I’ve spent a lot of time over the past weekend trying to understand what Date Night Bowling is. It’s got a gorgeous 80’s and 90’s style aesthetic, with plenty of neon colours and that CRT filter to double-down on that nostalgic edge. And it is nostalgic. I’ve been on bowling dates. They’re a lot of fun. I’m showing my age here, I know, but the point is that Date Night Bowling seems to be aimed squarely at me, which is why I’m so confident that the game’s going to be a misfire for just about everyone.
In theory, there are meant to be two components to this game; you’re going to be doing ten pin bowling, and you’re going to be “dating,” which is actually a series of Mario Party-style minigames that are meant to abstract the romantic little things you do for your partner at the bowling alley (i.e. ordering him a burrito, getting her the stuffed penguin from the UFO machine, and so on). I’ll start with the bowling, because it’s the easier one to deal with; it’s terrible, and to explain why I’m going to have to go all the way back to the earliest eras of PC gaming, and remind the older readers among you about the nightmare that was Elf Bowling.
Elf Bowling was a freeware thing that was released in the late 90’s, and drew some level of infamy when people initially thought that it concealed a virus. It wasn’t actually a virus, in the end… though the game itself was probably the worst thing you could infect your computer with, then or now. You played as Santa, bowling a ball at ten elves (rather than pins), and every so often something “funny” would happen, like one of them being decapitated. It was a simple game to play (click a button to set the spin and speed and away you go), and while you would laugh at (not with) it the first time, that’s as far as that game’s longevity lasted.
Date Night Bowling is slightly more complex than Elf Bowling, but 22 years later, you would certainly hope that it would a much bigger step forward than this. Unfortunately, though, it is only the slightest of extensions beyond what Elf Bowling offered, though, and though it is blessedly free of the childish “humour” of that “classic”, the gameplay isn’t any more engaging. Furthermore, remember this: if you want a ten pin bowling game (and that’s understandable since ten pin bowling is a great sport!) then there’s PBA Pro Bowling on the console. This is a genuine simulation of the sport, and while the game has issues itself, as a simulation of ten pin bowling, it nails it. About the only advantage that Date Night Bowling has over Pro Bowling is that it is far more accessible, and so, if you are happing to use this as a date night game, both people will be able to play it without needing to worry about an endless stream of gutter balls.
So Date Night Bowling isn’t off to a great start, given that it isn’t all that satisfying as a bowling thing. But what about a date night thing? Yes and no. If you play this with your real significant other, then you’ll have a brief (very brief) laugh. Especially when the little minigames kick in and you manage to screw up and get them a pizza slice rather than the burrito they’re craving. My wife actually did exactly that at a bowling thing once and that anecdote made the event a lot funnier in-game. But those mini-games really do make the Mario Party ones feel complex and engaging in comparison, and there’s not nearly enough of them to carry the whole game. You’ll be thoroughly sick of each game by the third time you encounter it, which will be about the third time that you play Date Night Bowling.
Playing with the AI is even worse, because not only does the game manage to turn just about every character into the last person that you’d ever want to date within the three sentences of “story” that it provides you, but it takes on the distinctly creepy tone of having you play every minigame, meaning that you come across as slavishly devoted of your AI fling. You’ll be fetching their drinks, finding them better bowling shoes, polishing their balls (I swear that’s not a euphemism), and cleaning the table for them while they do absolutely nothing for you in return. If Date Night Bowling had Hatsune Miku as a character and there was some kind of payoff at the end for this kind of effort (nudge nudge, wink wink), then sign me up, but I’m sorry, some random dude named Jaspar ain’t convincing me the effort is worth it.
I joke but the more I played Date Night Bowling the more I became uncomfortable with the way it chose to abstract the interactions of dating. Gamifying romance is something that I’m fully and wholeheartedly behind (I’m still waiting for the Miku dating simulator), but there’s also so much more to dating than completing little chores for your partner and filling an intimacy meter. I realise this is meant to be a light and bubbly game rather than a serious dating simulation, but the lack of flowing discussion and the impact of interactions in Date Night Bowling make it a laughably bad representation of a date. That’s strike two, and when it comes to criticism, strikes aren’t a good thing.
What I loved were the visuals and music. As a child of this era, the colours and tunes hit my aesthetic spots with complete precision. There’s not a whole lot of variety there, with only a few different characters and locations, and the minigames are presented childishly, but the overall effect is nonetheless warm and inviting, and in this regard, at least, Date Night Bowling achieves something that is easy for two people to enjoy together.
The appeal of Date Night Bowling is incredibly limited. It’s for people that want to play a game with their romantic partner, and need something that both can enjoy equally, regardless of their gaming experience. At the same time, it’s for those that don’t want to become too competitive or heated. And both people also need to be old enough to enjoy the 80’s and 90’s vibes and aesthetics. It’s inoffensive enough in fulfilling that very narrow role, but its concepts fall down badly when you’re playing single-player, or with anyone other than your significant other. Throw in a dearth of depth and character, and even when you are playing it in its optimal environment, you’re going to wish that you decided to take date night to a real bowling alley instead.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb