Everybody wants to be a cowboy. That’s the theory behind this game. It’s not true of course. I could care less about horses, and cows are best taken with fries or a salad. But I did enjoy that Kurt Russel classic Tombstone, and Clint Eastwood can do no wrong, so I suppose even I can enjoy a cowboy experience if it’s presented correctly. Which, of course, brings us to today’s topic of discussion, Top Hand Rodeo.
Top Hand claims to be the first authentic video game rodeo experience. I can’t say for certain that it is or not, but I will give it marks for doing its best to try. There are five main gameplay modes in Top Hand: Bull Riding, Tie Down Roping, Team Roping, Barrel Racing and Mounted Shooting. Each mode is controlled by the Kinect. Bull Riding has you swaying to and fro to a bell, trying to keep from falling off by keeping your cowboy centered and spurring the bull when it wants to spin you off. Tie Down Roping has you on horseback chasing down a calf, lassoing it, stopping its progress, getting off the horse and running to the calf, tipping the calf and tying its legs, then running back to your horse while you wait in suspense for the calf to break free. Team Roping requires two cowboys to chase the calf, rope one half, rope the other half, then stop the cow. Barrel racing just has your cowboy on horseback running a specific course on the arena floor, circling barrels and avoiding penalty time. Finally, Mounted Shooting has you run a course, shooting balloons and lucky horseshoes with a pistol.
In terms of how each of these modes control, its a mixed bag. Four of the five gameplay modes have you riding a horse. Mounted Shooting has you steer and speed up the horse with the left hand while shooting with the right. Each of the other modes has you steer with the left and speed up with the right. I get that, as you have to shoot with something after all, and the reins of a horse can be used with either hand in real life, but something just feels off here. It leads to confusion when in game. Even when you are controlling the horse correctly, it doesn’t always respond. The game says you have to raise your hand (left or right depending) to have the horse accelerate. Do this repeatedly and the horse should start to gallop. Only sometimes, the Kinect will lose your hand, or the game will fail to understand your movements, or maybe the horse is just no longer in the mood to run, and you will slow down to a dead stop. There is no stamina meter for the horse either, so it’s not that. It’s just bad coding or bad hardware response. Then there is the steering. The sensitivity while turning the horse is cranked way too high. The slightest move left or right causes the horse to swerve violently. Sadly, there is no way to go into the options and turn the sensitivity down either. Instead, you just have to put up with it and try to keep your horse in a straight line.
The gun play is pretty accurate once you get the hang of it. As you are racing past the balloons to be shot, the screen changes to a first person perspective and you see a target reticule, which tells you how many bullets you have left. You point your hand at the balloon like you might have when you were playing Cowboy as a child, all pew pew like, and the game responds. Shoot all five of the balloons and a golden horseshoe appears. You have only a few moments to aim and fire at the horseshoe, and hitting it will give you 5 seconds of bonus time. So far so good there. Except when you come back out of the shooting screen and back onto your horse, you might find yourself pointing in exactly the wrong direction, because the horse is pointing wherever you left your hand. In a game where timing is so important, there should be some built in leeway to allow you to get back to where you should be in between the different modes. Perhaps by having the horse on auto for a second or so. Shooting the golden horseshoe is no easy feat either. You don’t always have time to aim at the top of the screen where the horseshoe starts its flight, and the game can get confused and take your moving the aim to the top of the screen to be an attempt at shooting.
It took me two days of frustration to figure out how to complete one of the motions in Tie Down Roping. The game shows you an approximation of what you are supposed to be doing, and its usually pretty accurate, but when you must actually tip the calf, the game shows you squatting and lifting, when you really have to be bending over and tipping. Once I figured that out, though, Tie Down Roping turned out to be the gameplay mode that controlled the best for me. Each of the motions respond pretty well, and while later in the game the calf gets a lot faster, its still the mode in the game that I came closest to enjoying.
Bullriding is a workout. Even Kinect Bullriding, it seems, is a workout. Picture yourself atop a bull as it jumps around, trying to knock you off for eight seconds. You have one arm straight up in the air to maintain your cowboy’s balance, and you tip back and forth to get the best scores possible as two stars move forward and back in whatever direction the bull is jumping at the time. You also have to try and keep yourself centered and upright while going back and forth. So far its not too bad. A recipe for back pain, perhaps, but nothing bad otherwise. Then the bull will start to spin, and you must raise your leg to spur the bull to stop spinning. It’s while the bull is spinning that you can get ejected. Still, not too bad, since it’s very easy to figure out when the bull starts spinning to raise your leg. It’s at the moment you transition back that things go a little haywire. Nothing as dramatically bad as the horse in Mounted Shooting, mind you, just not as good as it could be. Basically, you have to get back into the rhythm of the moving stars, except there is no way to know if you should be leaning towards the screen or away from the screen when you begin again. This shouldn’t really matter, and I wouldn’t normally bring up something so petty, but you’ll understand in a few moments.
Team Roping is the final gameplay mode I have to discuss. It starts off a lot like Tie Down Roping, in that you start in the paddock and must race after a calf as it bursts free. You race to the sweet spot behind the calf, where your rope is almost guaranteed to catch the calf. You then throw your lasso, and if you hit it, you then have to pull back on the rope and steer the calf away from the exit. At this point you then take control of the second rider. The second rider must also get to the sweet spot and throw his or her lasso at the back feet of the calf. Once this is accomplished, you must turn away from the calf, which makes the rope draw tight, mission accomplished. That’s how its supposed to work, anyway. What actually seems to happen more often than not is this: you chase the calf to the sweet spot, throw your lasso, then the Kinect doesn’t detect you pulling the rope back, or if it does, it has a hard time seeing that you are trying to steer. If it sees that you’re steering, the second rider throws his rope and it fails to hit the target, or for some reason only grabs one of the calf’s legs. If you manage to succeed at all of that, the calf runs away and the rope ends because, again, the Kinect cannot detect the rope being pulled back. Can you tell that Team Roping is not what I would consider to be my favorite gameplay mode?
Anyway, so that’s the different events. There are two different ways you can play these events. One is to play the different ones individually, and the other is to play them all. The only real difference between the two modes is how difficult it is to advance to the next arena. Specifically, in the single event mode, you must get the golden belt buckle in that single event to advance to the next arena. In the season mode, you have to get the golden belt buckle in ALL of the events to advance to the next stage. I cannot fathom what possessed the developers to insist on making it so that being the first place cowboy is the only way to unlock new stages. Sure the game is named Top Hand Rodeo, but when you give away Bronze, Silver and Gold belt buckles as prizes, one would expect that the Bronze and Silver would mean something. It’s for this very reason that I am being as unforgiving towards the different gameplay modes as I am. I wouldn’t really care as much about the bull riding if the game wasn’t judging me so harshly on how I’m reacting to it, or with the horse not responding to your prompts. If the game wasn’t timing me, I wouldn’t care about the horse swaying wildly this way or that when you’re racing around the track as much. Because it’s gold or nothing, however, it’s get it right or get nothing.
The game supports up to four players, including a co-op version of the Team Roping. As I live in Ontario, I have no friends willing to subject themselves to a Kinect rodeo game, so I cannot say what those features are like. You might say the game is about as niche as it gets.
The game is presented fairly well. The music consists of the theme song and a twangy guitar riff that plays during the menus. Each of the arenas, while not masterpieces of gaming architecture, does the job and conveys the right atmosphere. The graphics are on the simpler side of plain, but the game is not ugly. Nothing garish or grotesque, just boring. The sound is good. The announcers are both humorous and accurate at the same time. If you’re doing poorly, they say it. If you’re doing well they say it.
Short Attention Span Summary
If I’ve learned one thing from playing Kinect games, it’s that if you demand accuracy from the player while using it, you’re going to have a bad time. Top Hand Rodeo does its best to convey the excitement of the rodeo, but I think I’ll stick to Kurt Russel and Clint Eastwood. A little leeway would have gone a long way here.