The EyeToy: Play range certainly needs no introduction… but we're going to give you one anyway. Back in the day (2003), the concept of using a USB camera to project your image onto the TV and interact with on-screen objects was a brilliant and innovative move on Sony’s part, which had been started years before in the R&D stages. Featuring 12 highly original games - served up in bite-sized portions ideally suited to a child’s short attention span, the first EyeToy: Play title proved irresistible to primary school-aged kids, and bemused parents watched their offspring willingly work up a sweat in front of the telly. Who would have figured video games could actually be good for your health?
Subsequent titles featured improved accuracy and utilised the camera’s capabilities to detect speed and force, which in turn expanded the range of applications for which it could be used. Sony explored other avenues with titles such as EyeToy: Antigrav for older kids, and EyeToy: Kinetic, which targeted the adult fitness market. However the star of this particular show is the latest in their Play series, EyeToy: Play Sports.
Prior to playing any of the mini-games you must first create your avatar. This involves posing for a mug shot, which is then pasted onto the body of a small cartoon figure. Since most kids love having their photo taken, the chance to do it over and over again provided at least ten minutes of pre-game entertainment, with competitors vying to outdo each other in an unofficial “Get your game face on!” contest. Once the novelty wore off, we got down to business.
EyeToy: Play Sports can accommodate up to eight players, which makes it a good candidate for birthday parties, or for whenever there’s a group of bored kids in need of entertainment. Whether they just want to play solo, compete as teams, or simply engage in a free-for-all, there’s a game mode to cater to their every whim.
‘Par for the Course’ is a single player-only mode, set on a golf course. Players engage in mini-games, and their performance will determine how well they hit the ball. A good result in the mini-games means a good shot on the green, while a poor one may see the ball end up in the rough.
‘Tag in, Tag Out’ can be played with up to the full allotment of eight players, and this mode’s point of difference is that players can opt in or out at any stage. Set in a wrestling ring, the idea is to win three mini-games to earn the title of Champion, which must then be defended or another player will knock you off your perch.
‘Football Fever’ is a team-based mode for two to eight players, where winning individual mini-games will see your team punting the soccer ball across the pitch, attempting to kick it squarely into the opposing team’s goal. If the teams are quite balanced in ability, this one has the potential to drag on for ages while the ball passes back and forth.
‘Scoreboard’ requires two to four players, and is a straightforward competition to see who can earn the most points over a series of mini-games. The winner of each round will receive the lion’s share, with other players being awarded fewer points according to their performance. At the end of the series the player with the most points overall will claim victory, and the right to lord it over everyone else. This mode, along with ‘Tag in, Tag Out’ proved the most popular with our younger players.
‘Parachute Plunge’ is a cross between musical chairs and Russian roulette, where four to eight players in the guise of parachutists must eliminate the competition and be the last one standing… or should that be floating? Players are selected semi-randomly to participate in mini-games, each of which might require everyone’s involvement or just two players; you never know who or what you will be up against.
The winner earns immunity and the others continue battling it out until the weakest link - in other words the player who did not win any games is eliminated. Then the whole process begins anew until only one parachutist remains aloft. While we found the random selection factor in Parachute Plunge to be quite exciting, with larger groups of players the winner of the first round had a lengthy wait until their next turn. We found the optimum number of players for this mode to be four – certainly no more than six.
If none of these modes appeal, you can leap straight into the action by accessing the mini-games menu, selecting the number of players and the game you wish to play. This mode is great for practising a particular game or for exploring the possibilities.
There are a staggering 101 mini-games to be found in EyeToy: Play Sports, however many are merely variations on a theme. Admittedly, we only sampled half of them but we were able to pick out a few favourites, as well as several that we swore we'd never play again - mostly due to lack of challenge. The bulk of the games are wacky interpretations of real sports such as tennis, swimming and archery, but there are some highly original ones too, such as dealing with the fleas on a dog's back, and flattening sandcastles.
One control issue which adults and older children may notice is that timing and accuracy requirements in many of the mini-games can be very... broad. You can literally jump up and down and wave your arms in a full body equivalent of button mashing to achieve good results in many of the activities. Of course, younger children tend to do this anyway, so naturally they have an advantage over older players more accustomed to handling a controller.
The graphics are pretty much the same as in other EyeToy: Play titles, i.e. colourful, simplistic and appealing to children. For those who don’t already own one, the USB camera does not produce an image quality on par with these accompanying screenshots, but if you’ve followed the set-up instructions correctly you will be rewarded with reasonably good results. Lighting, focus, background movement - even contrast between players and their backdrop will affect overall image quality and in-game responsiveness. We found the best results were achieved by ensuring participants were in a well lit room with a light-coloured, plain backdrop. Bed sheets work well if your room suffers from excessive visual clutter; either drape them over the offending pieces of furniture, or hang/pin them up.
EyeToy: Play Sports is one game where being an adult can actually prove a disadvantage. Larger players will have to move further back from the camera to fit within the child-sized head ‘n’ torso outline, and taller ones will have to get down on their knees to place themselves in the centre of the screen; not the most comfortable position to be in for extended gaming sessions.
Mercifully, adult participation is likely to be brief and only required initially to show the kids what to do, and later to settle any disputes that may arise. There aren't any new features to write home about, however the huge selection of mini-games found in EyeToy: Play Sports should keep younger gamers amused for up to an hour at a time. Even after the novelty wears off it will undoubtedly see further outings at parties and family gatherings. Currently retailing for less than $60, we think that’s great value for money.