[This will probably be my last 3DO review for a while... Though I'm planning on hooking up my FZ-1 to my friend's cathrode ray tube TV in the near future, so possibly you'll be getting reviews of the two 3DO light gun games I have soon.]
Cowboy Casino is (to the best of my knowledge) the only gambling simulator on the 3DO, and it's a somewhat unusual take on the genre. Rather than pitting the player against a casino house, Cowboy Casino sits you at a table with four AI players for a game of poker. You pick the AI players from a cast of five characters, portrayed by live actors in a combination of digitized animation and FMV clips, and it all plays out in an Old West saloon. The result is a gambling challenge with more personality than the faceless dealers typical of the genre.
More personality is a nice idea, but the personality in Cowboy Casino isn't the most charming. Brief FMV clips play at key points in the action - the bet being raised, a challenge to hi-lo double up, a character going broke - but the vast majority of the clips come when you lose a hand. Every time you lose, an opponent will be sure to rub it in your face with a lame wisecrack, a crude insult, some obnoxious laughter, or a combination of the three. It doesn't matter if you "lost" by folding a bad hand without betting anything beyond the ante; your opponents react as though you gave away your life's savings to a phishing scam. Given that every good poker player folds the majority of hands, this can get tiresome.
On the bright side, I like how the opponent repartee adds to the immersion of a simulated poker game. The clips are only about five seconds long and occupy a small portion of the screen, making them work well as talking heads, and they do carry an Old West ambiance. Still, the "ha ha you lost a hand" clips are annoying to begin with, and start repeating before long as the game rapidly exhausts its stock of taunts. (The game box boasts "hundreds of live-action scenes", but by my calculations there's barely one hundred, if that.)
The good news is you get the option of turning the clips off. Since this also switches to an overhead view of the table, though, I prefer to leave the clips on and skip them with the A button, since the digitized sprites of the characters sitting at the table are quite good. Nonetheless, the option is there, and thankfully so is the option to turn off the incessantly looping music.
With that settled, it is now possible to enjoy the gameplay. Though Cowboy Casino is just a round of poker, it has nearly as good a selection of games as a typical casino game: you can choose from 5-Card Stud, 7-Card Stud, 5 Card Draw, or Texas Hold 'Em. Oddly enough, you must choose from the four available games at the start of each hand; no picking one game and being stuck with it.
All four games play nicely. The animations for the dealing of cards and placing of bets look good, play out quickly, and are easy to follow. The enemy AI, while a bit on the predictable side, puts up enough of a fight that you'll need basic poker skills for even a chance at victory. Each time you raise the bet, you press A for the minimum raise, C for the maximum, and B for the average of the two. While this makes the game move fast, it's also very limiting, and in particular makes it hard to bluff.
Perhaps to make up for this, the game allows players to raise multiple times per draw. For instance, if a player sees your opening bet and raises $30, you can come right back and raise him $10, and he can raise another $30 after covering the $10. It makes for very weird hands on occasion, but it doesn't make bluffing any more doable.
Unlike pretty much every gambling simulator I've seen, there's no save function. So you can't leave a game and pick it up later, and once a player cleans out all his opponents, everyone's funds are reset. Not that you're ever likely to see a game end with the default settings: everyone starts with $5,000 and the maximum bet is only $20. With a save function this would make for an epic game played out in multiple sittings, but since there isn't...
The options allow you to fix that: you can adjust the maximum bet, the minimum bet, the ante, the starting stake, and even how many times players can raise per draw. The thing is... Well, a number of glitches have been reported, and though I haven't been able to confirm most of them yet, a confirmed glitch is that Texas Hold 'Em starts forcing players to fold on most hands once an opponent has been cleaned out. So I can't help but suspect the developers set the default bets so low in order to hide this nasty glitch.
Cowboy Casino touts itself as software for learning poker, but aside from the little How to Play Poker book included in the longbox (no different, I suspect, from the poker books you can find at your local bookstore), the only features to support this goal are the ability to check odds on the current hand, and a virtual poker book which actually just tells you what the recommended move is in your current situation. After some testing, I've found the virtual poker book doesn't always give the best advice, and at best it's essentially just a cheat; telling someone what to do without telling them why to do it teaches nothing.
Though Cowboy Casino differs in almost every way from Virtual Casino for the Saturn, I have to give the same summary analysis: It's not the gambling simulator one would have hoped for from the console, but on its own terms it's an enjoyable game despite its flaws.
And now, the minor stats and the final judgment:
Graphics 9/10 - Animations for the cards and chips are perfect. The FMV is grainy, but this actually suits the Old West ambiance of the game.
Sound 5/10 - The basic sound effects are solid, but the music loops awkwardly and much too frequently, making "music off" a must-try option.
Longevity 7/10 - The difficulty is decent, and I already find myself popping this in when I want to play something relaxing.
Polish 6/10 - I can't tell whether the developers were obsessively meticulous or didn't give a damn. They gave each character an amusing animation for when he sits out, yet didn't fix some conspicuous glitches. There's no save function, yet there's a screen saver.
If you're just looking for a decent gambling simulator on the 3DO, Cowboy Casino does the job. If you're looking for a genuinely excellent gambling simulator, though, you should check out what's available on other gaming platforms.
[And as a bonus, here's a blooper from the virtual poker book. The game being played here is Texas Hold 'Em...]
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