March 28, 2013

Angry Birds and pigs in space

I pull back on the slingshot and release an attack on the pig glaring smugly back at me from the facing wall.

I pull back on the slingshot and release an attack on the pig glaring smugly back at me from the facing wall.

Today I am an Angry Bird.

Actually, I’m one of a half-dozen angry birds, standing behind a row of giant slingshots. And we’re sending our arsenal of cartoonish stuffed birds in flight as we aim at the framed pig faces. Lights flash if we hit our targets, and points register on a board.

We are at Angry Birds Space Encounter, which opened March 22 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The exhibit, a joint venture with Rovio Entertainment, creator of the ubiquitous mobile app game, brings the game to life at seven interactive stations. In the game, birds with different superpowers use slingshots to hurl themselves at the pigs who stole their eggs. The Space Center exhibit is the first Angry Birds attraction in the United States designed for all ages.

My family and I visited opening day. I’d never played the game before, so my kids talked me through Angry Birds Rio, one of several game versions, using the iPad on the drive up from South Florida.

So here I stand, at the Eggsteroids Slingshot, next to a can of stuffed, apparently pretty ticked-off birds, not knowing what to do.

“You have a blue bird on your slingshot, so you aim at the blue pigs,” says the resident expert next to me, a boy who comes up to my waist. He gestures towards the wall of blue and red pigs.

The buzzer sounds, and we send one bird after another flying to smack the pigs. I suck at it. But my neighbor is really good, as is every other kid in the place.

The family and I head to the Danger Zone, a labyrinth of mirrored walls, strobe lights and sound effects where Angry Birds apparently hang out to surprise Space Center visitors.

I pity the mom with several small boys in front of us. One starts to cry. One yells, “We’re lost!” but then they’re all smiles as we are deposited in the customary end to any Florida attraction: the gift shop.

If you’ve never played Angry Birds, it’s strangely addicting, as I learn firsthand in the Game Zone. Two rows of gamers, sized from knee-high to full-grown, hypnotically tap and swipe at the mounted iPads. The room is quiet.

“This is a thinking game. It uses a lot of strategy,” says my son, Ian, 12, an avid gamer. Players use simple principles of physics and geometry to determine how to hit targets behind obstacles and around curves, he said.

The story goes that the original idea for the Angry Birds Space game came in a Twitter message from @NASA to Rovio that said: “Hey @RovioMobile, our computers are a bit better than they were in ’69. We might be able to help you launch birds if you find pigs in space.”

That Tweet led to NASA’s partnership with Rovio and the creation of the Angry Birds Space game and Angry Birds exhibit.

NASA astronaut Donald Pettit — who previously announced from the International Space Station that NASA and Rovio would partner on the creation of the game — was on hand for the grand opening. “NASA and Rovio have worked together to teach players about physics and space exploration and energize young people regarding future careers in science and technology,” he said in a statement.

At the exhibit, even if you don’t want to play the game, you can check out the brain-teasing digital puzzles and just-for-fun activities on mounted iPads.

At “Create Your Own Angry Bird,” I use my finger to drag images from screen menus of eyes, beaks, hats and mustaches to make my own character. You can print your creation and pick it up from the gift store for free. But by the end of opening day, the printer died, to my 10-year-old daughter, Chloe’s, consternation.

Ian and I head to the Cold Cuts Tile Puzzle station, where you unscramble the tiles of a puzzle on a mounted iPad while the image is displayed on the flatscreen monitor above.

My son intuitively zips his fingers around the puzzle, expertly locking the correct tiles in place. Old, slow Mom is noticeably not as skilled, not until I discover the “easy” mode, anyway, which has numbered tiles. Ha! Since I know my number order, I begin to excel.

For me, the Red Planet Lazer Challenge is the highlight of the exhibit. The object is to maneuver your way through a maze of crisscrossed laser beams as you search for golden eggs. Ian and I decide to play together. He wants to play the expert level. I overrule and choose “easy.” It seems that’s my word for the day.

The clock starts, and we head into the darkened entryway. As we cross into the cavern, beams of eerie green light web their way through the course. Cue Tom Cruise and the Mission Impossible theme. (Actually, that is just in my head.) As adrenaline kicks in, Ian shouts directions. Our mission is to touch the golden eggs mounted on the walls.

“You get the one on the left! I’ll get this one,” he shouts as he maneuvers his body through a string of laser beams. Thank goodness we picked the easy version. My leg crosses a laser beam and I am rewarded with flashing white lights and a buzzer. Oops.

Ian shouts instructions, and I duck under one beam, then step over another to reach our second egg. Finally, the last hurdle, the fireballs we are supposed to touch, are in view. We slam our palms into them in spectacular unison and exit the course.

Our time ranks us in third place. Not bad for an Angry Birds novice.

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