Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

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It's my party and I'll cry if I want to.

If you can't tell from the arbitrary use of capital letters in the title, the opening screen spells it out for you as super-deformed cartoon characters - a punk, a goth, a rapper, sundry sexy babes - strike ker-azy poses, while infantile bouncing funk dribbles from the PSP speakers. The press material actually uses the phrase "cool skater kids" without a hint of irony. Yes, we are firmly in the realm of wacky yoof gaming.

Wacky as in Timmy Mallett, Steve Wright In The Afternoon and The Sodding Chuckle Brothers. The worst kind of wacky, in other words.

Now, I'm not one of those gamers who turn up their nose at anything that might look silly or frivolous. I think games should be fun and I've never subscribed to the notion that big guns, fountains of gore and gravel-voiced grittiness automatically makes a game "mature" or "adult". Quite the opposite really. Girls are way more impressed by a man who's confident enough in his masculinity to make a tit of himself so, ever since being utterly enchanted by Bishi Bashi Special, I've had a big throbbing soft spot for the mini-party-game genre, especially when the result combines instantly appealing miniature challenges alongside a devilishly daft sense of humour.

Kazook (balls to your rogue capitalisation, sir) aims for this target, but falls way, way short.

Short Round

Ooh! A button-matching dance game. Didn't see that one coming.

There are 30 mini-games lurking within the slender white arch of this UMD, a figure which already pales alongside Wario Ware Touched and its line-up of 180 dinky distractions. However, lack of variety is far from the biggest problem facing Kazook.

The whole game is structured in a way that frankly baffles common sense. There are three solo play modes to choose from - Survival, Practice and Party Superstar. The latter can only be played once all 30 mini-games are unlocked, so Survival is your only real option. As the name suggests, this involves playing the games for as long as you can before you run out of time, energy or the will to live.

It's worth pointing out at this juncture that the Practice mode is identical to Survival, except that you only get one life. You can still unlock new games, you still earn money for your high score. Quite why you'd want to "practice" in this manner, rather than simply practising by - oh, I don't know - playing the games is a mystery we may never solve.

Already, the traditional mini-game dynamic - short and sweet - is turned on its head. None of the games offer much amusement beyond the 30-second mark, so forcing the player to slog through their repetitious challenge for as long as possible merely shines the brutally unforgiving spotlight of prolonged exposure on the shortcomings of each challenge.

Cash Grab

Kazook even manages to make shooting zombies in the head a tiresome chore.

Even the scoring is afflicted with this nonsensical structure. Your goal is to earn money with which to unlock new games. This money is earned according to your place on the leaderboard. Tenth place nets you $1000, ninth earns $2000 and so on up to first place, which carries a bounty of $10,000. However, just for playing the game you get $100 - even if you don't score. This means that the actual competitive content of each game is rendered utterly pointless, since you can claw your way to the required sums without ever scoring, and you can still technically "lose" the challenge but walk away with the top prize provided you score enough points.

Equally, once you've achieved the high score (which the game helpfully announces as you play) you might as well stop playing and let the computer win. The higher you make the top score, the harder it is to get the ten grand next time. And $10,000 is a magic number in Kazook, as that's how much everything costs to unlock. From redundant extra characters, who change the gameplay not one iota, to the other mini-games, you'll need a beefy bank balance to unlock just one of them.

As you start with just five games to choose from - and as these five games are both tedious and stupidly hard - you've got a long, laborious task ahead just to add an additional game to your roster.

Unless, that is, you input a cheat code as your profile name so you start with $100,000 (clue: MONEYSUX) or unlock Go Cart Go as your first game. As the name suggests, this is a rudimentary kart racer and it's also the most pathetically easy game in the collection. The top score is incredibly low, and the challenge is non-existent so provided you've got the stamina to suffer through some 40 laps of insipid "racing", and let the dim AI opponent win the minute you top the leaderboard, you'll easily clock up $10,000 each time you play.

Flash! Aah-ah!

Just like Guitar Hero, only without the rhythm, excitement or music.

And what of the games? They're an uninspired bunch - the sort of thing you might tinker with if it were a free Flash game online, but nothing that appeals beyond a cursory few minutes' play. Already hampered with gameplay that promotes contempt through prolonged familiarity, each game - no matter how potentially amusing the concept - is blighted with skittish controls, ugly presentation and a distinctly limited graphics library. The same backgrounds, character models and even gameplay ideas keep cropping up; sometimes jiggered around for a vague veneer of freshness, but mostly just lazily reheated and served with a straight face. And with only 30 games to offer, this thematic repetition is the kiss of death.

The tasks are either insultingly simple, needlessly complex or just plain confusing. Trash Radio requires you to censor rappers on air, by hitting the corresponding button when they say something naughty. But they speak in Sims-style icons, and it takes a while to work out which ones the game considers "naughty". A pair of breasts or a gun is obvious enough, but a radiation symbol? A boxing glove?

Trash Radio also offers a good example of how crude difficulty spikes are used to artificially inflate the challenge. In the greener pastures of Wario Ware the pace of the game rises incrementally and as you slip into that Zen-like gaming zone your reactions naturally adapt until, suddenly, you realise you're responding to impossibly fast stimuli with near-superhuman speed. It's exhilarating. In Kazook, the game speed lurches forward cruelly, from giving you four seconds to hit the right button to less than one second in the space of a few rounds. There's no rhythm, no pace - the game just becomes stupidly difficult in a split second. It's infuriating.


Dare you bear witness to the world's most heart-pounding kart racer?

Other games suffer from the same problem - the self explanatory Jet Pack simply crowds the skies with more and more random obstacles until you have no chance of dodging them all. Dash n' Splash uses HyperSports button mashing to make your character jump as far as they can into a swimming pool - but the longer you play, the less responsive the buttons become. Soon, you're pounding away with the same ferocity as before, but the bar barely moves. Time and again, failure arrives with the bitter tang of unfair play rather than the more palatable knowledge that your reactions just weren't up to the job.

There are plenty of other minor criticisms that can be brought to bear - such as the way the game doesn't let you see how much money you have left when unlocking games, or how changing the gender of your character doesn't change the graphics of gender-themed games - but this review could stretch to many, many pages if I were to list every single thing that made me snarl during my time with the "ultimate party games collection".

But then, finally, once you've unlocked all 30 games, you get to play Party Superstar, the game mode that has been dangled before you like a golden carrot. And you discover that it's - yes - exactly the same as Survival mode, except you have to play each game in turn. Woo, and indeed, hoo.

As I said all the way back at the start of this ordeal, I'm an unashamed fan of this type of game. Heck, I once even managed to glean amusement from Ape Academy. Kazook isn't even up to that low standard. The games are irritating and forgettable, the scoring system is bizarre, the play modes make no sense and the constantly shrill urban-cartoon-hipster presentation feels like some ninja chav just injected a pint of boiling hot Red Bull into your eyeballs. The only saving grace is a decent batch of multiplayer options, from ad-hoc wireless to Game Share to turn-based play on one PSP. There's plenty of multiplayer choice, but you still have to find someone who'll want to join in. So, all in all, not much fun.

2 / 10