Sheep have become a commonplace joke in video game design. They’ve served as a profitable investment (Harvest Moon), innocent obstacles that explode when clicked repeatedly (Warcraft II), objects to be smashed or punched or cut in half (Cel Damage), the latest in kamikaze technology (Worms), catapult filler (Tak and the Power of JuJu), and a quizzical platformer star capable of floating small distances (Space Station Silicon Valley). It is no surprise, then, that someone would get the zany idea to make a sheep herding game. It takes more than a couple of sheep and a good idea, though, to make a great game.
Herding. The business of it sounds like a real bore, better left to farmers and filmmakers with access to convincing pig puppets. But we’ve previously seen gameplay ideas that sound too hokey to work actually work. Thus, virtual sheep herding is surprisingly fun. As a sheep dog, you have the responsibility to chase a flock of sheep through dangerous obstacle courses into a truck waiting at the end of the level. Sheep are stubborn and curious animals, though, so it definitely is not a straightforward romp. Some of the obstacles also require leaving the herd for a moment in order to go around and open up a passageway. Sheep can also be picked up individually and tossed into something like a switch or breakable wall. Before each round, you can choose the type of sheep you want to herd. Naturally, there are the traditional white sheep that are “supposedly” tame. If you want a tougher flock, the other sheep personalities eventually lead to a reckless and rambunctious bunch nigh impossible to control.
Sheep herding requires little “buttonwork.” In fact, you can theoretically navigate a level without touching anything but the D-pad. To get the sheep to move in a given direction, you simply run parallel to the flock on the opposite side. The sheep aren’t always so willing to cooperate, however. This is why it is sometimes necessary to bark (by the tap of the B button), and the sheep will bolt in the direction you are facing. Again, though, these rules aren’t always so clearly cut, and your flock of sheep will repeatedly respond incorrectly.
Sheep are stupid. Even the tamest and most well-behaved sheep have a tendency to do things that don’t seem like they should be allowed in this game. They go where they aren’t supposed to go. They do what they aren’t supposed to do (and in some cases don’t do what they are supposed to do). I understand these sheep are endowed with personalities, but when I choose to herd the easy sheep, I expect to have an easy run. I find myself getting very mad at the flock, and I have urges to break something when they meander into a death trap hidden within the outer edges of the GBA screen. The game is difficult to maintain. The sheep become more reckless while the obstacle courses become more secretly devious. It is not easy to gather up scattered, terrified sheep when trap doors, electric fences, and madmen with knives line the perimeters.
Being somewhat of a puzzle game, 24 levels comes across as a little short. Considering the first two “worlds” are very easy (and fun, the way this game works), that doesn’t leave a lot of challenge left. Sheep is quickly over and makes for a better rental than purchase, if renting GBA games was possible. Aside from the Normal Mode, there is an Arrange Mode that lets you build up stats while ultimately getting frustrated. You can always replay levels to aim for a higher score, but the game is so aggravating, I find it really hard to bring myself to play it again when there are tens of better games waiting to be played.
Despite some rather slick and clean-looking menus, Sheep is an ugly visual experience. The game attempts to pull off a top-down perspective, but the result seems to struggle between this and an isometric view and comes across looking a little disheveled. The inherent graininess found so frequently in quickly-produced GBA games is present in sickening pixel oscillations, and Sheep’s framerate starts to chug when too many animals are running on screen at once (where “too many” means a parsley six or seven). To upkeep the cheap and rugged atmosphere outlined by the graphics, Sheep’s taste in sound is equally questionable. The tiny bahing of sheep is the dominant sound effect and quickly (and obviously) becomes annoying. It only seems fitting that a sheep-based game would have chipper and nauseatingly upbeat music, as well. This is the stuff your boss plays to make you hurry and finish work to get you out of there as soon as possible.
Cubivore comes directly to mind when I try to summarize where Sheep goes right and where it goes wrong. These games are built upon clever precepts, but the novelty alone is not enough to stretch the games’ interesting aspects into something that can compete with fuller titles. The first few levels of Sheep set high expectations for a game that becomes too convoluted and too frustrating way too quickly. What you are left with is a unique puzzle/action game relying on concept and forgetting execution is just as important. A good idea. A nice try. It could have been better.