Besides SD Gundam Dimension War, Virtual Bowling is something like the “Holy Grail” for Virtual Boy collectors, apart from prototypes. But can the gameplay value of this super-rarity also keep up with its collector’s value? Can Athena’s Virtual Bowling compete with the genre competition from Nintendo? Yes and Yes. Virtual Bowling is one of the rare cases, where an extremely high collector’s value and high game quality are both present.
After a short but furious intro, you reach the title screen – accompanied by a “Virtual Bowling!” speech sample – on which there are three modes to choose from: the “Standard Mode,” where you complete a single game of 10 frames in the pursuit of a high score, the “Tournament Mode,” as well as the “Training Mode,” where you can freely place the pins in any combination before each practice throw. The heart of the game is the “Tournament Mode.” After the stylish name entry modeled on a real-looking bowling computer, you find yourself in a competition with four other players named Max, Davis, Mary and John. Beginning in a small bowling hut called “1st Bowl,” successful players later bowl across three other, bigger alleys called “Bowler 2nd,” “3 Bowling” and, ultimately, the final and eponymous “Virtual Bowling” alley. Every single tournament consists of three games of 10 frames each. The sum of the points from all three games decides on victory or defeat. During the game, the other bowlers give comments like “Go for it!!,” “Nobody beats me!” or “Hey, not bad bowling!!,” while their black facets are seen in front of magnificently rendered 3-D backgrounds.
In every mode, Virtual Bowling offers several setting options before the actual game:
Type – Your bowling style. Choose normal, power or technique.
Hand – Play left- or right-handed.
Weight – Determine the size and weight of your ball. 6 to 16 lbs. are selectable.
Wax – Determine how much the lane is waxed.
BGM – Play with or without background music. If you choose “Off,” you hear authentic environmental sounds instead of the background music. Thanks to the stereo speakers of the Virtual Boy, you can hear rolling balls, falling pins or a cheering crowd to the left and right of you, which generates a real bowling alley atmosphere!
The bowling itself is done from the first-person perspective, and also here, the developers from Athena have added a few more possibilities of variation. Thus, with the directional pad, you can freely choose the throwing position on the whole width of the bowling alley. Then, you affect the spin of the ball by stopping an indicator moving to the left and right with the A button. Last, an indicator moves on a lateral scale, on which you determine how strongly you throw the ball and then the time of release by pressing the A Button two times. This determines the speed of the ball. Everything here works easily and intuitively.
Once you have finally thrown the ball, the camera follows it over the lane to the pins. If you manage to clear all the pins, you see the ball rolling towards you and the pins flying away in a replay from the end of the lane. Then, a small animation follows, accompanied by a speech sample, almost like with Nester’s Funky Bowling, but with less different animations. Spare, Strike, Double, a turkey running towards the screen in the case of throwing a turkey, two dancing turkeys in the case of throwing more than three strikes, as well as a special screen in the case of a perfect game.
Graphically, Virtual Bowling is pleasing all around. Besides stylish interfaces, beautiful sprites and many graphical effects, above all, the many 3-D effects impress. Whether it be flawless 3-D backgrounds or bowling balls rolling towards the player, very few developers, unfortunately, knew how to use the optical possibilities of the Virtual Boy so well, like Athena. The sound is great, too. Many, many well composed music tracks, authentic bowling sounds as well as numerous speech samples leave little to be desired. The sampled Japanese female voice, with her accent, makes for amusement. So her “Turkey,” for example, sounds like “Monkey.”
Unfortunately, also Virtual Bowling had to make do without a save battery, which causes high scores to be lost when the Virtual Boy is turned off. But you can get over this, since your progress can be kept in the Tournament Mode by passwords.
With Virtual Bowling, Athena created a bowling game, which is superior to Nintendo’s genre competition in just about every respect, and it also offers a more serious and simulation-laden approach. The only downside is the extreme rarity of the game, which results in a collector’s value of seldom under 1000 U.S. dollars. In the end, the average gamer is better served with the much cheaper Nester’s Funky Bowling.
Technically and gameplay-wise, Virtual Bowling is a flawless conversion of the bowling sport, which is only interesting for hardcore collectors, though, due to the extreme rarity and the resulting price. All others are, unfortunately, missing a little software gem.