Elf Bowling 1&2

“An Internet Christmas Story.”

“C’mon, rack your fat brain!”
Festive doodling by yours truly.

Christmas-themed video games suck. I should honestly just induct every one of them ever made to the Bad Game Hall of Fame all at once, and save myself the chore of having to write about any of them individually. But I reckon that’s not really in the spirit of the site here, is it? No, it feels like my duty is to take on the worst of them one-by-one on an annual basis, until such time as the abolition of all December holidays or the heat death of the universe. Well, as long as we’re in it for the long haul here, I may as well get what is largely considered to be “the worst of the worst” out of the way nice and early.

Elf Bowling 1&2 was launched concurrently on Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance and DS on November 28th, 2005, to what can only be described as a overwhelmingly negative critical response. I may as well mention right upfront that they are almost identically the same game, with only minimal differences in terms of presentation between them. I should also mention that these retail products serve as conversions of a pair of freeware PC games, which were nearly six years long in the tooth prior to their consolization treatment. Oh, and to top it all off; the current owner to the Elf Bowling trademark once waged a Wikipedia edit war to condemn the “unauthorized” releases of these games — a trademark he only owns because his company bought the rights second-hand for themselves, right out from under the original creators’ noses.

Well, to hell with my plans for the holidays, I guess! It looks like I’m gonna have to put in the hours getting down to the bottom of this incredibly stupid mystery. You know, I really thought I was just picking out an easy little game for myself this month at first? I seriously had no idea what I was getting myself into. But now that I know what I know, I feel obligated to share it with the rest of the world. So, here we go folks: It’s time to thoroughly examine the circumstances and history behind a novelty Flash game from the late 90s, and to dissect its cheap cash-in of a cartridge conversion. Let the festivities begin!

“Fewer Toys! Higher Wages!”

Our story begins with NVision Design
A company creating content online
To promote and proclaim themselves to the world
They’d develop a game for the good boys and girls
With the holiday season soon on the horizon
The theming was settled on Christmas, surprising
So a team was assembled of developers merry
To create this crude work of Xmas parody
Little did they know, nor could they surmise
That their crude little game would soon spell their demise

NStorm, Inc. was described as the “e-mail marketing division” of Texas web design company NVision Design; though it may be more accurate to describe them as a small games developer working within the larger creative studio. That said, “larger” in this sense still refers to a team that consisted of a grand total of forty employees, so we’re not exactly talking about a Fortune 500 company here. And in the early, unintuitive days of the world wide web, getting the word out about a small business was still something like a struggle. The classic tactics of banner ads and email spamvertising campaigns were never really all that practical a means of promotion to begin with. So to stand out, you’d really need to do something special — something that would both grab folks’ attention and manage to keep it too. That’s where NStorm earned their keep.

NStorm’s tactic for advertising their larger company’s services was the distribution of freeware advergames, which would link back to the NVision Design / NStorm websites [or to paying clients]. That was it: That was the whole of the strategy. And wouldn’t you believe it, but it worked wonders for them? According to their metrics, this method for advertising resulted in a 23% click-through rate versus the estimated average “one-half of one percent” of those traditional banner ads. But perhaps the most brilliant part of this strategy was the distribution method, which counted on the players themselves to handle the actual effort of spreading the word. By NStorm compressing their games to sizes of roughly 1MB and packaging them as conveniently standalone executable files, they would fit nicely in the attachments of most e-mail services, allowing them to be sent and shared with ease.

Frogapult for PC (NVision / NStorm, 1999)

Titles like Frogapult (a target game which sees players launching frogs across a crocodile-infested lake) and Good Willie Hunting (a game of whac-a-mole played as Bill Clinton, bashing in the heads of Monica Lewinsky and Newt Gingrich) helped bring NVision into the spotlight, both promoting their web design services and establishing the NStorm division as a popular games developer in their own right. With their simple games capable of running on the lowest of specs, they made for ideal workplace distractions in the era of cubicle farms and IBM PC compatibles. But the best was yet to come for the small Texas studio, with one title in particular poised to launch them into the stratosphere: November 12th, 1999 would mark the release of Elf Bowling. By December, it would firmly establish itself as one of the most popular PC games of all time [in it’s time], with estimates that the game was being played “900 times per second.”

Elf Bowling pitches an incredibly cynical scenario surrounding the Christmas season: On the eve of the holiday, Santa’s elves take to striking in order to protest their cruel working conditions. Shortly after being informed of the situation by Mrs. Claus, jolly ol’ Saint Nick decides to skip the worker negotiations and get right to the part where he crushes the dissent. By which I mean, he literally takes to setting the elves up as live bowling pins, and breaks their bones with his bowling ball, leaving them as bloodied bodies on his icy makeshift lane. (Support your local union, folks!) Granted, I don’t really believe this goofy gag game should be taken as genuine “political statement,” but it sure is wild to look back on just how casually a story concept like this was accepted back in the day.

Of course, that plot is just the flimsiest of pretense for a game where you get to play ten-pin bowling with people in the place of the pins. And boy howdy, NStorm sure made the most of this juvenile little premise, by giving the elves a variety of animations and interactions to be played out on-screen. In a given round, the pinsetter mechanism might yank the head off of one of the elves, leaving them spewing a fountain of blood from their neck. In the next, you may see the elves break into an impromptu dance while singing “Ice Ice Baby” — with the word “Elf” in place of “Ice.” Sometimes one of the hapless workers might fart, and the rest of his peers will laugh at him until he goes red in the face. The end result for them will always be the same though, as they’re to be left broken and bruised by the impact of your comparatively huge bowling ball.

Despite these attempts at variety and randomization, it’s all played as simply as can possibly be when it comes to core mechanics. It’s all a matter of timing, as you press a button to stop a moving slider in order to line up your shot. Ideally, you use your first ball to try and aim for the pocket (very slightly off of center), and cross your fingers for a strike. Failing that, you’ll try for a spare by aiming for a remaining pin, and hopefully clear the frame. That’s the whole of the game right there: No spin, strength, or approach to be considered. Pin action (where pins topple into one another) is only a slight, occasional factor, and the only added bit of variance you might encounter is if the elf in the head pin spot decides to side-step your ball as it comes down the middle of the lane. With minimal practice, I found myself scoring perfect games consistently.

Elf Bowling for PC (NVision / NStorm, 1999)

Despite this simplicity – or rather, due in large part to it – the game became hugely popular, and inspired literal hundreds of thousands of folk to share it with one another. As word of the game spread, so too did the name of the developers, with news outlets soon seeking out interviews with the quickly-emerging studio. But as it turned out, not all this press and attention were positive: Due to the nature of the game being distributed as a standalone executable file, there came an equally-popular virus scare surrounding the title, with chain emails and web pages claiming [erroneously] that the whole promotion for the game was an elaborate ruse to infect computers across the Internet. These malicious rumors were “substantiated” by the fact that the game establishes a network connection as it runs, which some believed meant that the file was spyware serving to upload all your files and steal your identity or what have you. In actuality, it was just a method for checking a server to see if updates were available for the game, which never actually came to fruition anyway.

Y’all know the saying “there’s no such thing as bad press?” Well, as it turns out, too much press of any sort – be it good or bad – can also be bad for your health. Just as sure as the game continued to be passed around despite virus rumors, folk continued to check out the NVision website as well. As a matter of fact, so many folk came to take a look, their servers couldn’t actually handle all the demand. Even as their business grew a whopping 900% over the course of the year while accumulating nearly $2.6 million in profits, they were still struggling to accommodate for the influx of traffic and to keep up with so many incoming business leads. Bearing in mind here that we’re still talking about a relatively small business with less than fifty employees, you can hopefully see how they might begin to falter with the weight of the world wide web on their shoulders. It was clear to the company’s founders (Mike Bielinski and Dan Ferguson) that the time was now to sell their business while the bidding was still high, rather than to see it all collapse under that heavy load.

While the details here are hard to keep proper track of – especially considering the attempts to obfuscate them by a certain individual (much more on this later) – I believe the following to be accurate: The end of December saw NVision [and NStorm] being completely bought out by Vectrix Business Solutions Inc. — an “e-commerce service provider” also situated in Dallas, Texas. The purchase of NVision was just one in a series of at least seven acquisitions within a year by Vectrix, who were rapidly expanding in preparation for taking their own company public (to be listed on the stock exchange as a publicly-traded entity). Vectrix’s primary interest in purchasing NVision seems to have laid specifically in NStorm, whose name they sought to patent as a “process” for driving traffic to paying clients. And so, while the team of developers were still working under the same name as before, they were now doing so for a new parent company. One which sought to further capitalize on their potential as tools for marketing, no less.

Elf Bowling for PC (NVision / NStorm, 1999)
The provided credits for the game, as viewable from the game over screen. “Rickel the Pickel” had no idea just how unfortunate his nickname would become two decades later.

This increased emphasis on branding and advertising would manifest more visibly within future games. While it was a forgone conclusion that there would be a sequel to Elf Bowling after the success of the original, folk may not have expected it to carry an explicit bit of product promotion with it. Elves in Paradise: Elf Bowling 2 would be notably sponsored by CDNow.com, who served as perhaps the largest online marketplace for music releases in it’s time. While the company was already suffering crippling debt with the bursting of the dot-com bubble (to be explained shortly), they still sought to advertise by means of appearing in the upcoming advergame. As you continue to consider the consequences of that dot-com bubble bursting in the back of your mind, let’s talk about Elf Bowling 2… and the fact that it contains absolutely no bowling whatsoever.

As it turns out, Elves in Paradise is a take on the game of shuffleboard! For folk who care about truth in advertising, the title must be infuriating. That being said, it’s at least a more mechanically-involved game, complete with manual aiming and a timed meter for shot power as you launch elves as pucks across the deck of a cruise ship. I should probably mention that the premise this time around deals with Santa making a wager with his deadbeat brother “Dingle Kringle,” where the winner is to be crowned Father Christmas and regain control over the whole gift-making operation — as well as implied sexual favors from Mrs. Claus, as is shockingly alluded to in the story scroll. The prologue also reveals plot developments since the last game, with the “belligerent survivors” from the first winning their demands for higher wages, shorter urinals, and an all-expenses paid vacation to the island of Micronesia (hence the cruise ship setting).

While I’m sure there were some number of folk who were genuinely disappointed to see the move from bowling to an almost completely different sport, Elf Bowling 2’s variation on shuffleboard makes for a decidedly better game. It brings with it options for two-player head-to-head play, a new and improved suite of gags, more refined presentation, and an altogether more interesting game to be played within. And even though I mentioned the more apparent product placement, it’s not as if it’s particularly distracting or even so much as intrusive: It manifests of just a small in-game banner ad for you click on, if you’re so intrigued. For a moment in time, doing so even brought you to an “Elves Central” page on the CDNow website that netted you a $5 discount off your next purchase! Putting that aside, the sequel should be considered an altogether marked improvement — even if the title is slightly misleading in a sense. Elves in Paradise would surely mark bright futures ahead for NStorm, and establish a foolproof formula for success.

And then the dot-com crash finally caught up to them.

Elves in Paradise: Elf Bowling 2 for PC (Vectrix/ NStorm, 2000)

There’s really no way to overstate just how big a sham the whole dot-com boom / bubble truly was, just as there’s no counting how many companies collapsed in the wake of it bursting. To briefly explain what the phrase refers to: 1995 through 2000 saw massive investments and hugely inflated speculative values placed on businesses operating on the Internet. To use the aforementioned CDNow as an example; the company was briefly believed during this period to be worth billions of dollars, by rich folk who greatly overestimated the company’s reach and potential for profit. And so, while the company did manage to find modest success from their operations, they were still falling far short of those absolutely absurd projections. By the year 2000, investors in web-based businesses pretty much all came to the same conclusion that they weren’t gonna see the growth they had expected, and promptly saw them pulling out of their stakes altogether. Obviously, this resulted in massive financial blows to companies like CDNow, with many of them having to shut down operations in the wake of the mass exits from the market.

To bring things back around to Vectrix: That series of acquisitions over the course of the year prior were now proving to be the worst possible investment they could have made, as their collective value had likely dropped thousands-fold. To put it simply, they were doomed, no matter what they could’ve done to attempt to salvage and restructure their business. In one such futile effort to recoup losses / stave off closure, Chapter 11 bankruptcy was filed by the company on July 9th of 2001, with the trademarks to their associated properties put up for auction by the 30th of October. Naturally, NStorm served as one such property up for bid, with their library of games and trademarks included. At this point, the original founders in Bielinski and Ferguson (who had already left Vectrix ahead of time to found a new games development venture named “Kewlbox”) had planned to buy the rights to their old company back, and likely sought to continue the likes of the Elf Bowling series as they saw fit.

Enter Commotion Interactive, and it’s co-founder Matt Lichtenwalter. According to forum post testimony by an unspecified / unverified member of the original NStorm: “When we tried to buy back our old games, [Commotion] out bid us at the last minute. We were very upset that this happened but we couldn’t see paying the amount of money that they bought it for.” Between the way the situation is framed here and given the nature of Lichtenwalter’s own commentary on events, I have no reason to doubt that this move by Commotion was staged as a literal last minute power play as implied. For Kewlbox, the disappointment at the bankruptcy court meant trying to find other ways to maintain their momentum from Elf Bowling’s success. This would lead to what I can only describe as a desperate attempt at continued brand association, by creating an “unofficial” spin-off franchise by the name Santa Balls. They even attempted to create something of a mascot character for this new property in “Oliver the Elf.” Needless to say, neither new of these new brandings made quite the same splash as their predecessor.

The following years saw Commotion putting their newly-acquired NStorm back to work, churning out new promotional tie-in titles to occupy their non-holiday seasons. For a few highlights: Axe Marks the Spot marked an effort to promote Ultima Online, Punt the Geek served as a tie-in to the Sony Pictures movie The New Guy, and French Toast was one of a thousand tedious examples of American anti-France sentiment stemming from their not supporting the invasion of Iraq. Boy howdy, has that last title there sure aged like a fine wine! Of course, what players most eagerly anticipated from the developer was an Elf Bowling 3, especially after 2001 came and went without a new installment in the series. December 7th of 2002 would finally see the release of the third entry; now played out as a slingshot target-shooting game, and featuring heavy branding by TechTV. As a matter of fact, TechTV would become a repeat customer of NStorm’s, putting up the sponsorship deals for a game titled Particle Jam as well as for the subsequent Elf Bowling entry.

Elf Bowling 3 for PC (Commotion Interactive / NStorm, 2002)

2003’s Super Elf Bowling finally saw the series return to actual bowling for a change, boasting new low-end 3D graphics and a veritable suite of new features and options for customization. For as primitive as this installment may look now (and even at the time), it’s certainly the most fully-featured title in the series, and probably served players a solid by being low-spec enough to run on most any computer at the time. But perhaps most notable in the evolution of the series, Super Elf Bowling introduced a paywall to stand between players and access to the large bulk of content available in the game. The demo version contains the bare minimum of one selectable stage (out of six), one character (from another six), and one game mode (of a total three). This new business model would of course carry on to subsequent entries in the series, seeing the completion of a metamorphosis from freeware advergames into standalone retail products.

By this point, the official NStorm website had become a repository not just for the developer’s own offerings, but for all manner of other games as well; mostly of the “knock-off” variety, with clones of various arcade standards (Care for a game of “Dig McDug,” anyone?) as well as other popular casual games. By allowing the likes of Jamdat and other mercenary studios to fill out their larger catalogue of software offerings, they were effectively able to bide the core NStorm team’s time between Elf Bowling releases. And so, like clockwork, 2004 saw the launch of Elf Bowling: Bocce Style (unsurprisingly centered around the game of bocce ball), with Elf Bowling 6: Air Biscuits (a “launcher” style game among the likes of Kitten Cannon and NANACA†CRASH!!) slotted for the following year. With these new entries all being passable enough – trite and formulaic though they may be – I find myself really lacking much else to say about them. If only someone could toss a wrench into the works here and make things interesting again!

Say hello to Ignition Entertainment: A UK publisher who first appeared on the scene in 2002, primarily to deal in handheld releases and in bringing Japanese and European-developed titles to North America. Tracking their release history will take you on a wild ride of niche imports (including Arc Rise Fantasia and the Xbox 360 release of Deadly Premonition) to outright shovelware (such as Flipper Critters and Lotus Challenge). They would soon find themselves working in collaboration with Missouri-based developer Blank Lantern Studios, whose own output also consisted of… well, pretty much exclusively the latter — piling heaps of shovelware onto Nintendo’s mid-2000s hardware offerings. Together, they would find themselves compiling a pair of cartridges for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS that would put their names in infamy.

Now, here’s where things get really interesting: Despite the accompanying instruction manuals providing proper credit and copyright to NStorm (as well as both Matthew and Karen Lichtenwalter), what you won’t find are mentions of any of the original development team. Sadly, it’s not really all that uncommon in conversion and port work to see original creators not get their due, and so their exclusion in the credits isn’t entirely unexpected. That being said, all appearances would still seem to indicate the game being an officially licensed product by Commotion and NStorm, right? Well, maybe not so much, according to Mr. Lichtenwalter. In a statement made over a decade after the fact of the game’s release, Matt condemned Ignition’s product as having been published “unauthorized and without permission.” Now, there is a whole heaping ton to unpack in regards to this statement — including the particular venue in which it was issued. But before we can even begin to broach that, I think it’s best if we review the games themselves first.

Elf Bowling 1&2 for GBA (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

Yes, these were the heady days where you could still send .EXE files via e-mail without your Gmails or Yahoos scolding you for doing so. Of course, this did in fact result in all manner of viruses and malware being sent by these means to unsuspecting netizens.
Back in the Macromedia era of Flash / Shockwave, exporting and distributing the final products of development as standalone executables was something like a common practice. While webpage embeds were also entirely possible by this point (and would soon become the most typical way of presenting Flash creations), going the .EXE route meant only having to download these files once, without having to worry about re-loading them on something like a 56k modem connection every time you wanted to access them again.
The first entry in this series was originally titled and uploaded to the Kewlbox website as “Elf Balls” — in order to more clearly establish the connection to the original Elf Bowling games. However, the story seems to go that Commotion Interactive did not much care for this, and promptly had their lawyers contact Kewlbox; ordering them to change the name to something less evocative of the property. Not looking to engage in any sort of legal battle, Kewlbox promptly backed down and changed their new game’s title.

“Two Holiday Classics in One Package!”

“C’mon, you old woman,
it’s time for Elf Bowling!”

(North American Nintendo DS box art)

For a compilation with so much history behind it, it’s something of a contrast that there’s really not much meat to the actual games themselves. In fact, that’s probably the single biggest criticism to be levied against Elf Bowling 1&2 on both the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, and deservedly so: You’ll be lucky to get 20 minutes of gameplay out of this $20 package. Now, I try not to deal in the “cost per hour” metric when evaluating games, because I believe it’s by and large damaging to the industry. But in the case of Elf Bowling, it’s honestly impossible to overlook here. I mean, you’ve gotta remember that we’re talking about a pair of games here that were released online as freeware — more than five years before the cartridges hit shelves, no less! You know, “Two for the price of one” is hardly a value proposition when the going rate is usually “none.”

With there being so little content to evaluate here, I’m going to go ahead and review both the GBA and DS versions of the game at the same time. Don’t worry about that making things potentially confusing: The two titles are almost entirely functionally and aesthetically identical to one another. If anything, the Nintendo DS version is actually the one to feel slightly lower-rent; lacking some of the title and menu screen animations, and generally standing out for looking as bad as it does on the higher-spec hardware. At the very least, it does take advantage of its dual screens to avoid having to use the vertical split-screen effect in the original Elf Bowling, and to keep the scoreboard on the top screen at all times in Elf Bowling 2. It also means that you can use the touch-screen in both games to launch your tosses, but you’re still stuck timing your tapping against the sliding meters rather than using gestures to aim and bowl. That legitimately covers just about all the differences between the two.

This begs the follow-up question: How do these conversions stack up against the original PC releases? Surely, given the bare-bones nature of those freeware distributions, we should expect all of their content to remain intact and then some; packing the compilation with all sorts of additional bonus modes, easter eggs, concept art, and whatever else they could throw in and fit into all that remaining cartridge space! Of course, you probably already know where I’m going with all this — that there’s absolutely no new content or tacked-on bonus material to speak of. But now, what if I told you that when it came to converting those five-year old games – designed to be as graphically simple and rudimentary as possible – they somehow still managed to lose something in their translation? What if I told you that even if you rated these compilations based solely on the accuracy of their conversions, they’d still end up scoring failing grades?

Elf Bowling 1&2 for GBA (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

Right off the bat, both of the available titles are completely lacking in their pre-game story screens, where they would originally scroll the set-up for why Santa is torturing his miserable employees. Rather, picking either of them from the main menu will simply drop you immediately into your set of Elf Bowling, or to the “one or two player” selection in Elves in Paradise before launching that game (with the player order-determining coin toss gone as well). This also means that the screens explaining the rules of the games are discarded, as well as axing the original NStorm developer credits accessible from the end-of-game screens. So, if you should need to refresh yourself on the details of Elf Bowling’s fundamentals or its deep lore, you’ll just have to consult the instruction booklet. That being said, and to give credit to what might be the only improvement to be seen in this whole sorry package; the story for Elves in Paradise as told in the manual omits an original line regarding “an unmentionable wager involving Santa’s wife, Mrs. Claus.” I think the premise still works perfectly fine without that uncomfortable detail.

Elf Bowling 1&2 for DS (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

Now, the fact that the game ends up losing at least a little something in the graphical department shouldn’t really come as all that big a shock: You can’t expect to survive the drop from a 640×480 resolution to 240×160 entirely unscathed. But what’s most sorely missing here is the crude “amateur vector graphics” aesthetic that worked towards the original games’ charm; now replaced by traced-over sprites, and lacking the subtleties in coloration / the use of gradients. I guess I’m not sure what else I should’ve expected them to do with such a restrictive canvas on the handheld fronts, but I can’t help but feel they still should’ve managed something better? I think the sticking point for me is how flat it all ends up looking, with every character drawn in 1-pixel thick black outline and rendered with zero anti-aliasing. There are plenty of examples on the GBA of smoothed spritework and soft edges — not to even mention the potential for 3D output on the DS. Bearing that in mind, seeing the complete lack of any of that in Black Lantern’s version of Elf Bowling really drives home just how little effort went in.

The presentation of Elves in Paradise in particular suffers the most severe downgrades, as all the animations seen while slinging elves down the lane are outright heinous. In the case of the original Flash release, NStorm were able to take advantage of vector graphics to present travel down the deck of the ship with fluid scaling effects — on both the lane itself and the passing elves along the way. Again, while it’s unfair to expect that particular effect to survive the transition to the GBA (still no excuse for the DS), the compromises made here stand out as looking particularly cheap and choppy. For one, the animation loop for the passing hatches on the sides of the lane is comprised of only two frames, absolutely shattering any illusion of movement. Add to that a broken scaling algorithm on the passing elves – which results in them actually shrinking at the last moment at the bottom of the screen [when they should be at their biggest] – and the end result honestly becomes difficult to visually parse.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of outright missing animations, some of the audible taunts from the elves, and other easter eggs that NStorm had originally implemented as a labor of their love. I could understand having to cut something like the elves smoking cigarettes in order to avoid that pesky “Use of Tobacco” flag from the ESRB, if not for the fact that it still earns its “T” rating with sights like a frog being bowled over into a bloody mess and elves getting decapitated. I also can’t imagine that including the full variety of protest signs (only the “SANTA SUX” board appears here) would’ve consumed too much of the cartridge budget. Granted, these probably sound like the most meticulous of nitpicks I could be making here. But when you stop to remember just how incredibly basic these games are at their core, and how the gags and bits of personality are pretty much their major selling point, you realize that they seriously couldn’t afford to drop or cut a single little detail. And yet, here we are.

Elf Bowling 1&2 for GBA (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

But let’s pretend that the gimmicks aren’t the whole of the draw here — that you’re an “Elf Bowling purist” who’s just here for the gameplay, I guess? You’re still in for something of a disappointment, as the developers couldn’t nail down the most basic gameplay imaginable. The principle of pin action seems to be reduced even further from original Elf Bowling, to the point where it seems technically impossible to pick up a spare from a split. In the case of Elf Bowling 2 – possibly due in part to the busted sprite scaling (?) – elves in motion will phase directly through others already on the lane, where there should be a collision and knocking effect on both pucks. These are functions practically essential to the playing of these games, and the fact that Black Lantern couldn’t even get this right can only go to show how truly cynically and lazily this compilation was thrown together.

Elf Bowling 1&2 for DS (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

When it comes to all these underwhelming games I play and write about here, I always try to ask myself “how could they have fixed this” — what exactly would it have taken to make something of this pitiful software package? In the strange and extreme case of Elf Bowling 1&2, all I can really do is fall back on the least helpful of solutions: They shouldn’t have even made the game in the first place. Even if the gameplay was as tight as could be, and all the graphics and gags somehow perfectly matched their source material; we’re still talking about an outright scam of a game here, no two ways about it. It’s the most cynical kind of shovelware, designed to catch the eyes of non-discerning adults around the Christmas season and waste kids’ precious stocking space.

To say that there’s no good reason these carts should exist would be an understatement. For folk looking to revisit and wax nostalgic on a game they enjoyed some years ago, it’s an altogether awful option. As cheap entertainment for children, it doesn’t even rate. Even from the perspective of the publisher – who we’ll assume had to spend some amount of money in negotiating the rights for / developing the game in question – it’s hard to imagine even the most generous of sales projections they could dream of justifying the production costs. Taking all of this into consideration… I think we’ve done it, folks! We’ve successfully found a video game made for absolutely no one! Congratulations to all those involved in its creation, and condolences to all those unfortunate to have spent money on it.

Elf Bowling 1&2 for DS (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

Vector graphics refer to a style of “point-based” digital image output, with a potential for infinite scaling and resizing. Effectively, a vector-capable art program can draw lines and edges not just as flat renders (bitmaps), but internalize them as a series of coordinates to be more cleanly modified. Flash was designed with full support for vector graphics, so that final products designed using it can easily be scaled up past their originally intended resolutions.

“Elf, Elf, Baby.”

“Don’t forget to send your mother-in-law that fruitcake you received last Christmas.”
(North American GBA back of box)

Elf Bowling 1&2 holds the dubious distinction of ranking as the all-time lowest-rated game for the Nintendo DS according to Metacritic. Sitting at an astonishingly low average score of 12 out of 100, it’s safe to say that not a single accredited critic afforded the game so much as a passing grade. GameSpot’s Frank Provo posted two individual reviews for the two “distinct” releases on GBA and DS; though putting the articles side by side will reveal that they actually wrote one baseline article, and just swapped out a small handful of sentences for the second. I don’t highlight this as an intended mark against the author: I only point it out because I find it as a hilarious bit of commentary on how truly interchangeable the two games themselves are. That said, I do have to point out that both articles rather erroneously refer to Elf Bowling 3 as “a decent bowling game” — clearly intending to refer to the fourth entry / actual return to bowling in Super Elf Bowling.

A 1.0-scoring review by IGN’s Craig Harris serves as a relic of the era in which it was written — right down to its flagrant tossing around of the R-word. It’s also one of those “angry game reviews” that can’t help but dealing in hyperbole, with paragraph-long diatribes comparing the game against “rat turds or hamster turds.” Putting all this crassness aside, the article echoes most of the same negative sentiments as every other review at the time; the shared consensus being that the package was as lazily-assembled as can be, and that it didn’t belong on store shelves. For whatever it may be worth, VGChartz estimates combined sales for the GBA and DS versions as only being somewhere in the range of 50,000 copies sold, so it would be safe to assume that retailers soon reached that consensus as well. Anecdotally, I have seen complete-in-box copies of this game continue to line the bottom of bargain bins over something like the past thirteen years, so I can only imagine how many units Ignition foolishly ordered to be produced in the first place. In any case, Elf Bowling 1&2 immediately established itself as a new low in handheld games, and seemed poised to sully the name of its once-lucrative license.

Obviously aware that the Elf Bowling brand had been run through the gutter, it seemed like Commotion and NStorm decided to take a year off to re-evaluate the franchise — perhaps resolving to redouble their efforts for the next installment. And so it would be 2007 that brought us Elf Bowling 7⅐: The Final Insult (attempting to evoke the title of the 1994 film The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult), also bringing with it a return to the 3D presentation of Super Elf Bowling. I guess we have to assume that this return was welcomed warmly enough, as it apparently warranted one more “final” sequel due the following year: 2008’s Elf Bowling: Hawaiian Vacation. Outside of later selling a “Holiday Pack” containing both The Final Insult and Hawaiian Vacation, this would finally mark the official end of the Elf Bowling franchise; having run for nearly ten years time, and counting just about as many games in that time as well.

Elf Bowling 7⅐: The Final Insult for PC (MumboJumbo / NStorm, 2007)

Oh, and there was also a computer-animated movie released during this period, because of course there was. It’s titled Elf Bowling the Movie: The Great North Pole Elf Strike, it was released in 2007, and the casting somehow suckered Tom Kenny into doing a couple of voices. Reportedly, they produced it with a Halloween-themed follow-up film already in the works, but this first installment was so immediately reviled on release that the sequel plans got scrapped. At the risk of disappointing some of y’all, I did not watch the movie as part of my research for this article. That being said, I might well keep the idea of it in consideration for a later article…

As a final footnote on the history of the games franchise, short-lived publisher Detn8 Games were at one point tapped to release another attempt at a compilation pack for the Nintendo DS. With the working title of Elf Bowling Collector’s Edition, it was evidently intended to convert and compile the first six Elf Bowling games for the handheld format. Unfortunately, Detn8 were cursed to never catch a break in the games industry; with their debut in publishing being the slightly infamous Ultimate Duck Hunting on Wii, their only subsequent release being the mediocre racing title Speed Zone (also on Wii), and closing their doors not very long after that. Amusingly, an Amazon listing still exists for the unreleased Elf Bowling Collector’s Edition, with the presumed platform keyed in as the Wii (despite the submitted box art clearly being for an intended Nintendo DS release).

Having put Elf Bowling to bed, Commotion seemed content to put the NStorm label to bed with it. You see, CEO-founder Matthew Lichtenwalter had found a new developer / publisher to do business with: None other than casual games extraordinaires MumboJumbo, LLC. As a matter of fact, the working relationship between the two parties had already been established with MumboJumbo having published Elf Bowling 7⅐, and retaining the right to use its game engine to develop their own future title (Zombie Bowl-O-Rama). To be clear, Matt seemed more than happy to sign these inventions away, as well as coming aboard the studio in an executive producer role — later to become Vice President of Product Development. However, he’d leave the company by 2010, and seem to re-focus his efforts back on his work at Commotion. That’s actually where he remains to this very day, as it turns out; working alongside his wife Karen, and continuing to produce all manner of “interactive content solutions for global clients.” In other words, he’s still churning out those advergames, with a helping of web design services on the side.

Normally, I wouldn’t pry much further into a developer’s continued dealings than that. But do you know what? I was consulting the Elf Bowling Wikipedia article for just a bit of quick reference on the subject, and I couldn’t help but notice this one unsourced quote on there from Mr. Lichtenwalter. It’s that one I alluded to earlier where he called out the handheld conversions as being supposedly unauthorized, as well as generally throwing shade at Ignition. Naturally, not seeing any citation attached to it, I decided to go through the article’s revision history, to see when exactly this bit was written in (and by who). And that’s when I discovered a series of a dozen contributions to the article by unregistered IP addresses all hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah — where Matthew Lichtenwalter just so happens to reside. And sure enough – in the “edit summary” field for the first in this series of edits – there was Matt directly assuming responsibility for these contributions.

Elf Bowling the Movie: The Great North Pole Elf Strike (Directed by Dave Kim / Rex Piano, 2007)

Over the course of five months (between September 2016 and February 2017) and four different IP addresses, Matthew took to trying to “improve” the state of the article; filling out some of the details of the franchise’s history, and clarifying the state of its ownership. It’s here where I should probably note that it’s considered poor conduct within Wikipedia’s community for folk to edit their own personal pages, or those of their affiliated business ventures (seeing as it constitutes a “Conflict of interest”). But Matt certainly didn’t let that stop him! Not only that, but his seemingly scatterbrain approach to writing failed to discourage him either, as he’d simply correct his own typos and rephrase his thoughts with subsequent edits. Come February 2017, Matthew’s work was done, having taken the article from a poorly-formatted mess to… well, still something of a poorly-formatted mess, but now with some added business jargon and a self-inserted press statement. For posterity (and potentially preservation), here’s that original statement of his in full:

“The DS and GBA versions were not approved or authorized by NStorm and were extremely poor copies of the code and art by original creators Ferguson and Bielinski. Myself, along with millions of fans all over the world loved the original artwork of Ferguson in all its pixelized glory and this unauthorized release caused sever [sic] harm to the brand that took several years to recover from.” ~ Matthew Lichtenwalter, Commotion Interactive

So, let’s finally get down to the bottom of this quote: If these handheld conversions were truly developed without permission from NStorm / Commotion, why was no case of copyright infringement ever raised? I searched and tried to dig around for any sort of associated legal proceedings, but came up completely dry. Not only that, but prominent displays and pages for Elf Bowling 1&2 continued to exist on the Black Lantern and Ignition Entertainment websites for years following its launch — clearly indicating to me that they weren’t in any sort of hot water or court contention over the releases. Which leaves us with two possibilities for what the case here may be: The first possibility being that Ignition managed to develop these unauthorized games within a legal loophole, which somehow didn’t necessitate their getting approval from the then-current rights holders. The second option (the one I’m more inclined to believe) is that the games were, in fact, developed with cooperation between all parties, but now sees Matt thinking he could get away with a little bit of “revisionist history” over a decade later to try and make himself look more business-savvy.

All this begs the question of what even spurred on Matthew to visit Wikipedia in the first place, and why he suddenly became so invested in taking control of the narrative? Well, I think I might have an educated guess as to that matter. And wouldn’t you know it, but it brings us to yet another strange twist in the tale. See, a week before Matt started editing the article, an editor by the username “Itzaferg” made a series of three changes to the article, asserting the original development of the series by creators Mike Bielinski and… Dan “Ferg” Ferguson. Additionally, this same account had made some contributions to the same article two years prior (that were immediately reverted for not conforming to proper format), as well as attempted to create an article on the subject of the game Chicktionary — as published by none other than Dallas’ own Kewlbox studio. As in, the same Kewlbox we mentioned earlier, which was co-founded by the same Dan Ferguson… Oh, for pete’s sake: We’ve got another case of an Elf Bowling developer trying to edit the article on their game!

Matthew Lichtenwalter’s initial contributions to the Elf Bowling Wikipedia article, as posted from the first of his multiple IP addresses.

So, going with my best guess here: Lichtenwalter was alerted to Ferguson’s 2016 additions to the Elf Bowling article, in which he detailed his own history with the franchise without acknowledging Commotion Interactive by name (only referred to as “the new owner”). Feeling slighted, Matt felt so compelled to contribute his own revisions to the article, including his own subtle slights against Dan [and Ignition Entertainment] while he was at it. With all that being said, I’d still have to admit that Dan’s contributions to Wikipedia are actually far more egregious than Matt’s brief stint, as they have seen Ferguson continually trying to edit an article for another of his own business ventures (one “Blockdot, Inc.”) up until as recently as November of 2018. In fact, his contributions so blatantly represent a conflict of interest, Wikipedia administration has actually had to intervene to tell this dude that he’s straight-up in violation of their terms of service. Even if Matt was clueless enough to straight-up admit his connection to Elf Bowling in one of his own edit summaries, he has still managed to fly under the radar in such a way as to not repeatedly raise the alarms that Dan has.

Aaand that’s honestly about as much as I can take of these e-marketing dudes absolutely failing to understand how the Internet works. Outside of their petty pissing matches on Wikipedia, I reckon both Matt and Dan have done just fine for themselves in continuing their careers in online advertising and games development. The same can’t be said of several of the other companies involved in this whole fiasco, though: The NStorm, Kewlbox, and Blockdot labels have all since fallen into the void, left to drift in the same empty space as NVision and Vectrix before them. You could chalk up Ignition Entertainment as a corporate casualty as well, having managed to limp along into 2012 — publishing continued obscurities all the while.

Black Lantern Studios kept at developing all manner of licensed titles (most notably for Dora the Explorer and “Zhu Zhu Pets”), including a handful which might honestly warrant future examination on this site. With their last title being a 2014 Duck Dynasty game for the Nintendo 3DS (serving as a blatant Animal Crossing clone, of all things), they too have since fallen off the face of the earth. In a rather amusing development though, their website has since entered into a state of absolute disrepair and spamvertising: Beginning on September 9th of 2017, we can speculate that bots began automated posting from a pool of games-related advertising content the likes of which you can find appearing on a number of other similarly-compromised websites. Whether this taking over of the website is the result of failed security, or the result of the domain-holders selling their webspace to a content-spamming bidder, it’s probably safe to say that the original studio itself is long-gone at this point.

That just about wraps up this tale of cheap cash-ins and multi-layered marketing ploys. At the end of the day, it’s hard to pretend that Elf Bowling was an innocent victim in this game of trademarks and licensing, since it really was intended as something like an advergame from the very beginning. What’s left to track here is how the passing of hands from one publisher to another resulted in each new entry becoming more blatant in its brand placement; eventually seeing Elf Bowling itself becoming the product on offer, and ultimately witnessing the franchise burn out and get tossed to the curb. Of course, this isn’t to dismiss the nostalgia some might still hold for those original Flash releases: It’s only to acknowledge that the intentions behind those “free games” may not have been quite so pure as some folk might’ve imagined. And with one publisher’s attempt to repackage those titles as an utterly shameless retail release, we find ourselves facing the true reason for the holiday season: Unfettered capitalism.

Happy December days, y’all!

Elf Bowling 1&2 for GBA (Ignition Entertainment / Black Lantern, 2005)

This detail can be gleamed from a “sales promo” video by distributor. Film Brokers International, as made handily available on YouTube (uploaded by the dedicated channel for GameOfTheBlog.com)
That article, by the way, was almost immediately submitted for “speedy deletion” due to either not being deemed relevant enough or not meeting the site’s formatting standards. What is it with these online marketing / advertising dudes apparently not understanding the basics of writing copy for Wikipedia?

b c Hein, Kenneth. “NVision Makes a Game of Better Marketing.” DMNews.com. November 29, 1999. Web.
b Freedom du Lac, J. “Download Christmas laughs from the Net.” The Jackson Sun. December 23, 1999. Print. (Scan available)
Milhorn, H. Thomas. ”Cybercrime: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim.” Universal Publishers. March 26, 2007. Print. (Scan available)
Wilson, David. “Pc Santa Has A Big, Fat Secret.” Orlando Sentinel. December 18, 1999. Web.
Hansen, Evan. “Vectrix.com acquires creator of Frogapult.” CNET. January 2, 2000. Web.**
“NStorm™ – who’s your daddy?” NStorm. 2000? Web. (Archive)
“Vectrix Business Solutions files for Chapter 11.” Dallas Business Journal. July 9, 2001. Web.
b “Elf Bowling (Revision as of 01:29, 28 September 2016).” Wikipedia. Web.
Provo, Frank. “Elf Bowling 1 & 2 Review.” GameSpot. January 3, 2006. Web.
Harris, Craig. “Elf Bowling 1 & 2.” IGN. December 14, 2005. Web.
** The CNET website identifies this article as having been published on January 2nd of 2002. However, this is almost certainly incorrect, with the subject matter / acquisition in question having occurred almost exactly two years prior. As such, I’m correcting the date here in my citation to reflect the more likely time of publishing.

Cassidy is the curator of a bad video game hall of fame. Whether you interpret that as "a hall of fame dedicated to bad video games" or as "a sub-par hall of fame for video games" is entirely up to you. Prefers "They / Them" pronouns. Genuine cowpoke.

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