Upon first glance, it would be easy to pass off Frontier's latest theme park-building management game, Thrillville, as a kid's version of its amusement park-management series, RollerCoaster Tycoon. Thrillville does not offer anywhere near the depth or complexity of the Tycoon series in terms of micromanaging resources to maximize profits and attract large crowds, and its presentation takes a page more out of Psychonauts' book than anything Will Wright would dream up. However, instead of targeting the niche business-management crowd with more of the same, or dumbing down the product for an equally niche children's market, Frontier seems to be going after more-casual players, by focusing more on easy-to-pick-up yet often surprisingly complex minigames, and by wrapping the experience up in a nicely put-together package.
Fear the maniacal cork-gun-packing, cowboy-boot-wearing robots.
Thrillville is better categorized as a compilation of minigames than a business-management sim or amusement-park builder, but it does have many elements of those two genres. You can choose to dive right into these minigames by yourself, or join a few friends in party play mode. One of the many excellent design choices that Frontier makes in Thrillville is that you'll find all of the 20-plus minigames ready to play here, save for a very select few that can be unlocked by playing through portions of the single-player mode. The amusement-park theme of Thrillville is reflected in nearly all of the minigames. For instance, you'll be able to pop cork guns off in themed shooting galleries, zip around custom-built go-kart tracks, get your bump on with bumper cars, and so on.
What separates these games from the garden variety toss-away minigames that are often haphazardly shoehorned into other action adventure games is that they are all reasonably complex and control very well. For example, the shooting minigames contain many of the elements of a bona fide first-person shooter. If you shoot that jack-o'-lantern-headed scarecrow in its big pumpkin noggin, it'll immediately keel over and you'll reap the maximum amount of points. Also, cork-gunning those robots or scarecrows in vital areas such as the abdomen will score you more points than just blasting off their arms, which, incidentally, do fall off if you hit them. And these enemies are even smart enough to crouch and shoot around corners to evade your shots. Furthermore, scattered about these levels are several different gun types, such as double pistols, machine guns, and the like, as well as five fairly well dispersed treasure pickups to boost your score. Nearly all of the other minigames offer similarly layered gameplay that greatly ramps up their fun factor.
As great as many of the minigames are, there are a few issues with them. While it's really neat to race around in go-karts on a track of your own design, a lot of the other games aren't particularly original, and a few are quite derivative. The worst offenders are a blatant 1942 knockoff and a top-down dungeon crawler that bears more than a striking resemblance to Gauntlet. Also--and this is more of an issue in the single-player mode--the pacing of some of the minigames doesn't quite seem right. Most have time limits in the neighborhood of two to three minutes and suitably fit in with the amusement park-building theme. However, a few last much longer, and since they're typically the ones that mimic other classic games, their length seems unnaturally disruptive. After all, the goal is to build a theme park, not dungeon-crawl through several stages of a Gauntlet clone.
Also, though there's a good variety of minigames, several of them--the shooters especially--are essentially the exact same game wrapped up in a different theme. And as far as the PlayStation Portable version of the game is concerned, aiming is far from fluid in many of the shooting games, as you'll be moving around with the D pad and aiming with the face buttons. Anyone who's tried to play a shooter on the PSP ought to be familiar with this scenario, and to its credit, Frontier did try to compensate for this, at least, as this version is generally much more forgiving than the console versions when it comes to hitting your targets.
A few of the minigames skimp on originality.
If you're all by your lonesome and looking to contextualize those minigames into a story, you can dive into Thrillville's single-player mode. After being treated to the eccentric ramblings of your easily excitable Uncle Mortimer, you're commissioned to take over the management and maintenance duties of the Thrillville chain of amusement parks. This frees up Morty to concentrate on the R&D aspect of the business and stay one step ahead of the competition, a most sinister rival by the name of Vernon Garrison who has a penchant for filching Thrillville's innovations. To be clear, the story is mostly nonexistent, but it's coherent enough to glue the premise behind your tasks together, and Uncle Mortimer's ridiculous non sequiturs are nothing if not humorous. Since you're taking over his already-bustling enterprise, your job won't so much be building a theme park from the ground up as it will be maintaining the parks, updating them with new rides, and ensuring visitors are having a good time. Instead of getting bogged down in a more technical approach to running the park, you'll accomplish these goals by taking on a series of missions.
Of the five total parks, only one will be unlocked when you begin, and you'll be able to sequentially unlock the others by completing a percentage of the 25 total missions per park. Though the two console versions share the exact same missions, the PSP version changes these up a bit. It doesn't add in any new minigames, though, so there's no real reason to spring for the PSP version if you have one of the others just to get a different take on the missions. The difficulty of the missions steadily ramps up in the later parks in both the console and handheld versions, both in complexity and in minimum achievement, and unlocking all of the parks will take you anywhere from eight to 10 hours if you're simply going for the minimum requirements.
Missions are divvied up into five different categories: build, games, guest, upkeep, and business. You're ranked on how well you complete each mission on a gold-silver-bronze scale. Build and business missions are what you'd typically expect from a business-management sim, as they revolve around placing coasters, games, or other structures, and they often address one or more needs of your park, such as thirst, nausea, or thrill levels, as well as attracting new crowds. Games and upkeep missions are where you'll find the bulk of the minigames that are available in the party play mode. The games missions are usually played out against one of your guests. The competition here begins fairly easy, but the artificial intelligence does scale accordingly, so some of the later missions can be quite difficult. But since the minigames themselves are for the most part quite enjoyable, you probably won't mind going back and playing them a few times to get a gold ranking. Also, thankfully, none of the longer minigames are overly difficult, so you probably won't need to play those more than once, unless, of course, you want to.