It's like Tetris all over again - I'm dreaming about blocks. Although this time they're falling into place to create elaborate pieces of furniture.
I spent forty-five minutes this morning making a freezer out of clownfish, gingerbread men and eighty-six types of building block - a gift for the girl dressed as a bee who runs my local ice-cream shop. I decided to take part in an impromptu dance-off with the town DJ on the way to deliver it, but unfortunately my player character looks a bit like a child molester at the moment thanks to an accident with the ‘randomise' button in the character creator, and the sight of him dancing disturbed me so that I had to detour to the nearest mirror and mess with his features and clothing until he looked less sinister. Then I was distracted by the mayor, who was splashing around in the town fountain, which drew my attention to a tiny imperfection in a neighbouring building, so I ended up rebuilding the whole structure.
It's easy to get distracted in MySims.
It's probably worth stating at this juncture that MySims is a wee bit girly. If you thought that the original Sims games were for girls and only ever used them to create elaborate torture houses, then move on - there's nothing for you here. If, however, you spent a lot of time using the creation tools to house your Sims in painstakingly-designed mansions, and you're not averse to MySims' cartoon art style - or, failing that, if you have creative kids - then this is definitely something worth looking at.
The obvious inspiration here is Animal Crossing; unlike the DS version though, MySims on the Wii takes the idea of building up a dilapidated town and really runs with it rather than dumbing it down, incorporating a lot of its own Sims heritage into the mix.
The basic idea is to improve the town by inviting different Sim characters in to start a business or make a home, thereby expanding the town borders and gaining access to whole new areas, but there's an awful lot to it. Imagine a cuter, more hyperactive Animal Crossing in which you have obsessive-compulsive control over absolutely everything in the town, from who lives there to what their houses look like to their wallpaper to the design of their kitchen sinks. At any point, you can wander up to someone, completely redesign their home, and adorn it with your own insane creations.
You see, everything in the game - octopi, crayons, bits of dead wood, pumpkins, all sorts of random things you dig up from the ground, the little happy icons that Sims drop when you're nice to them - can be used to make things, and this is the crux of the matter. The vast majority of your time in MySims will be spent crafting everything from pizza ovens to arcade machines out of a combination of the game's basic building blocks and anything else that you can find, fish for or dig up around the town.
These 'essences', as the game calls them, can be used either as a physical object, or as a paint - so you can literally make a bed out of clownfish, or make one out of bricks and paint it with one of four clownfish designs. Townspeople constantly have requests for items, and fulfilling them helps to grow their businesses and expand the town, which in turn gives you access to progressively more excellent blocks and essences with which to build. It is, potentially, a boundlessly creative game, if you're willing to invest the time and imagination to take advantage of it.
The key to the whole thing is the creation system. It manages to be at once simple to use and capable of extreme complexity, which is an exceptionally difficult balance to strike; it's as easy and intuitive as virtual Lego, and uses the Wii remote perfectly for picking up and placing blocks. The nunchuck controls the camera, and with the C-button activating a slide-under mode and the Z-button allowing for extra-precise control, it's only very rarely frustrating to use, and it's very close to the precision of mouse and keyboard.
You start off with a blueprint, which gives a basic outline for the structure you want to make, be it a chair or a sarcophagus. If you like, you can follow the blueprint, place the correct bricks within the ghost image on-screen, and build things by the numbers - but that would be terribly boring. MySims is always encouraging to build outside the box, and later on in the game, with hundreds of essences and building blocks opened up to play with, the sky really is the limit. It offers guidance without constraint, the scope for creativity is huge, and most importantly, it's genuinely a lot of fun to use and experiment with.
There is incentive to build things beyond your own creative impulses (although without imagination, MySims is a much more boring game). New businesses open up new items and activities, and new blueprints come with them; move Vic Vector, the long-haired, 30-something-year-old sci-fi and videogame fanatic, into the town, and you'll get to build him his very own arcade, plus blueprints for arcade cabinets and giant televisions with which to adorn it. The town eventually gets really very big, opening up forest and desert areas as it grows in stature, and as more and more businesses and tenants move in, trees rejuvenate, dilapidated structures magically repair themselves, and you start to see Sim inhabitants wandering about their daily business everywhere you go. Quiet inhabitants head down to the forest for a book party by the river, fun-loving ones head down the nightclub of an evening, and the whole place gets much livelier. It's really very rewarding.
In addition to the flavour that your own contributions and constructions add to the town, MySims is also overflowing with character all of its own. It's part construction game, part spectator sport - like in classic Sims games, the time when you aren't building is largely spent watching Sims go about their business, chatting, fighting, eating pizza together, holding impromptu picnics in parks, bouncing up and down on beds and chairs and constantly nattering on in adorable Simlish.
The game is contagiously joyous, infused with cute humour and featuring an art and music style that manages appealing, very Nintendo sweetness without being overly saccharine. The character design is pretty inspired - think Miis, but funnier and more animated. They're great fun to observe, and even more fun to create. You can completely change your character's appearance whenever you like, and because the character creation is gender-ambiguous, there is much fun to be had with the 'random' button - it almost always throws up something either hilarious or surprisingly likeable. It even manages to be quite well-written, peppering character descriptions with wit, in-jokes and forbidden cheese. And, naturally, frequent good-hearted racial stereotyping.
It's this character and sense of fun that adds spark to what would already be a super little town-simulation game. MySims is like a giant, living doll's house, and given that this is definitely a family game, the fact that most kids will absolutely love it is important - although younger ones will probably need a bit of help building rocket-beds and car-shaped baths with the Wiimote. The only massive error here is the complete lack of online functionality. You can't visit friends' towns, or send them bits of painstakingly-created furniture, which means that your town exists solely for the enjoyment of yourself and your family. You could make the case that this game's audience probably doesn't really need online, but honestly, if it worked for Animal Crossing then we cannot see any reason why it shouldn't work for this.
But aside from that, and occasional very minor quibbles with the sensitivity of the item-creation controls, MySims is pretty much perfect for what it is. At once accessible and complex, kid-friendly and adult-pleasing, and full of personality, MySims is an excellent and original idea that's well-suited to the console, even if it won't be an essential purchase for everybody. On the Xbox 360 or the PC, it's unlikely MySims would ever find the audience it's intended for; on the Wii, though, it ought to pick up a creative, varied and delighted following.