Version tested: Wii
"Guys, after we've finished drinking Mojitos, betting on the wasp races and torching double decker buses for the evening, who wants to come back to mine to play Boom Street, a Wii-based Monopoly variant in which you can buy and sell shares as well as purchasing and upgrading properties?"
Boom Street, I suspect, is going to be something of a hard sell to your peers - regardless of how much you all like a trip to the wasp races. Mario, Luigi, your Miis and even the Dragon Quest gang are all present and correct, but this is no party game collection. There are mini-games, but they're brief, rare and generally rather dull. There are boards themed around Yoshi's Island and Delfino Plaza, but the colour and flair is all cosmetic. Beneath it, Boom Street is a surprisingly complex turn-based affair based on the intricacies of the financial markets. It takes a very long time to play a single match, its depths aren't immediately apparent, and the best way to learn what to do is just to get stuck into one of the ponderous tutorials and embrace your confusion.
If you play by the easy rules, it's actually fairly straightforward. Boom Street is about making money and, as with Monopoly, your job is to move around a board buying properties - shops, on this occasion, rather than entire city blocks - while hoping that your rivals land on them, at which point they'll have to give you some of their cash. Instead of passing Go, you have to pass the Bank, and if you've collected one of each of the playing card suits that are scattered around the board as you make your circuits, you'll get to level up, earning a nice bonus pay-out in the process. Eliot Spitzer would be extremely annoyed if he noticed that. He won't, of course, because he's knee-deep in Manhattan prostitutes.
You can invest in your shops to inflate both their intrinsic value and the fines they impose on other players who land on them, and if you own two or more shops in a row, you automatically boost how much they're worth along with the maximum amount that you can invest in them in the future. There are chance card equivalents that bestow either pleasant or unpleasant twists of fate upon you, and you have to be careful to keep your flow of ready cash up as you build your net worth, because, while net worth is the sum of both your loose change and your investments, you'll need to keep liquid in order to deal with the costs you incur as you amble around.
Motion control is limited to shaking the remote to roll the dice, there are a range of different board layouts to choose from, and every now and then you land on the Arcade square and head off for a simple mini-game distraction, like betting on a horse race, lining up the tumblers of a one-armed bandit, or throwing darts. These games are all rubbish. The overall winner of Boom Street is the player that reaches the board's target level of net worth first, or whoever happens to be ahead when another participant goes bankrupt.
Still here? If you decide to play by the standard rules, things get a bit more interesting. The game's structure remains the same, but the board is now divided up into different districts, and you can choose to buy stocks in these districts every time you pass the Bank. Stocks go up as players invest in shops, and go down if they have to sell them, reverting the property to its original state or breaking a value-boosting chain. Crucially, you don't have to own any of the shops in a district in order to invest in it, and this means that, theoretically, you could win the game without having any tangible brick and mortar assets at all. Further complicating matters is the fact that, if someone lands on a rival's shop in a district you're invested in, you also get a cut of the pay-out.
Most games end with everyone's finances in a rather realistic muddle, hedged across all districts and leveraged in other people's assets as well as their own. (Warning: I may be using these terms without actually knowing what they mean.) There's plenty of scope for strategy, in other words, but it's always pleasantly complex, and it can make predicting any player's fortunes a little tricky at times.
There's a fascinating mixture of co-operative and competitive impulses at work in most tactical approaches, since your own successes can inch your rivals closer to that game-ending money target if they're invested in you, while their losses can adversely affect your shares in them. You'll also need to think carefully about your trips around the board as the games hot up, since, on some of the more complex layouts, doing complete circuits in order to get all the suits and collect the levelling bonus might not be worth the effort if you're risking landing on rival properties at the same time.
The separation of ready cash and net worth, meanwhile, means you always have to balance your long-term ambitions against the possibility of short-term financial disaster. You know, like RBS didn't.
If you're playing alone, the AI enemies are pretty smart, and they all engage in cute character-specific trash-talking as the game goes on. Boom Street's at its best, however, with three local opponents or if you're playing online. (It's very quiet online, mind.) The whole thing's relatively slick - probably owing to the fact that the series has been knocking around in Japan since 1991 - and Square Enix has done its best to bring a touch of fun to the rather dry concept, layering on animated backdrops, familiar soundtracks, and some nice cameos and Mii integration.
Given the subject matter, though, it's a bit like making high-energy physics friendlier by drawing a dancing pixie on the white board. It's not the most convincing of grafts. I enjoy Dragon Quest a lot, but its world of ancient chivalry doesn't have much obvious overlap with the backstabbing and power-brunching of Gordon Gekko, and while I love Mario as much as the next 33-year-old, I'm not sure I want to help him manage his investment portfolio. Shouldn't he be skipping over rainbows or titting about with baby dinosaurs? He'll be writing a will next or having his prostate checked.
The biggest problem is that, due to miscalibrated end-game targets and the inherent complexity of the idea, Boom Street simply takes far too long to play. This isn't really an issue in the single-player campaign, but it means that your chances of scoring a multiplayer match - where the real fun is to be found - are fairly slim. 10 minutes into your first get-together, your compadres may feel that they've been tricked into a poor time investment, and good friends may learn to look the other way or conduct fake mobile phone conversations whenever you amble across the lawn towards them with Boom Street tucked under your arm and a box of After Eights in your hand.
Even if you work your way through the option menus to select the speediest settings for everything, I'm not entirely sure who the audience for this game is meant to be. Kids drawn in by the licensed characters are going to be disappointed that they're getting a crash course in personal finance and supply and demand curves rather than a trip through the chocolate factory, while those looking for a properly complex board game probably don't want to have to faff about with the Wii in order to enjoy themselves. Boom Street's left, then, to capitalise only on the love and appreciation we all feel towards our global banking overlords.
Like I said, it's something of a hard sell.
6 / 10