Invigorating, healthful exercise: like waging a one-man war against a space armada or crawling through a sewer pipe to reach a colourful magic kingdom, it's something that's better experienced as a videogame rather than having to physically twist and contort your feeble flesh-body, especially when we're talking about a made-up sport with a name that sounds like something you add to your washing machine for extra freshness. That's the case with today's game, Playmark's 1994 arcade urban-degeneration-em-up Power Balls!
Our heroes are trapped in an alley by gun-toting cops, so I guess this one is over before it's even started. God bless you, Tiny Headed Italian Shirt Man and your Four Fiesty Friends. Many ballads will be sung to honour the time you tried to take on the police with your baseball bats but they had shotguns, ballads with titles like Well, That Could Have Gone Better and What The Hell Were You Wearing?
That title screen must be set in the distant future, because the characters of Power Balls are still alive and well for the duration of the game. They're a new group known as the "Fraggers," presumably brought together by their love of Quake deathmatches, and they're spreading panic through the streets of New York with their powerful balls. Or something, I kinda lost interest. The Fraggers are using Power Ball to enlarge their predominance without the need for expensive creams or untested pills bought from an online Chinese pharmacy, so let's meet these tough street warrior before the action begins and they get their predominance all over me.
Here's Max, and he's the leader. I say this not just because he's the first character on the select screen or because he was in the centre of the title screen's group shot, but because all his stats are listed as "medium" and we all know that there's no more certain route to becoming a leader of your fellow men than by being completely average in all regards.
Max is wearing a stupid hat. It's so stupid that it's defying my attempts to say something about it beyond "it's really stupid." Max is also carrying a plank of wood, and he has a fried egg tucked into the top of each shoe. Max has a lot of problems.
The usual speedy-but-weak female character is next: her name is Carrie, and she's bad at wearing shirts. Oh no, the zip on her wetsuit broke just before the photoshoot! Luckily her nipples are located on the very outer edges of her breasts, otherwise this game would have been unsuitable for children. Nice shorts, though - they fit in nicely with Carrie's theme, which is "punk baywacht." Baywatch, I presume? I don't think she's an actual lifeguard or anything - Dr. Martens are not the ideal footwear for aquatic rescues - so it's purely to satisfy Carrie's aesthetic sensibilities. We had cyberpunk, we had steampunk, now we've got Hasselhoffpunk.
This is I.D. Woo Dop, a name that makes so little sense that I had to read it about fifteen times before I was ready to write it down. That first I is clearly a backwards J, though, right? So maybe it's supposed to be D.J. Doo Wop and the artist in charge of the drawing this text went especially hard on the vino the night before. Woo Dop's open-fronted trousers are challenging Max's hat for the title of Power Balls' Worst Article of Clothing - a hotly contested category - but the real star of this image is the dog at the bottom of the screen that's taking a leak. Thanks, Playmark. Nothing says "gritty street action" like a dog pissing all over the character select screen.
This game has two female characters, which is something of a surprise, and Mei Lynn here is Asian so Power Balls at least made some effort towards diversity in its line-up. It's not the most enlightened take on racial or gender issues - Woo Dop is skirting some uncomfortable territory and Carrie is, well, you saw her shirt - but not everyone is a white guy with stubble, I suppose.
As for Mei Lynn herself, she is shockingly not a super-fast character, but she can jump with the best of them and she's wearing some extremely sensible hiking boots. Just look at her, power-walking her way to a healthier body and a happier future, breadsticks in hand for when she needs a quick snack.
Finally there's Vasquez the bouncer, so called because he looks like he'd bounce if he fell over. He's got the massive cross necklace of a Catholic cardinal and the hunk of vaguely bat-shaped wood you'd expect to see a fantasy giant squashing peasants with, his name / logo is carved from Swiss cheese and I think he's going to end up being my favourite. I started with Mei Lynn, however, because I accidentally moved the joystick back towards her when I was choosing my Fragger.
So, what kind of sport is Power Balls about? The characters are holding loose approximations of baseball bats, so some kind of Ghetto Rounders or something? Rather than performing messy and frankly dangerous drive-bys on rival gangs, the Fraggers challenge them to winner-takes-all baseball games, that kind of thing?
No, Power Balls is an Breakout clone. You bat the ball from left to right instead of bottom to top, and the blocks are replaced with... stuff, but it's essentially the same game. Your character bats the ball back and forth against the objects until everything on the screen is destroyed, and if you manage that you can move on to the next stage to do it all against with a differently-arranged pile of garbage. If you miss the ball and it goes past you, you lose a life. I have no idea why that would be the case. Maybe the Fraggers are so dirt-poor that they could only afford a very limited number of tennis balls and losing one of them, be it down the back of the sofa or off this pier you're wrecking, is punished by a thorough kicking from your fellow gang members.
The most immediately noticeable difference between Power Balls and Breakout, Arkanoid, et al, is that you have to press a button to hit the ball back and you have two buttons to choose from. One hits the ball at a downwards angle, and the other hits the ball at an upwards angle, so you have a little more choice than usual over where you're aiming the ball. The goal is still the same as in every block-breaking game, though: try to get the ball in behind the blocks - suitcases, wooden crates and those red things that I think are supposed to be holdalls in this case - so that it bounces around in there for maximum damage while you patiently wait for it to pop back out so you can hit it again. Some of the stages have a slightly different twist in that there's a bomb hidden in one of the items and hitting it will automatically clear the stage, but mostly it's a matter of smashing every single item in sight.
Just look how exciting it is, too! So many oil drums, it's like a side-scrolling beat-em-up over here! Man, I wish I was playing a side-scrolling beat-em-up instead of trying to destroy an outhouse by whacking a tennis ball against it. And where is my ball? Oh, right, that pelican ate it. He's about to spit it out again, and it will hit that oil drum and bounce away in a random direction. Is the pelican in a gang? Is he defending his turf from Mei Lynn's attempt to enlarge her predominance all over this pier? I have no answers to these questions. Only the pelican knowns, and he's not saying anything (because he's got a tennis ball in his mouth).
Every fifth stage is a boss battle, where your chosen Fragger must overcome the leader of this particular area. The first boss is a huge naked man who launches hadoukens at the player. Okay, that's not quite true - the boss isn't naked, he's wearing little pink panties. The part about the fireballs is true, however, and that's a problem because they'll kill you instantly if they touch you. They're easy enough to avoid on their own, but if your ball's going off the screen in a spot that's also having fireballs launched at it then tough, you're losing a life and there's nothing you can do about. That's always a fun and totally not frustrating way for a videogame to work, uh-huh.
Speaking of how this game works, between the range of characters with different stats, the gang warfare theme, the comically oversized muscle-boss and the preponderance of oil drums, it seems clear to me that Playmark really did want to make a side-scrolling beat-em-up, but realised that was too much like hard work and went for a ball-and-paddle knock-off instead.
There's an inter-stage bonus round where you can vandalise a subway car with a tennis ball instead of using marker pens or melting the backs of the seats with a lighter like everyone else. The only reward I ever seemed to get from the minigame was more useless points, so after the second round of public transit hooliganism I just let the ball disappear without making any effort to go after it. Consider it an expression of my civic pride.
"World" two is set in Chinatown, and thus is packed with all the familiar elements of Chinese culture: dragons, houseplants, enormous cauldrons filled with lava, that kind of thing. I bet that green cardboard box is filled with flimsy plastic bootleg toys based on big franchises, toys that have had their names altered to things like STRENGTH RANGERS and DARK NIGHT VIGILANCE MAN to keep the lawyers at bay.
I've switched to playing as Max now. His hat looks much less stupid from above, and as a bonus it completely obscures Max's teeny-tiny head. There's not much difference between the characters, if I'm honest: the most notable one is their speed, but even that doesn't factor in too much because every character is more than fast enough to catch the ball even if they have to dash right from one corner to the other.
Ignore the dragon peeking in at the top of the screen, and ignore the buzzsaw-looking things - they shoot your ball out in a random direction if you hit them - and just look at all those round objects. I have no clue what they're supposed to be, but they sure are round. Remember all those round blocks you destroyed in Arkanoid and Breakout? No, you don't, because they used flat blocks that allowed for predictable, consistent bouncing physics. Power Balls has none of that, managing to take this incredibly basic formula and cock it up like a young child trying to make their mother breakfast in bed but without the endearing charm. The ball ricochets off surfaces with no rhyme or reason, which is hardly surprising given the plethora of non-flat objects on each stage, but somewhat more surprising is that the half the time the ball travels through any given object, as though it grows tired of bouncing around at the back of the stage, thinks "screw this" and just becomes intangible for a while. You'd think the number one priority when programming a game like this would be to have solid things be solid all the goddamn time, but Playmark are rebels like that.
Here's a boss - his name is Chuang Tzu, and he comes equipped with deadly ninja throwing star action! Those throwing stars are wider than Max's torso, and Max is built like God stuffed two Schwarzeneggers into one sausage casing so those shurikens must be made from manhole covers. That would explain why they are so deadly, but everything is deadly to the Fraggers so it's a moot point.
Defeating Chuang Tzu requires the same level of skill and precision as defeating any boss in the game - the skill to keep hitting the ball and hoping it hurts the boss while not standing directly in line with them. Power Balls' combat is not complicated.
Now we've moved on to aggressively smashing thing in a filthy alley, which makes Power Balls the first alcoholic vagrant simulator I've ever played. It's Carrie's turn to get involved, and I regret giving her a chance; she's fast, but she's too fast and twitchy so you're constantly overshooting the ball. She also hits the ball with one of those Baywatch life-float things, which does at least provide some explanation for the wonky ball physics. It's going to be hard to make consistent strikes when you're using something shaped like an oversized hairclip as a bat.
Graffiti is something of a theme in Power Balls, the specific kind that was around at the time (at least as I remember it as a British kid in the Nineties) when graffiti was making in-roads into popular culture and "street art" was all over everything that marketing types wanted you to think was hip and young and way cool. We all had some kind of embarrassingly "street" t-shirt with a graffiti tag on it at some point in our childhoods, right?
There's some interesting artwork in this alley, not least the flayed two-headed dog that I think is the mark of a gang who really like the Silent Hill games. Then there's the picture of Max with the glowing devil eyes. At first I thought it said "MAD" underneath him, but now I look at it more closely I realise it says "ITALY," the red, green and write colour scheme not cluing me in until now. It makes sense, because Playmark were an Italian company. I think my favourite is the one that says "BAD CITY," because it shows a remarkable lack of passion - sure, this city is bad but it's not terrible or horrifying or anything. If I was reviewing it on a customer satisfaction card I'd score it four out of ten or the slightly frowny face.
Also in this alley: in the bottom-right corner of the screen, there's a man trying to kill our hero by shooting her with a gun. No messing around with tennis balls and flotation devices for that guy, to him gang warfare is deadly serious, providing further evidence that the Fraggers are in fact homeless people with severe mental health issues who have angered the local gangs with their citywide games of destruct-o-squash. That, or the gunman's just trying to protect his collection of briefcases and green wooden chairs.
The boss is a man with two guns. That's why he's the boss, you see. The poor guy just wants to stop Carrie smashing up the vintage sports car he's spent the last three years restoring, and while dual-wielding uzis might seem like overkill in this situation it's difficult to not have some sympathy for him.
Area four: more alleyways and more graffiti. STOP, it says on the floor, and while I really would love to stop playing this game I've kinda locked myself into it now. Power Balls gets just about every component of a block-breaking game wrong, with unpredictable physics, ropey collision detection on your character's swings and items that take far, far too long to break. I've been referring to it as a tennis ball mostly because it's yellow, but frankly it has about the same destructive power and the Fraggers would be much better served by walking over to the items and hitting them. Woo Dop here even has a baseball bat. You know what would be more efficient at breaking things than a tennis ball? A fucking baseball bat.
By the way, you see that picture of a Rasta on the far wall? It's alive, and it will swallow your ball and spit it back out if you hit it. Now we know what was in all those briefcases the Fraggers knocked open - powerful hallucinogens.
One weird thing about Power Balls is that many of the stages are much, much harder at the start than they are once you've knocked a few "bricks" away, which is pretty much the complete opposite of most block-breaking games. They're difficult because the play area is way too small, so half the time you start with a wall of obstacles right in front of you, which is obviously going to make it far harder to return the ball. The result is that half the time you fire one ball, miss the return and then have to wait as your character trudges off the screen and then walks back on before you can try again, extending an already tedious game to lengths far beyond what could be considered safe for human consumption. It's agonising, waiting for either things to break or to get back into the game. I don't think I've sighed so often or so hard at a game since I was a kid and some masochistic tendency was compelling me to play the NES version of Dragon's Lair.
Rastaman is the boss of this area, although he'll soon be due a name-change to Tetanusman if he keeps walking around this alley with no shoes on. Like all the bosses, Rastaman's strategy is to move up and down while shooting projectiles at you, so let's ignore him and focus on the fact that the car from The Dukes of Hazzard is parked here. You might notice that it's the same colour as the ball, and from there I'm sure you can figure out why this became my most hated segment of the game.
On the plus side, I had by this point figured out how to consistently use the power attacks - if you push right on the joystick just as you hit it, the ball will travel much faster, doing more damage to anything in its path at the cost of being harder to hit on the way back. There's almost a nice bit of risk-and-reward gameplay in there and it's the one piece of Power Balls' mechanics that isn't an abject failure, so I'll give Playmark some credit for that. I'm not entirely sure about this, but I think power attacks might be the only way to damage the bosses - if you're using the regular shots, then the bosses take about as many hits to kill as you would expect in a real-world scenario of someone throwing a tennis ball at them.
The boss of area five is Mad Wolf. He looks like a weightlifting vampire in an anime wig. He does not look particularly mad. As for the wolf part - well, we'll get to that soon.
It's finally Vasquez's turn to break some things and yes, he is definitely my favourite. He's the most powerful, which means I can break things slightly faster and thus break free of Power Balls' miserable grasp a little sooner. Plus, his power attack is to just punch the ball back where it came from. This special technique will no doubt aid my in my mission to trash this Mexican restaurant decorated with a large picture of Che Guevara. Unlike the Rasta in the previous stage, Che will not... sorry, I'm going to have to bail out of that sentence because I can't think of a way to phrase it with saying "Che Guevara won't eat your balls" or "Che won't take your balls in his mouth."
Having faced such deadly foes as a man with a gun, a man with shurikens and a man with two guns, it is disheartening that I died so many times to flying pizza, thrown into the arena by the unseen chef at the top of the screen. Hang on, that's not pizza at all, it's gazpacho soup! The chef has heard one too many people telling the waiter to take it away and bring it back hot and he's snapped, doling out chilled bowls of rich, tomatoey vengeance.
Now, far be it from me to call Power Balls a liar, but the boss of this area isn't Mad Wolf. It's Lobo, DC Comic' interplanetary metalhead bounty hunter antihero. He has a motorcycle right there. He attacks by throwing chains. It's not subtle.
Just when I thought Power Balls couldn't get any more unlikeable, I reached the final stage and faced a battery of laser turrets. Knowing that I had infinite continues and that I would restart where I left of when I died, I abandoned all pretence of actually playing the game at this point and started half-heartedly whacking power shots around the field. It was a liberating experience, made slightly more enjoyable by the heavily-accented voice that slurs "Power balll" when you insert a coin.
Thankfully there's only one short stage of turrets before the final boss- a battle to the death against New York city cop and possible latex fetishist (if his customised uniform is any indication) Sergeant Warfield. There's nothing new to say about the gameplay - I think I may have mentioned already that all the bosses are functionally identical - but I do have something to say about Sgt. Warfield's posture, and that is just bloody look at it. Even better, try getting your own body into that shape without falling over. He looks like he's forever lowering himself gingerly onto a toilet, but that didn't stop him gunning me down with alarming speed. Luckily, I had commitment, I had tenacity, I had unlimited credits, so in the end I won through.
Oh, what fun, another boss fight, this time against an ED-209 prototype that even OCP dismissed as being too crap. It has guns. Everyone has guns, except the Fraggers. They have tennis balls, and large hospital bills from the many, many times they have been shot. Okay, enough of this, let's blow up the boss and enjoy the no-doubt action-packed ending sequence. Maybe it will answer all the questions I have about Power Balls, like "why?" and, erm... nope, "why?" is the only question I have about this.
The Fraggers return to their home. Their home is a decrepit, rat-infested abandoned building. Fighting your way through the city until you control all gang-related activities is not how you make the big bucks, apparently. Vasquez looks more like a pirate than a street thug, Mei Lynn knees Max in the groin as part of a fun game they like to play and my blood momentarily runs cold as I read the sentence "your initiation is almost complete" during the text crawl, thinking it might mean there was a second loop or something. Thankfully, I'm fairly certain this is it, and as I'm reminded that "the street warrior's fights are endlesses" I can reflect on Power Balls. That's a shame, because I'd much rather forget all about it.
This is a really bad game that takes a simple concept and mangles it completely. There are one or two half-decent ideas, but playing through Power Balls is an exercise in relentless tedium compounded by ugly graphics, a high and annoyingly unfair difficulty level and a soundtrack with only one track for every stage in the game. Its slap bass samples will haunt me for the rest of my days. In short, Power Balls could possibly be a useful tool when showing people how games that seem extremely simple are in fact meticulously balanced, but as a gameplay experience? I think I'd rather spend the time throwing a ball against my bedroom wall. At least I won't have to hear a synthesised voice boo me if I mess up a catch.