Home Strike: I Played all the Ten-Pin Bowling Games on PS2

… around about the time I was unwrapping the fourth packet from eBay to reveal yet another ten-pin bowling game, my wife rolled her eyes proclaiming that sometimes I was pretty weird... I object to the ‘sometimes’

The problem is that I can get an idea in my head and can’t let it go without seeing it through; the latest idea was ten-pin bowling. Fun Hundstrasse fact, many years ago I played regularly in a bowling league. It was in a strange period of my life where I found myself in a town that I didn’t want to be in with lots of free evenings on my hands. A casual conversation later and I was turning up weekly to a company league night having been recruited by a short-handed family team who… despite not remembering any of their names… I’m always kind of grateful for adopting me into their loosely related ranks of brothers, uncles, cousins and nieces. For those of you reading in the U.S. this may not seem out of the ordinary, but here in the UK bowling tends to be the domain of families with kids and bored teenagers on a Saturday afternoon with actual leagues and competitive play being more obscure. The point is, whilst not being anything special at actually playing it, I’ve always enjoyed bowling and the strange specific vibe of a bowling alley.

So, I had an idea to play a bowling game.. no, wait, I wanted to play a bowling game that wasn’t a motion controlled Wii or Switch game. I’ve no interest in waving my arms around yet again, but I did want to find out how this simple concept and specific alley ambiance could be captured sitting on the couch using a gamepad. Finally I refined the concept to find what I considered to be the ‘best’ bowling game on a specific system and having done a little research, I found out that the PS2 has a manageable six specific bowling titles in its collection. All of which available at very do-able eBay prices.

Side note: I’m only including dedicated bowling games, not bowling modes in other games, but of course shout outs go to Monkey Bowling in Super Monkey Ball and Tekken Bowl in Tekken Tag.

‘Best’ of course is a subjective word. I think SSX3 is the best snowboarding game, but someone else might be wrong and think that 1080 or coolboarders is the ‘best’. So maybe I should clarify… but I’m not going to… all I can say is that this is I have now played all six games, so this is my very amateur, uninformed, enthusiastic, opinion of the bowling games on PS2 ranked from worst to best:

6. 10 Pin Champions Alley

This is a bad game… no, you don’t understand, this may be the worst game I’ve ever played on PS2. I should have been a little worried when there was no memory card compatibility listed on the box which of course means that there is no save function, which by this point in the console generations is concerning. Even the simplest of games tended to have a save function to keep track of high scores or whatever.

I’m going to skip over the broadly offensive stereotypical character roster and jump straight in to gameplay. After lining up you character a directional arrow flails wildly from side-to-side to determine the direction you’re going to launch the ball, followed by similarly awkward taps for power and accuracy. I’ve played many ‘3-tap’ sports games that use this type of system, but even after a number of games I couldn’t reliably hit any pins, let alone play with precision. Not that things improved much at the other end of the lane with some fairly suspect pin collisions including the occasional pin-reflection that jumped out of the polished boards where it should stay.

I guess you could list ‘a variety of locations’ as a plus point if you want to bowl on a beach, or in a 1950’s diner… or set against half a dozen other backdrops. Oh, and it has essentially only one game mode which meant I could put this one down pretty quickly.

Verdict: Sticky-Garish Carpet

5. Bowling Xciting

I think this game was really targeted at those people who wanted to see ladies rendered with PS2 era graphics wearing tight bowling attire, but didn’t really know or care too much about the bowling. A niche audience I’m guessing as I’m sure not that many people ever played this game.

To give Bowling Xtreme credit, it is at least playable and fairly well presented. Character animations are reasonable for the era and there are a couple of different settings from the all important bowling alley to a kind of floating starfield. There are also a few different game modes including a ‘crazy lanes’ option with corners and obstacles on the lane. Surprisingly this is the only game on the list that has this type of thing.

Sadly that’s about all the good things I can say. Gameplay is pretty rudimentary where you line up, aim and set the power before a ‘double-tap’ QTE for accuracy. There’s no way to specifically add spin, other than set your accuracy to the right or left of the sweet spot to cause the ball to drift in that direction. Unfortunately this part happens so quickly that I gave up trying to add any nuance to draw the ball into the pocket. It seemed especially futile given how bizarrely the pins behave when the ball hits them. I saw pins travel through other pins without knocking them down, and nothing about the way they fell felt realistic.

One of the more dubious choices unique to Bowling Xtreme is the ability to partially control the ball after you’ve launched it down the lane. For me this undermines the whole point and sealed its fate as one of the worst of the bunch.

Verdict: Warm, Damp, Shoes

4. AMF Xtreme Bowling 2006

Now we’re getting to the good ones. AMF Xtreme Bowling 2006 is a special kind of bad that I love. It may have been released in 2006, but it feels like a product of the 90’s. As one of two games on this list that are actually licensed by bowling brands, I was curious about what AMF had to offer. In the UK at least, AMF bowling alleys are fairly common and the real life footage of people bowling at one of their disco evenings that plays in the background of the menu screen took my right back to my teens. Then there are the silhouettes of dancing women that adorning the strike and spare screens that I think may have been lifted from the actual bowling alley software.

The first thing I did was hit the character creation screen and Wow! I have rarely seen that many sliders to tweak an ingame character, nor had such trouble trying to make them look human. I spent a long time in the character creator, but I was rewarded for my efforts with someone who did look reasonably like a person.

I was also not disappointed by the variety of alley locations available AND that each of them could be played in daytime and XTREME mode which (for those of you not familiar with the AMF brand) is where they drop the house lights and fire up the blacklight showing off the UV glowing glory of their lanes.

And it’s not all show either. AMF Xtreme Bowling 2006 (yes, I’m going to keep using its full name) does have a fair amount of substance under that shimmering veneer. There are multiple game modes, including a spare challenge with increasingly difficult pins to pick up, and a match challenge where the game puts you somewhere in the middle of a game with a tricky path to victory. There’s also a good amount of technical content including different oil patterns for the lane and the ability to assign different weight of strike and spare ball. From humble beginnings, the player can level up their character by competing in different games to improve aspects of their play.

Sadly, once again, two parts of the game let it down and no matter how awesome this game is, I couldn’t put it any higher on the list. Firstly, to add spin you need to hold the thumbstick in a direction whilst performing the standard 3-tap routine for power and accuracy. This is super-sensitive, and although I did sort of get the hang of it, I sent way more than my fair share of balls into the gutter. I’m not against challenge, but to get a suitable amount of spin seemed to require little more than resting your thumb on the side of the stick which is really difficult when also trying to time certain taps. The bigger crime is that once again pin collision feels poor. It’s tough to describe, but I think maybe the pins falling were pre-animated. I can’t be sure of that, but it just felt ‘off’

Verdict: Soggy Curly Fries

3. Strike Force Bowling

In the nicest possible way, Strike Force Bowling feels like it’s been put together by a developer who wanted to make a great bowling game, but only had a CD-ROM of 3D assets from early Windows 95 games. There’s a solid level of technical detail and realistic pin collision that ties the whole game together. It’s also got some fun features such as a variety of lane locations outside of the bowling alley which feature themed balls and pins and a few game modes including a spares challenge, and ‘golf’ mode with some bizarre pin arrangements.

That being said, it looks super weird, and I stand by my Windows 95 assessment of the graphics. I mean, there’s even a Perfecto Allstarz style skeleton (sans trumpet) as one of the ‘pro’s. Characters look as though they’re about to fall over as they lurch awkwardly toward the foul line with each delivery. Arms flail about and their necks stretch and skew as the payer is treated to reaction shots following each delivery.

Strike Force Bowling also seems to forego any kind of character progression or specific character attributes which is a little disappointing. I kind of feel as though that might have elevated it further up this list, but as it stands I can’t seem to get over how strange the presentation is.

Verdict: Bumpers Up

2. Black Market Bowling

Black Market Bowling holds the dubious title of the game that I spent the longest playing. It’s not as technical as Strike Force, not as in your face as AMF, and limited in game modes, but what is there is well put together and it has a charm of its own.

Players get to choose from one of a nicely diverse cast of quirky bowlers in a few (very similar) brands of match across an array of distinctive bowling alleys. Sure, you’re going to get bored of the few lines of dialogue that each of them spews forth following a good or poor roll, but it does at least seem to commit to the character driven experience with each bowler having a particular set of strength and weaknesses. I mean, they’re not masterclasses in personality development… it’s a bowling game… but it was nice to see some effort put into developing a unique vibe. There’s no specific career mode, but a good array of unlockable characters, venue options, and equipment available for winning matches to keep things interesting.

Gameplay hits all the right notes with a neat, easy to understand, and well executed three tap system with position, aim, and spin all adjusted beforehand. The whole experience feels smooth and well constructed with opponents presenting a challenge that can be difficult, but not unfair. Heck, I’d even go as far as say that I could see myself coming back to Black Market Bowling.

Verdict: Picking up the Spare

1. Brunswick Pro Bowling

Even if you’ve only ever casually stepped into a bowling alley, then you’re likely to have seen the name Brunswick; it is a brand Synonymous with bowling, so, like AMF, I was curious to see if they managed to transfer that bowling pedigree across to the gaming world.

I kind of didn’t want this game to be as good as it was. I mean, it’s so much less goofy and bizarre than any of the others, but honestly Brunswick Pro Bowling nails it. Rather than go with the QTE style timed tapping of all the other games, the Brunswick bowling action is controlled by a timed ‘swing’ of the analogue stick which feels like a much better approximation of bowling on a gamepad… if that’s even possible. From here the ball travels down the lane, resulting in the best pin dynamics of all the offerings.

… my one criticism being that the same sound effect plays for a strike regardless of how fast those pins falland yeah, that’s how far I had to go in order to find something to complain about.

From a realism standpoint there’s ball selection, player fatigue, and oil patterns that degrade during play. The only thing lacking is a reduction in accuracy if your player has a beer. Heck, I felt better at bowling just from playing this game. Outside of quick play, there’s only one mode ‘career’ yet again it’s the most sensible choice of the bunch, and yet again I couldn’t fault it for that decision. All the other games suffer from the lack of a proper career mode, but here you get to play through leagues, tournaments and matches in something that feels like a proper game progression. There’s character customisation that produces a reasonable looking human wearing suitable bowling attire and a pro-shop to use your career earnings kitting them out in an array of shirts, balls, gloves… glasses? Finally your character stats improve as you play.

I mean, it makes sense right, Brunswick wanted to actually create a bowling game that’s as close to bowling as possible… and yet, I’m kind of disappointed in myself for putting it top of the pile. I mentioned SSX3 earlier. I love SSX3 because of how it takes snowboarding and makes it outrageous. Or how The Mario Golf series (barring Super Rush) is a fun quirky take on golf… or how NBA Jam was absurd… and that’s what I hoped to find with bowling, but no… no… Brunswick Pro Bowling is both the most sensible, and the best bowling game on PS2… so I guess I’ll have to do the same for a different system now… I’ve literally no other choice…

Verdict: Slam Dunk

Fine, you’ve been patient, so here it is: I gotta be quick because it’s 7:10 here and I don’t have too much spare time, but I’ll see how many puns I can fit in before I have to split. I was going to open with this hook, but it felt like the wrong way to frame the whole article. I did manage to keep my mind out of the gutter and avoided blurting out a foul line….. I’m a go have a Turkey sandwich…

7 thoughts on “Home Strike: I Played all the Ten-Pin Bowling Games on PS2

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