Happy Birthdays: Our In-Depth Review

Happy Birthdays (a new and improved version of Birthdays the Beginning) is a quirky god game that puts you in control of a cube-shaped slice of planet. Alter the cube’s terrain while time stands still, then zoom out, resume time (at one of two speeds), and watch the changes that unfold. Your goal? Create the ideal conditions for the organisms you want to see in your world.

Happy Birthdays is a god game that puts you in control of your world.
Happy Birthdays is a god game that puts you in control of your world.

Before we go further here, we want you to know that we love this game, and we think you very well could love Happy Birthdays, too. But the game’s controls and mechanics are far more complex than they have to be, and the game can be frustrating when you’re first starting out. With that being said, if you’re not a patient gamer, you might just want to pass on this one.

THE BASICS
While Happy Birthdays is a fantastical game, it follows a good deal of science and logic, and just as you would expect in ecology, temperature is key. You can lower the temperature by raising the terrain, and raise the temperature by lowering the terrain. Lowering terrain below its base level results in patches of ocean, another key to the development of life.

This mountain is cold at its peak, and its height has lowered the cube's overall temperature.
This mountain is cold at its peak, and its height has lowered the cube’s overall temperature.

You can also place lakes, mountains, valleys, fields, and the like by using skills, which require stars. You’ll gain stars by capturing new creatures and passing time, but you’ll get most of your stars from simply letting time pass: every one million years, you’ll get a hefty star bonus. (One million in-game years pass in about 33 real-time minutes when time passes at its slowest speed.)

Skills are helpful in creating mountains, rivers, fields, and much more.
Skills are helpful in creating mountains, rivers, fields, and much more.

Star-powered skills can also be used manipulate the moisture level, trigger Global Warming, encourage evolution, and so much more. Each skill is already unlocked when you start a new file, so the only factor that might keep you from using them is a lack of stars. (Of course, some play modes restrict your skills, but most modes do not. More on that later.)

In this frozen cube, we're pretty tempted to use Global Warming!
In this frozen cube, we’re pretty tempted to use Global Warming!

When you’re making changes to the environment with your powers and skills, you’re playing in Micro Mode, and time is paused. Though your creatures are moving, eating, and looking around, time is standing still; time only moves when you zoom out with X and play in Macro Mode, where you can resume its flow.

Macro Mode can be dangerous: we looked away for a few minutes while time passed, and when we looked up, our grassy world had transformed into an ice burg!
Macro Mode can be dangerous: we looked away for a few minutes while time passed, and when we looked up, our grassy world had transformed into an ice burg!

As we mentioned, using skills in Micro Mode uses up stars. But using your powers for raising and lowering terrain costs HP, which is quite limited when you start a new file. Your meter will expand as you level up, but leveling up isn’t terribly easy to do when you’re first starting out.

In this brand-new Free Mode file, we can only move one square of terrain at a time.
In this brand-new Free Mode file, we can only move one square of terrain at a time.

Why? Well, you need to “create” and capture new creatures to level up—and the only way to create new creatures is to significantly alter the terrain. And when you’re in a new file with zero stars and very limited HP, you can only move one block of terrain at a time, so altering terrain in a significant way costs a good deal of time and stamina. To refill your HP, you must pass time in macro mode at normal speed, but if you want to pass time more quickly to bring about more drastic change more quickly, that will cost more HP.

In other words, starting a new file in Happy Birthdays can be rough, but if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll see the life on your little chunk of planet multiply exponentially, and the rewarding feelings this provides are immense.

If you can invest the time, you'll be rewarded with a lush landscape teeming with life.
If you can invest the time, you’ll be rewarded with a lush landscape teeming with life.

CONTROLS & MECHANICS
We must say that this game’s controls and mechanics are more complex than they have to be, and the optional tutorial doesn’t effectively teach you what to do. Instead of introducing one thing at a time and letting you practice that thing before moving on to something else, Happy Birthdays teaches tips and tricks in batches, making it hard to be sure that you’ve grasped a skill before trying to learn a new one.

You may occasionally find yourself underground when trying to navigate your cube with the game's complex controls, which can get frustrating.
You may occasionally find yourself underground when trying to navigate your cube with the game’s complex controls, which can get frustrating.

With some games, you can learn the ropes as you play the game, but Happy Birthdays is not one of those games. In fact, its controls can be so un-intuitive and downright confusing that we were stuck for a while in our play-testing. We couldn’t figure out how to scroll between pages in the skills menu, so we couldn’t use the skill required to progress in our file. Turns out you scroll through the skill pages by using the directional buttons and holding down L simultaneously, and this took us a while to figure out.

But once you figure out what you’re doing, you’ll have a good deal of fun playing god. We loved watching our cube transform from a block of stone into a lush environment teeming with life, especially since we made it happen. There’s something so satisfying about transforming a barren wasteland into a Garden of Eden, and that’s what Happy Birthdays is all about.

We created this shallow sea with our powers and skills, and we feel pretty good about that.
We created this shallow sea with our powers and skills, and we feel pretty good about that.

PLAY MODES
You can play in a variety of modes, even if you’re just starting out, but here’s our recommendation: start a “New Game,” and select the first option (the grassy one). This is much easier than starting from scratch, and it gives you a chance to learn the mechanics and controls.

The first option is good for beginners, and starting there helped us learn the ropes of the game.
The first option is good for beginners, and starting there helped us learn the ropes of the game.

Starting a New Game triggers the story mode, and the framing story isn’t all that interesting: you’re reading a book, a map falls out, you think it’s a treasure map, but it leads you to a cave, where you pass out and wake up in front of your cube. But this story is easy and quick to click past with A, and it becomes irrelevant once you get to the cube.

At the cube, your goal is simple: bring modern humans to life. This takes time and dedication, but starting with the grassy cube makes things much easier for you, since it gives you a head start with a good deal of life upfront (rather than starting in the stony world, where you’re literally faced with a cube of stone). Once you’ve accomplished this goal, you may do what you like in your file.

This is the unmistakable mark of Ancient Humans, an exciting development in any cube.
This is the unmistakable mark of Ancient Humans, an exciting development in any cube.

Another play mode is the Dino Challenge, which requires that you bring a certain dinosaur to life and may operate under a series of rules. For example, the hardest of these challenges stipulates that you can’t move the highest terrain—which forms an x-shaped wall separating the cube into distinct quadrants—and you only have two million years to succeed. There are seven challenges total, and they offer a fun alternative when you’re looking for something different.

The Dinosaur Challenge offers a fun alternative to regular play.
The Dinosaur Challenge offers a fun alternative to regular play.

Then, there’s Free Mode, where you get a block of stone—either small, medium, or large—and you do whatever you want to it. We recommend holding off on Free Mode until you’re quite familiar with this game, since we think it would be exceedingly tough for beginners. But we like that Free Mode is accessible from the get-go and you don’t have to unlock it, so you can give it a shot right away if you want.

Free Mode gives you the freedom that you want, but it takes a long time to bring your cube to life.
Free Mode gives you the freedom that you want, but it takes a long time to bring your cube to life.

On top of all this, you have a great deal of space for save files. We have about 8 save files right now, and although we haven’t figured out the exact maximum number of files, we think you’ll have more than enough space to hold all the files you need.

You'll have plenty of room for a variety of save files to keep things fresh and interesting.
You’ll have plenty of room for a variety of save files to keep things fresh and interesting.

GRAPHICS & SOUND
We’re delighted with Happy Birthdays’ adorable graphics. Seriously: the creatures are so darn cute. We like zooming in close and watching them move, and we snap a good deal of Switch screenshots and videos while we’re at it. The landscape’s graphic design has a more retro feel than the smooth and crisp creatures, but the different graphical styles mesh well together.

Happy Birthdays' graphics are a real treat, and the animals are adorable.
Happy Birthdays’ graphics are a real treat, and the critters are adorable.

We can’t praise the sound so highly: some of the animals’ sounds are a little annoying (especially when it comes to the T. rex), and the music sometimes cuts out and/or skips when you’re moving quickly through the cube. But the piano-driven music offers a good atmosphere, and overall, there isn’t much to complain about here.

CONCLUSION
Overall, we love Happy Birthdays, and we recommend it for anyone who thinks they might like playing god in this way. The premise is fun, the graphics are great, and the re-playability is definitely there. Although we’re addicted to this game, it took us a while to get there, and we mean it when we say you’ve got to be patient if you want to go far. But if you’ve got the patience, you’ll reap the rewards.

If you like what you've seen here, we think you should give Happy Birthdays a try.
If you like what you’ve seen here, you should give Happy Birthdays a try.

Platform – Nintendo Switch eShop Download, Physical Edition on Amazon
Publisher – NIS America
Developer – ARC SYSTEM WORKS / TOYBOX INC
Price – $39.99
Genre – Simulation, Other
Size –1.4GB

Nick and Sarah are the ultimate gaming couple. Nick introduced Sarah to the world of Nintendo games. Nick’s favorites are platformers tough as nails, like Super Meat Boy, Celeste, and The End is Nigh. Sarah prefers titles with more exploration and simulation, like Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and Skyrim. But Nick and Sarah both agree that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games of all time!

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