It's generally accepted that early adopters of technology tend to get somewhat shafted.
The reason why we're not all wearing Virtual Reality headsets when we game is that the technology never really caught up with the promise of a fully immersive world. Likewise, we're not all zipping about on Segways because they're too damned expensive, and anyway, you can just add a third wheel to a Nifty Fifty if you want to experience a self-supporting personal transportation device. History is littered with the remains of seemingly good technology that is either poorly implemented, or out of the reach of the average consumer.
In having said that, without those brave pioneers willing to sacrifice their reputation and a shedload of investment capital, the world would be a pretty boring place. One of the more curious gaming innovations of late involves Sony's PlayStation Portable platform, a camera, and a small cardboard square. Being male it pains me to admit this, but it is necessary to read the instructions.
Invizimals is a fighting game with very obvious similarities to the immensely successful Pokemon series. However instead of simply churning out another rather tedious electronic baby-sitter, developers Novarama have integrated "Augmented Reality" as a point of differentiation. For most people, Augmented Reality is commonly experienced shortly after Happy Hour, however with Invizimals it's a form of electronic trickery that introduces a surprisingly entertaining gameplay mechanic.
The concept involves equipping your PSP with a small digital camera, and using a cardboard square on various multi-coloured surfaces to "see" the Invizimal creatures, and trap them. Sort of like Most Haunted but actually real. The software detects the colour against the cardboard and conjures up the appropriate Invizimal, which you can then trap, train, level up, and use to battle against other creatures. The single-player Story mode does an adequate job of explaining the premise (which is simply that a scientist has discovered that these previously unknown, invisible creatures can be detected by an off-the-shelf portable electronic device made by a large electronics company) and the rest of the gameplay is firmly centred around your ability to amass and train the widest range of Invizimals possible.
Putting these creatures to battle, surprisingly, results in real-time action, so that's something to be wary of if you're expecting the more traditional turn-based gameplay. There's three attack buttons, along with block of course, and your ability to fight is directly tied to the amount of stamina your character has.
More complexity is introduced with the game's currency, "sparks", which are rewarded for successful attacks and can be exchanged for the likes of stamina packs, health upgrades, that sort of thing. Beneath a rather average exterior beats the heart of a relatively complicated fighting title, which does seem out of odds with the intended junior audience.
Practically speaking, it rapidly becomes clear that this Augmented Reality is part gimmick, and part triumph. The camera, whilst admirable on the PSP, isn't always capable of detecting shading and colour in the way you'd expect, particularly if the surface you're attempted to capture is curved. Or if there isn't enough light. Or if you don't hold your tongue just right. What should be a fun experience can become a chore, and the outcome of some challenges appear to be as largely dependent on luck as skill. You'll be required to run the full gamut of input options - even the microphone on occasion - in order to proceed through the game, so you're never really quite sure when you begin a task or a battle if it's likely to entertain or infuriate.
It's not all bad however - the cast of characters will entertain and educate younger family members, and the acting is top notch. There's robust multiplayer functionality too, with ad-hoc matchmaking and even a surprisingly well constructed trading system. Variety is never far behind either, as with over 100 Invizimals there's longevity here that might not seem apparent at first.
Ambition isn't always rewarded with success - if it were, Invizimals would rate amongst one of the very best PSP titles available. The real problem is the inability for the technology to adequately support the concept, and despite the developers best efforts, we're left with a curious yet somewhat frustrating foray into the world of Augmented Reality that has perhaps arrived a few years too soon.