’t a joke. These aren’t characters from “The Big Lebowski”. They are real human beings who have made a career out of bowling. Their names include such luminaries as Mike Aulby, Parker Bohn III, and one real motherfucker named Johnny Petraglia.
Let me tell you about Johnny Petraglia. I started up an exhibition match against this jerk. Don’t know why i chose him. Maybe I subconsciously knew what was coming and I hate myself. After I was done, I looked him up and found out that Johnny Petraglia was a loyal promoter for Brunswick products for decades, so maybe I picked the absolute wrong opponent. But keep in mind, I set the game to rookie difficulty. This was my first time out. I was just getting used to the controls. Most games have some sort of learning curve. Brunswick Circuit Pro has this:
As you can see, Petraglia obliterated me. He was Carlos Beltran and I was an AJ Burnett fastball. I didn’t stand a chance as he threw eight strikes and manages splits on every other frame. Now, as I understand competitive bowling, this is how it usually goes. Strikes are common. Scores routinely reach into the 200s. That’s fine, but again it speaks to the misguided motivation behind Brunswick Circuit Pro. Who the hell wants to wants to play professional bowling? There’s little variation of outcome in a bowling match where strikes are expected.
Ultimately, Brunswick Circuit Pro is a failure because it doesn’t understand why people bowl. It represents the fundamental mistakes that THQ would make over ten years later, resulting in its demise. From Homeland to uDraw, to the Red Faction series, which stripped out literally everything that people liked about Guerrilla, THQ seemed to fail to comprehend why people enjoyed video games. And it can all be traced back to a day when they believed that anyone actually wanted to go bowling.