When Knott’s Berry Farm first announced the details for their new interactive dark ride, I despaired. A ride-through shooting gallery themed around steampunk sea creatures eating the remains of former Knott’s attractions sounded so distinctly unappealing to me. Comparisons made to Disney’s Toy Story Midway Mania – a stunningly lazy attraction that is nothing more than four aisles of parallel flatscreens – didn’t do much to improve my levels of excitement. Despite enjoying Knott’s and wanting to see them continue their excellent work in revitalizing the park, my expectations for this ride were rock bottom.
The ride exceeded these expectations, but that’s not a terribly remarkable achievement.
The best and most surprising thing about Voyage to the Iron Reef is the amount of physical sets it has. This is a huge deal, because it means this is a real dark ride and not an empty warehouse like Toy Story Mania. The sets are not as elaborate as ones you’ll find in dark rides at Universal or Disney parks, but no one should expect them to be. This ride was built for barely a fraction of the cost of something like Transformers: The Ride or even The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. That being said, the sets are impressive in their own right – they’re well-crafted and do a good job selling the environment of the ride.
The problem, however, is that the sets are merely a backdrop for a really lousy video game.
Now that I’ve sufficiently torn apart Midway Mania, let me acknowledge what it does right: it’s a very fun video game. The ride itself stinks, and is only a ride in the most basic sense that you’re in vehicles and they move through a space, but the game itself is fun, and it’s part of why the attraction remains popular despite its incredibly lazy design. The video game aspect of Iron Reef is not fun, in fact it’s quite bad. Like Midway Mania, you ride in two tethered cars, each of which seats four people, but unlike Midway Mania, all eight riders are sharing the screen at any given point. It’s a mess as eight people try to shoot the same target and each player’s uniquely colored laser gets caught in a cocophany of blinking lights. It’s a problem not unlike Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin in Walt Disney World, a problem which Disney corrected in Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters at Disneyland by providing clear visual, audial, and tactile feedback to the player when they hit a target. This game lacks that kind of feedback, so unless you’re off shooting in your own corner of the screen, there’s no way to tell if you’re actually doing anything, which becomes incredibly frustrating.
Even when you can tell what you’re doing, it all feels incredibly meaningless. There’s no progression to the action. On every screen you’re just shooting monsters until they pop, monsters which don’t pose any threat to the players. That’d be okay if you had to clear every screen before progressing, but they can’t do that because they need to cycle people through the ride. The solution to this problem presented by Disney’s Toy Story games is to have a gag activated when you hit a target. It’s a simple change, but it makes each shot meaningful and interesting. There’s immediate payoff beyond the increase in your score. Iron Reef tries to add variety with a mini-boss and a final boss, but both are essentially cutscenes due to the fact that they have to get you to the next scene so they can load more people.
In the end, there’s a total lack of player agency. The ride would not be discernibly different without the guns. It’s all essentially meaningless.
It’s strange because, in many ways, theme parks share a lot of design principles with video games, but attempts to combine the two have often come out half baked. There’s a clear craving for interactivity in theme parks, but I’m not sure it’s enough to shove a video game into a dark ride and call it a day. The interactivity needs to be personal and meaningful, and these rides have not managed to achieve that. Even if they fixed all the mechanical gameplay problems in Iron Reef, I’m not sure it would solve the underlying problem of being an empty experience. The best video games make you feel like you’re an important part of another world, and the closest theme parks have gotten to capturing that emotion is with the participatory nature of Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the meaningful character interactions of Legends of Frontierland. Interactivity is the wave of the future for theme parks, but Voyage to the Iron Reef fails to capture what it is that makes interactivity so compelling.