I don’t like review scores. To me, they don’t effectively tell the full story of a game’s quality. It would be like reading Moby-Dick, turning to the first page and discovering that the entirety of the text is “Call me Ishmael. So um, like, whales and stuff. Man against nature. Revenge is silly and fruitless. The end!” That would leave something to be desired, don’t you think? Even if you had a sort of idea of the point the author intended to make, maybe the deeper understanding of why they were making that point is lost.
Plus, numbers can lie. Take a game like Grand Theft Auto 4. If forced at gunpoint to give it scores, I would give it high marks in every category, but then the ultimate, final score would be on the low side. At least for me, because I found GTA 4 to be pretty boring. There’s a lot of games that could fit the “marvelously produced, technically impressive but boring for inexplicable reasons” bill. Once you reach that point, aren’t review scores kind of irrelevant? Who cares if the game gets a 10 out of 10 in graphics if the game is no fun? Isn’t the entertainment value of a game the only thing that matters?
Look at Sportsball by TOO DX. Here’s a game that I have almost nothing positive to say about it. It’s ugly. It (might) control awful. The characters are horribly imbalanced. The arenas lack variety. It used the bathroom and didn’t wash its hands. It is a terribly made game. I’m about to say a lot of terrible things about it.
But I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the most fun party games on Wii U, indie or otherwise. So, before you go any further, please note that Sportsball is really a lot of fun and probably worth your money. Is that clear? Good. Because the rest of this review could get ugly. The last time something this good got beaten this badly, it came back from the dead three days later.
Nope, none of this will make sense. You have to see it in motion to get it.
Sportsball is essentially the classic Williams game Joust (right down to guys riding giant birds), only you’re trying to kill each-other. When you do (called a tackle here because it sounds sporty, I guess), the victim drops a ball that bounces around. You have to bonk the ball around until you get it into a goal. If someone on a different team touches it, it becomes their color and scores a point for them if it goes into the net. There’s no limit to the amount of balls that can be loose and bouncing around at any time. It’s a nice idea that could be exceptionally fun. And it is! But it does so many things wrong. It reminds me of an awkward teenager asking his girlfriend how much he could get away with and still have her love him. “Would you love me even if I was blind?” “Yes!” “If I lost both arms and both legs?” “Yes!” “If I was caught at the back of the school bus smoking crack and having sex with a dog?” “You know, that one I’m going to have to think about. What kind of dog?”
First off, I want to offer congratulations to TOO DX for giving their game the most uninspired name in gaming history. You have guys riding giant birds, trying to kill each-other in order to turn them into glowing egg-ball-things that you then have to smack into a goal. Some pretty wild imagery there, and SPORTSBALL is the best they could come up with? I mean, I guess there’s a ball and it’s a sport-like thing, so Sportsball is technically accurate. But really? Let me ask TOO DX this: how far do you think Nintendo would have made it if they had named Super Mario Bros. “Platform Jump”? How far would Square had made it if they had named Final Fantasy “RPG Select Attack from Menu”? There is not a single soul on this planet who is going to be inspired to check out what this game is about when they see “Sportsball” in the eShop. Not even sports fans. It’s a generic, thoughtless name that seemingly screams “BORING!” into your ear with bullhorn. So lazy and worthless that I feel some sort of celebratory gesture is in order, like dunking your heads in a toilet and giving you a swirly.
By the way, TOO DX is hardly alone in being guilty of this. You need to treat the names of your work like the first line of advertising. If a name fails to catch a player’s attention, holding their interest long enough to find out if it’s a good game or not becomes tougher.
As for the gameplay, well, it’s fun. Really fun, in fact. This is Joust, if Joust had a versus mode. The controls looseness depends on the character you select, but ultimately everything handles like Joust or Balloon Fight. If you detest those games (and many people do), Sportsball is probably not for you. There’s a single-player training mode that I didn’t bother to play. Sportsball is designed with 2 to 4 players in mind, and that’s what I focused on. Playing with guests aged 8 to 65, we first noticed that we couldn’t see the game’s floor. I checked a trailer of the game to see if they had even bothered drawing a floor. They did. We tried to go to the menu to adjust the screen, but that wasn’t an option. Awesome. So, depending on your screen, part of the action might be cut off. “So you can’t see your character’s feet. No biggie, right?” Yea, actually, it is a problem. The floor might have holes in it, where if you or the ball fall through it, they pop out from the top of the screen. This could have been useful for forming strategy, but since we couldn’t see it, we couldn’t use it. Yes, we could go to the Wii U menu to adjust it, but we shouldn’t have to. Other games offer it as an option, usually upon booting it up. Adjustable viewing area is essential for modern console gaming and its omission here, especially when the edges of the screen contain important gameplay mechanics, is inexcusable.
In space, nobody can hear you flap.
Also, there’s something in the options menu that says “Flap Mode” but no explanation is given at all as to what that is. A little pop up explaining what you’re about to turn on or off would have been nice. This is an example of developers forgetting that not everyone has spent the last X amount of months with their lives centered around their game. I’m sure to them “Flap Mode” needed no explanation. This is another common annoying problem with gaming in general, and not just indies. Menu options of game-specific features should have clarity as to what they adjust. When they don‘t, it’s annoying.
The biggest problem with Sportsball is character balance. There’s four teams, each with four selectable characters. Each character is rated on a 1 to 5 scale in four stats: Attacking, flying, control, and speed. That’s fine, but there’s a couple of characters who have an overwhelming stat advantage over others. This led to everyone trying to claim dibs on using a character from the pink team called Rhea. She had a 4 in attack, flying, and control, plus a 3 in speed. Only one other character had nothing below 3, Rooster on the red team, who had one point less than Rhea in control. We ended up unanimously voting to ban Rhea, and then Rooster after that. Both were just too overpowered with no tradeoff unless you’re one of those guys who thinks you’ll catch the gay from using a pink character. Meanwhile, I once accidentally picked a large green team character called Gigantoraptor. This character is so worthless that I wonder if it’s the bi-product of a drunken dare. It has a 1 out of 5 in flying, which is essentially like painting a gigantic bullseye on it. This is a game where you can only kill people by getting above them and dropping down on them. Really, ALL characters should have had the same ability to fly and maneuver, with only their speed and attack-dive speed/distance for stats, or how hard a ball bounces off them when they bump into it. The low flyers give up too much and there’s never really a reason why you would want to. If this game was any more imbalanced, Nintendo would reskin it with their characters and call it a Smash Bros title.
Sportsball isn’t a pretty game to look at. The graphics look flash-based. Old, bland, boring, hand-drawn in a bad way. There’s several different locations for matches, but in total there’s only three backdrops, none of which are exciting. The whole experience playing and reviewing this has been one of the most bizarre I’ve experienced since starting this blog. Not since Random the Dungeon have I liked a game so much that seemingly does nothing right. Sportsball is a bad game. But it’s fun. Everyone who came over to play it wants to play it the next time they come over. It’s not even ironically fun, like watching a bad movie. The fun is completely genuine. It made me wonder, what if? What if more care had been put into it? What if the characters were more balanced?
What’s even more odd is that, you would think the more chaotic Sportsball gets, the more fun it would be. After all, who has time to notice all the broken aspects when the action is utterly insane? But that’s not the case, either. Including myself, we had seven people rotating in and out of the matches. For the first hour, we focused on four-player matches and had a pretty good time. We were laughing, and high-fiving each-other, and cheering, and screaming. Nobody was bored, not even those watching. Until we got to a mode where each “tackle” results in five balls at once spawning. This leads to a lot of chaos, and actually wasn’t fun at all. All focus and strategy went out the window in favor of a glorified garbage cleanup. Then I said that I had to test the one on one mode where the first player to score five goals wins. As it turns out, this was the highlight of the entire day. We spent the next couple hours playing this, winner-stays-on style. It’s unusual for an indie built around four-player action to excel when less than the envisioned amount of players are involved, but it doesn’t surprise me that Sportsball does. Nothing about it has been conventional.
I’m really happy that Sportsball exists. Now when people ask “why don’t you have review scores?” I have a perfect example of a game that would be unfairly blistered if review scores were used. Sportsball can’t stand on its gameplay merits. It doesn’t have any. It’s fun despite itself, in a way that review scores could never fully explain. And although I’ve just essentially boiled its creators in oil with one complaint after another, fun doesn’t usually happen accidentally in gaming. TOO DX is solely responsible for the hours of fun me and friends and family had with it. Although we fought over who got to be which character, whined about the lack of variety in stages or the absurdity of the locations (why does South Africa’s stage take place on the International Space Station? The hell?), or made fun of the name (even the eight-year-old made fun of the name!), there wasn’t one frown in the house. Everyone walked away happy. Everyone wanted to know when we’re playing again. That counts for a lot in my book. Sportsball needs a lot of work. A lot. I’m guessing not too much time was spent play testing and balancing it. But if what’s here is a proof-of-concept and a tease of its potential, what it could end up being is something transcendent. Sporstball is a bad game. But it’s a fun game, and fun is all that should matter when it comes to gaming.
Sportsball was developed by TOO DX
Point of Sale: Nintendo eShop
$9.99 said a German Shepard in the making of this review.
Sportsball is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.