Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken you on various different trips down memory lane, looking at games series that are no longer with us. These require extensive research and playtime into the games at hand and while attempting to curate a Christmas-themed article I happened to stumble across a franchise bigger and better than I could have ever imagined. So, over the past few days, I’ve been sinking my teeth into what I can safely say to be one of the worst gaming franchises ever made. Today I ask you not to take a trip down memory lane but to come with me on the most polarizing gaming experience I’ve ever had. And as this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of its conception I bring to you, Elf Bowling.
Let’s kick it off by taking a step back to the year 2002, the birth of Elf Bowling. The game’s premise is simple, Santa’s elves aren’t happy with their current work situation and as such are striking against Santa and as with most forms of corporal punishment Santa decides to reward them with a well-placed bowling ball to the face. You play a regular game of bowling (10 rounds) and while doing so you’re treated to various visual gags of elves rebelling, rabbits defecating on the lanes and reindeer who refuse to move despite being hit with bowling balls multiple times. The aim of the game is to compete to get the highest score against well, yourself. Because in this game Santa isn’t actually playing a game of bowling against anyone, instead, he’s just bowling down his workforce for fun. So, with no multiplayer, no competitive element and little to no story (all the story you get is from some scrolling text at the start) you’d think the gameplay is Elf Bowling’s saving grace. Well how very wrong you are, unlike most bowling games there’s no actual skill or real gameplay involved. Instead via a series of flashing arrows you press a button when the arrow, signifying the direction you want the ball to be thrown in, flashes. After the ten rounds are up, you are taken back to the main menu to start again, your time with the original Elf Bowling is done.
It’s at this point that you’re most likely questioning why I’m talking about this, this sounds like an awful flash game you’ve stumbled across on a dodgy unblocked games website you found in school. Well, it may shock you to find out that this game at one point in time had over 7.6 million people playing it. It was in the top 10 most played PC games (not bundled with windows) and was an internet sensation. The game was thought to be a virus infecting computers as people were sending out EXE files of the game via Email to colleagues in workplaces. But even stranger than that, the reason this stood out to me is that despite it being awful beyond belief it got a release on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS! Although developer NSTORM didn’t think that Elf Bowling was enough of a game to sell on its own, so bundled with it is the first of many Elf Bowling sequels, Elf Bowling 2 – Elves In Paradise.
Upon first glance, it seems that Elves In Paradise may redeem itself from its counterpart’s multiple failures. The initial menu screen greets you with the glorious option of 2 players and when the game first loads your shown a much more colourful HUD and consequently better animations. Not only that, this time Santa is actually playing against someone else, Dingle, Santa’s evil ice selling brother (Trust me this is only the start of the rich lore of Elf Bowling). But it all becomes clear that all is not what it seems in Elf Bowling 2 and as an Elf rises from the ground instead of a ball, you discover that Elf Bowling 2 is actually Elf shuffleboard. The controls remain the same as the first with a few different flashing buttons to press, it’s basically the exact same game as the first but without the bowling element. So did these two games when bundled together do well on the DS? Simply put no, Gamespot gave the compilation 1.4/10 and Metacritic ranks the games at 10/100 both of which means they rank with some of the lowest scoring games on either website. But that’s not enough backlash to kill off this series and as such Elf Bowling 3 was released.
Elf Bowling 3 decided to change things up once more, this time your flinging elves out of Mrs Claus’ Bra onto targets in the far distance. The story is kind of going off the rails at this point but it’s another complete change in direction that for some reason is still called Elf Bowling. Santa’s elves have succumbed to Santa’s evil brother’s dastardly ways and have become raging alcoholics, meaning they can no longer fly Santa’s sleigh. To teach them to fly again Santa decides to fling them into the air with Mrs Claus’ bra. As the insanity steps up, the gameplay does too and for the first time in the series, there’s actually some challenge in the game. Various flying objects line the sky and there’s a point/level system to give the game a sense of progression. The game retained its “Email to your friends” selling point and as such Elf Bowling was successful enough to spawn a fourth entry.
Super Elf Bowling was the next big changeup for the franchise, the big move to 3d and the big return to actual bowling. For a franchise called Elf Bowling, it’s surprising that by Elf Bowling 4 only one game had actually been about bowling. This time there was improved ball control, fully realised 3D environments (that’s right plural) and more of that rich lore you’ve come to expect from the previous 3 instalments. This version sees you being able to play not only as Santa but as Dingle and Mrs. Claus tying in all 3 previous games into a big showcase of the Elf Bowling franchise. Of course, none of the characters play any different and it’s all entirely superficial but it’s still a slight improvement on what we originally started with. Instead of the flashing arrow system of the first, you pick up and throw the ball allowing for much-improved precision bowling. There’s still no real content here but it seems as though 4 games in were actually getting close to what can be considered a fully-fledged game.
But just as you thought the franchise was improving it takes another step away from bowling and returns to the shuffleboard theme of Elf Bowling 2. Elf Bowling Bocce Style (Elf Bowling 5) sees you using elves as Bocce balls. The storyline adds in pirates because really what else did a franchise like this need (Don’t worry these pirates aren’t a one-off addition they’ll reappear in the future) and it’s even zanier the last. The gameplay revolves around throwing your Elf closest to the penguin on the far end of the board by dragging and throwing your Elf, like in Super Elf Bowling. You win by getting more points than your opposition. It’s a simple, but still strange, departure for a franchise still called Elf Bowling.
Now over the next 2 years, we were gifted both Elf Bowling 6 and 7, Elf Bowling 6 was another random game which saw you throwing elves to see who could get their Elf the furthest on the playing field, it’s simple and takes the franchise back to its 2D routes. It’s also basically a flash game with little to no merit and is probably the worst in the franchise yet in terms of content. The gameplay is yet another one-time click game but you get the added bonus of trying to keep your Elf in the air with a dedicated Fart button (Maybe this inspired South Park The Stick Of Truth?). It’s nothing special and even in this collection of awful games would do best to be forgotten. Elf bowling 7 though returned to its roots once more but with something very special in tow, a story mode. This meant progressive levels, a feeling of accomplishment and actual challenge thrown in. The Elves each have special powers which can hinder you and make the game interesting to keep playing. The controls are pretty slick and the graphics aren’t awful for the year 2006. To be honest, when compared to the rest of the games this entry isn’t that bad, it’s still elf bowling so it’s never going to be game of the year but it’s the greatest improvement the franchise ever saw. It would be the perfect ending, until the last game in the series came out. Elf Bowling Hawaiian vacation…
Now, what could ruin this, terrible controls? Awful Graphics? Offensive storyline? All of the above? No, this game has none of that because this game is literally identical to Elf bowling 7. This time though for literally no reason its set in Hawaii. This to me is the perfect swan song, it shows off the awful practice developer NSTORM displayed through the creation of all 8 games and the minimal effort put into each game. Elf Bowling somehow managed to sustain itself over 8 games, each barely improving, or becoming more playable than the last. It’s an impressive feat that not many franchises have managed to be able to pull off. It’s likely that the franchise died because its “Send to your friend” gimmick died off or people just clocked on to how awful these games were but even so Elf Bowling didn’t end at the eighth instalment. I mentioned earlier that the pirates from the 5th game would return and they did but not in game form, in the shape of Elf Bowling: The Movie.
Now, unfortunately, I had to sit through all 82 minutes of this feature-length Elf escapade and I can happily say it’s as bad as the games its based upon. The story sees both Santa and his brother Dingle as pirates roaming the sea. However, upon being kicked off their own ship they become frozen in ice and wash up on the North pole. There, the Elves that live there recognise Santa as the chosen one and recruit him to run the toy factory in the North Pole, thus Christmas is born (how else). The film then gets even stranger, Santa becomes sick of dingle lying around his apartment for 1400 hundred years and kicks him out. Following this betrayal, Dingle starts to try and sabotage Santa’s toy-making scheme and it all culminates with a game of Elf Bowling. Of course, Mrs Claus pops in, the typical Elf Bowling humour you’ve come to expect from the 8 games returns and it even brings the elves on vacation for a bit. Id love to say at this point that this movie is a masterpiece, that it’s an underrated gem that needs to be watched by all. But as you can probably expect it’s awful, truly awful. There are no redeeming qualities about this film, the animation is abysmal, the voice acting is painful and the script is so bad that it’s actually hilarious. You can get a taste for this in the short 2-minute trailer above (It’s all you need to watch trust me). Elf Bowling 8 may have been the pinnacle of the franchises mistakes, but the Elf Bowling movie is the true representation of the franchise. How Elf Bowling became such a hit upon its release I’ll never know, how it got a Nintendo Ds release I’ll never understand and how that awful QTE game spawned 7 more games and a movie will forever remain a mystery to me. Usually, at the end of these articles, I pose the question of whether we’ll ever see the franchise make a return but for once I sincerely hope we don’t. Elf Bowling already outlived its time and I think its time we let it rest in peace, hopefully, Santa has bowled his last ball and the Elves can now live without the fear of ever being used as bowling pins again.
Did you ever experience Elf Bowling? If so let us know in the comments below!