That's right, it's air hockey time again. This isn't your standard "neglected table in a cinema lobby" air hockey, though - this is air hockey... in space! What do you mean, we've already had one of these? Oh yeah, that one. Well, this is different - it's got robots and aliens and stuff. Which Paddle Fighter also had. Nuts. Oh well, here's Broderbund's 1990 puck-em-up for the NES, Shufflepuck Cafe.
Shufflepuck Cafe was originally developed for the Apple Mac, and Broderbund eventually ported it to many of the home computers of the time, but this article is about the Famicom version. That's partly because of a graphical factor that I'll talk about in a bit, but mostly because I haven't played a NES game for a few weeks and I was starting to miss them - after a while, my feeble brain starts craving the simplicity of two-button control systems.
Shufflepuck Cafe only actually received a Famicom port in Japan: for whatever reason, the West was deemed not ready for the kind of thrills only high-speed intergalactic bar games can offer. Luckily there's a translated version by someone calling themselves MadHacker, (unless that's their real name, in which case I can only offer my condolences,) so we can enjoy the game in full English. And why would an air hockey game need to be in English? Why, so we can experience the fabulous story, of course!
You're the galaxy's top salesman of Krypton-3, a substance that is never defined but which I assume is some kind of futuristic encyclopedia set, or possibly a revolutionary new miniature vacuum cleaner. You're tootling around space, looking for the next astro-senior-citizen to fleece with your overpriced cosmo-wares when your rocket-car breaks down and you find yourself at the Shufflepuck Cafe of the title. You need to use the telephone to call whatever the interplanetary equivalent of the AA is, but to get to the phone you must first beat the degenerate patrons of the Shufflepuck Cafe in a tournament. Not a shufflepuck tournament, though: the game is rather misleading on that front. Nope, it's air hockey all around. So, you step into the bar...
...which promptly falls silent as the inhabitants turn to stare at you. Walking into a bar and having everyone in there stop talking and stare at you like something out of An American Werewolf in London is, as I can attest from personal experience, pretty goddamn unsettling. Just look at these guys! I started a game of Dark Souls at the weekend and that felt warm and inviting compared to this. To be fair, the first thing I did on Dark Souls was kick a zombie off a cliff and that always makes me feel at ease, but still: the Shufflepuck Cafe is not a place for the faint of heart.
This screen is sort of a hub area, and you can click on each bar patron / weirdo to engage them in an air hockey duel. I thought this was all there was to the game, until I looked online and found out you can click the "champion" sign to enter a tournament and face each character in turn. Let's do that, shall we? Who's up first?
This is Skip. He's new to air hockey and he looks like a typical nerd, but I'd be cautious - he's sitting in the (apparently) dangerous Shufflepuck Cafe without being hassled or violently murdered, so there must be something else to him. He's probably a serial killer who specialises in posing his victims like life-sized dolls at a tea party. It's always the quiet ones.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you how this works, but I'm going to do it anyway otherwise we'll both be sitting here in silence, awkwardly clearing our throats every now and then. You use the d-pad to move your paddle and try to hit the puck past your opponent's paddle and against the back wall. Doing this will score you a point, and the first to fifteen points is the winner and gets to keep all their internal organs, you know, internal. It all works as you'd expect and the paddle moves about quite smoothly, although there is one problem. Your paddle has two speeds it can move at, fast and slow. Slow is far too slow to be of much use, so you want to be in fast mode all the time. The trouble with this is that you have to hold a button down to speed your paddle up, meaning you have to play the whole game with your thumb clamped down as firmly as if you were trying to staunch the flow of blood to a particularly nasty paper cut. It's not much of a problem, but the fact that it could have so easily been avoided is a little irritating.
Of course, Skip here is really bad at air hockey and even the most uncoordinated, slack-jawed dolts (like me) can beat him with ease. Next opponent, please!
Yeah, she looks like a real barrel of laughs. Or possibly just a barrel, with a face painted on. This is Visine, and she's a creepy little prick.
See what I mean? Sure, I'll enter an air hockey tournament, who am I going to be playing? A giant, moon-eyed floating head with eyebrows bigger than my forearm. I see. I'll get my coat.
Of course, Visine is a tougher opponent than Skip, but that's not really down to any talent on her part - she tries to beat you through sheer awkwardness. The only shot she ever plays is to hit the puck from side-to-side so that it advances slowly down the table, bouncing back and forth between the side walls. It should be easy, but if you're just getting used to the game it can actually be quite hard to hit the puck despite it having all the velocity of a tortoise with a cold. This makes it particularly embarrassing which you swing for the puck, miss it entirely and then see it slowly dawdle against your back wall, your impotent frustration only rising as you look down the table at Visine and her big stupid face, her saucer-eyes silently mocking you.
I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually, though. Next up is Vinnie.
A face like a scrotum trapped in an industrial lathe and he's still less creepy than Visine.
At least he doesn't have any infuriating gimmicks: he just plays a good, honest game of air hockey and is a bit better at it than Skip and Visine. You're okay by me, Vinnie, even if you do look like the bastard offspring of E.T. and a mandrill's arse.
Finally, a participant with some class! This handsome green fellow is Lexan Smith Washington (at least in this translation): a champagne-quaffing playboy who, judging by the shape of his head, belongs to a race who evolved from bicycle saddles.
He's a fairly standard opponent with an interesting flaw: as the match goes on, he sips from his glass of champagne and gradually gets hammered until he's much less difficult than he was at the start. At least, that's what I heard - I can't say I noticed it at the time I was playing him, so maybe this piece of character-based gameplay fun was left out of the NES version.
Your fifth opponent is The General, and I'm not sure whether this introduction means that's a metaphorical mask or he's literally wearing the hollowed-out head of a pig in an attempt to put me off my game. Either option seems equally likely.
There's not much else to say about The General other than here's yet another example of pigs being depicted as militaristic villains in a videogame. Man, pigs sure do get a harsh ride from games developers and it's hardly justified. I've never known a pig to place a country under military rule after a bloody coup. Maybe developers should look to dolphins if they need an anthropomorphic race of intelligent villains - after all, dolphins are where the real threat lies. I don't trust anything that has that many teeth and smiles all the time.
Things get spooky with the next opponent, Nerual. It seems that there aren't enough things dying in the universe at the moment, so the grim reapers of the galaxy can put their bony feet up and relax with a drink and a nice game of air hockey. I guess even the timeless arbiters of our final end get bored of chess eventually.
Also, that skull planet in the background totally reminded me of (and here's a bit of nineties British heavy metal esoterica for you) the covers of Praying Mantis' albums that were illustrated by Rodney Matthews.
Nerual's strategy is to grind away your resistance through sheer boredom. He returns your shots with little speed, but is very difficult to get past and relies on you making mistakes to claim victory. This means he's incredibly tedious to play against, but the silver lining to this dismal cloud is that I can show you that graphical thing I mentioned at the start, demonstrated here through the magic of an animated gif.
As you can see, the puck moves into and out of the foreground, with the "3D" effect in this case being created through the use of sprite scaling. Quite a few NES games used sprite scaling, usually in order to mimic Sega's Super-Scaler games such as Space Harrier, and a lot of the time the results were frankly disappointing. Shufflepuck Cafe keeps it simple, though, and the puck moves about in a nicely fluid manner that provides the level of precision needed to make this kind of 3D, Pong-style game anything other than an exercise in extreme frustration. In fact, I think it moves even more smoothly than it looks here, because I am bad at making even the simplest of gifs.
Once Nerual is out of the way, you're into the semi-finals and a beautiful young lady appears to challenge you.
I'm not so much startled by her beauty as I am by the fact she's dislocated both her shoulders and yet she's still smiling. Am I good enough to take her serve? No, no I am not. This is because Bejin is a cheating scumbag.
She's got psychic powers, and rather than using them for good by catching criminals or something, or instead of even using them for fun, she uses her psionic mind-force to cheat at air hockey. Whenever she serves, she magically places the puck in your half, waves her hands about and then teleports it at high speed into one of the corners. It's almost always a guaranteed point for her: I tried using guess work and pre-covering one of the corners with my paddle but I'm either very unlucky or Bejin knew exactly what I was trying to do and sent it over to the other side. God knows how she's survived this long without receiving a brual shanking, The General doesn't look like he'd take kindly to cheaters.
The fight with Nerual was dull, but at least it was fair. This kind of straight-up cheating brings shame on scantily-clad psychic princess everywhere, and I'm sure there are enough of those in videogames to form an angry mob that will bring you down, Bejin. I'm hoping they'll bring you down, at least, because I sure has hell couldn't. What's this? A password that’ll let me skip to the next opponent? Ah ha ha, so long you black-hearted harpy!
The next opponent is indeed the last opponent, a charming young chap called Biff. One day, I'm sure I'll meet a Professor of Experimental Particle Physics or a ballet director or even just a regular, friendly guy named Biff - but not today. This Biff is big, mean and carries a tiny wrestling ring with him wherever he goes, presumably just in case he wants to make his two pet hamsters fight.
As I'm sure you've already figured out, Biff takes all the best elements of the previous challengers and combines them into an air hockey performance of such raw power that they have to bring in a new table between each rally, the previous one having being compressed into a single diamond by the heat and pressure generated by Biff's... air hockeying? That doesn't sound right.
However, he's not the hardest opponent to beat because he's not a dishonest, cheating swine. He might look like Charles Bronson cosplaying as Zangief, but he's a man with principles and as such he puts up a very difficult but fair fight. More fool him, because that means I can beat him. Let that be a lesson to you, Biff: cheats - at least in videogames - always prosper.
And then you're done, Shufflepuck Cafe is complete and you can call roadside assistance to fix your "Nash Sombrero" (space-car). You'll be swindling housewives everywhere into buying Kryton-3 in no time!
You don't get to see any of that, though. Broderbund must have exhausted their storytelling capabilities on the fairly involved intro, because all you get when you complete the game is the same picture of each character as before with their names written underneath. Oh, and the Pony Canyon (a Japanese record company / publishing firm who published the NES version of SC) logo. How rewarding.
It's pretty obvious what that wrap-up here is going to be, because it's only a simple NES Pong game after all. There's no way it's going to sustain your interest for more than ten minutes these days - there are better in-browser versions of the same thing - and it was hardly jam-packed with features even in the days of the Famicom. That said, it's not without its good points. The graphics are very nice, and the characters are all interesting and have a surprising amount of personality despite their small number of animations. I particularly like the way Biff reacts to each point scored with either a tiny scowl or smirk, depending on who scored. It even just about makes up for the near-total lack of music - each match is only accompanied by the sound effects, which is a shame but better than Paddle Fighter's one goddamn track that was repeated forever.
One of the most interesting things about SC is the final character that I've yet to mention. His name's DC3 and he's a robot.
A shufflepuck robot, to be precise, and he's interesting because you can set all his playing parameters however you want. You can change the size of his paddle, how fast it moves, things like that, essentially letting you play against whatever level of opponent you feel like while avoiding bullshit like Benjin's psychic antics. It's not much, but in a game as slim as this every little helps.
In conclusion, Shufflepuck Cafe is better than Paddle Fighter, which I'm aware is hardly heady praise but what else can I say? If you're really desperate to play an 8-bit Pong clone and perpetuate the stereotype of porcine evil, then Shufflepuck Cafe is probably the best one you're going to find. And as there's no music, you can make yourself a mix-tape of bombastic eighties rock anthems to listen to while you play for that authentic "sports movie" experience. That's VGJUNK for you: always finding new ways to make twenty-year-old videogames about air hockey slightly better. My mother would be proud.
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