Developed By: NIS America, Toybox Inc
Published By: NIS America
Category: Simulation, Strategy
Release Date: 06.05.18
NIS America announced Happy Birthdays for the Nintendo Switch a little while ago, and it had my attention from the start. It was released as Birthdays: The Beginning for PS4 and PC already, so I’m not sure why the name change, but whatever. It’s a world-building god sim crossed with just a smidge of Minecraft and a boatload of color and personality.
In the Beginning…
Happy Birthdays has a few different game modes, but the regular mode has a simple but cute story to go along with it. The protagonist (which is you, the player) is reading an old book when they come across an old map. Realizing that the map points to a place near their house, they wander into the woods in search of whatever treasures the map holds secret. They come to a cavern in the woods, and discover a bright light which transfixes them. Touching the light transports them to another world; a cube in the middle of space.
A diamond-shaped creature called Navi greets the protagonist in space and grants them an avatar. Navi reveals that it’s his job to develop worlds such as the one you’re seeing right now. The cube world isn’t a whole planet, just a cube-shaped section of one. Whatever changes occur on this section, however, will affect the planet as a whole. Navi admits that he’s having a little problem with his mission on this world, and, after explaining how growing life on the planet works, asks the player to help him fulfill his mission; evolve life until humanity emerges. The protagonist has no real way of getting home, so Navi suggests that their goals may intersect. Maybe if humans evolve on this planet, it will be just like the protagonist’s home or at least close enough. Either way, it’s time to create life as we know it.
The Birthing Process
There are three different game modes to choose from. The regular one, mentioned above, has the story and does all the tutorial stuff. You can choose from four different worlds to start on. There’s a lush, green world that’s the beginner level, a desert planet, an ice planet, and a blank slate with no features whatsoever. The first three worlds have some plant and animal life already on them, but the blank world makes you start completely from scratch. The ice planet was supposed to be the hardest, but I found the blank one way more challenging. The good thing about normal mode is that Navi pops up and tells you how things work as you need to know them. He does a pretty decent job of explaining things, but there are a few things I never figured out exactly. However, I generally knew how the game worked after he gave his tutorials.
In addition to the normal mode, there’s also a challenge mode. There are 7 challenges in all. Navi gives you a goal, usually a certain animal that has to be evolved, and a time limit in which to accomplish it. Clearing the challenge unlocks a new monument that you can place on a world in any game. Monuments can be unlocked in a variety of ways, ranging from evolving certain species to building up the terrain. There’s a free mode, too, where you just start on a blank stage and do whatever you want.
The Power of Creation
Shaping the world in Happy Birthdays is simpler than it seems like it would be, but it’s pretty fun anyway. The basic method of evolving life is by altering the planet’s climate. Adding more land decreases the average temperature, while adding water increases it. Different levels of the planet have different temperatures; for example shallow water will be warmer than a deep sea area, and low-lying plains will be warmer than mountaintops. Temperature changes more slowly in the water than on land, so that needs to be accounted for if you’re looking to develop aquatic creatures. Increasing the temperature is beneficial to larger animals like dinosaurs, while lower temperatures are more favorable for mammals. You can alter the landscape one square at a time, or, as you gain levels, you can grow your area of effect as well.
You can also collect stars to use special abilities. Stars will appear throughout the game as certain populations grow. You also collect them whenever a new species evolves and you capture it (capturing a new species just means selecting it in the map and seeing its data). Every million years that pass, you get graded on your performance, and you get some stars based on that as well. Abilities let you build special geographical formations, use items that promote growth or evolution in your species, and place monuments that you unlock.
There are 2 ways to view your world, macro mode and micro mode. Macro mode removes you from the planet and gives you an overall view of the scenario. In macro mode you can move time forward, view a summary of the planet’s condition, track the growth of your different species, and check the menus. Menus show you your objectives, a library of creatures discovered and undiscovered (and what you need to do to evolve them), and the game’s options. Micro Mode brings you down to the planet’s surface so you may see what you have wrought. It’s also where you alter geography and place monuments and the like.
The process of growing life on your planet is mostly fun; it’s very rewarding to go down to the surface of the planet and build mountain ranges and dig out deep oceans and just generally shape the world the way you want. Hearing the special jingle when a new species evolves is always an exciting event, even if it’s just a new type of seaweed (there are a surprisingly large number of different seaweeds). The only real issue with the gameplay is that you often have to wait for things to happen. When you hit the time forward button, time starts going, but there’s no way of knowing how long it will take for something new to grow. Sometimes you’re just sitting there for a minute or more, wondering if you changed enough to make a difference. It creates some stretches of the game where it feels like nothing’s happening, which it kind of isn’t.
Look Upon Your Works, Ye Mighty, and… Rejoice!
I really liked the look of Happy Birthdays. It’s got a cute anime vibe to it; not quite full chibi style, but just a really fun cartoony look. The graphics are bright and sharp, if not the best I’ve ever seen. The creatures (well, the big ones) exude personality, and the occasional activity animations add some visual variety that save the game from just consisting of watching a dinosaur walk back and forth across the plains. They’re great dinos, sure, but they need to be doing something. The plants and terrain are equally colorful and anime styled and attractive, making for an overall fantastic-looking game. The menus are clear, but some of the text in the libraries is a little small and hard to read. It wasn’t a big deal in undocked mode, but I noticed it more when I played it docked.
The Sound and the Fury
The audio for the game isn’t especially memorable, unfortunately. There’s no voice acting, which is fine. There’s only even two characters with any lines anyway (Navi and the Protagonist). The music is fine, but it really just fades into the background when you’re playing. Whenever you alter the terrain there is a bell that chimes, and if you string them together it makes a tune, which is kind of neat, but doesn’t really add a whole lot to the gameplay. If you get close enough to an animal you can hear it roar/squeak/chirp or whatever, which, again, is a cool detail, but it only adds to your immersion in the game a little bit. Frankly, if you don’t zoom the camera in close enough, it’s even possible to miss the animal noises altogether. Still, nothing about the audio track detracts or distracts from the game, so it gets a pass.
Happy Birthdays doesn’t have any touch or motion controls, so you can play it on the Switch however you’d like. I played it undocked for the most part, mostly because I just prefer playing the Switch undocked in general. I didn’t think the graphics looked appreciably better on a TV than the Switch’s screen, but maybe a little. The only real difference I noticed between the two was the text was sometimes hard to read on a TV, as I mentioned before. For that reason, I guess I would very slightly recommend playing undocked, but it’s really player’s choice.
TL;DR: Colorful and fun god sim with lots of dinosaurs. And dragons. And a yeti.