Knockout City: Pong is back

The joy of pegging someone with a dodgeball is captured in this game.

Some of the first video games were rudimentary versions of pong. Many different companies made stand alien boxes who’s sole purpose was to play this one game where players bounce a ball back and forth using paddles on each side that were controlled with a wheel like paddle. No buttons, barely any frills, just the joy of a simple volley and trying to out-maneuver your opponent. 

These days video games can be a whole lifestyle, and some folks just play one game endlessly. Fortnite, a game about being the last person standing on an island like the movie Battle Royale has become a universe unto itself, used for promotion of recent Star Wars and Marvel movies, as the stage for virtual concerts and containing an evolving storyline of its own that is told in seasons, with real consequences to its virtual landscape. It is difficult to imagine how we got here from the humble days of pong. This week there is a game that was released that bridges the gap, capturing the simple joys of pong but with all of the cultural, visual and business model baggage of the modern era. But in my mind, that connection to the original simple ludological joy of play makes Knockout City worth checking out.

Pong controllers were simple compared to modern day button fests.

Knockout City at the time of this writing is totally free, and on everything under the sun. Here the business model trappings immediately rear their head as the game fights for a critical mass of players right from the start so that there are always people to play with. A multiplayer game without an audience is the video game equivalent of a ghost town, so the game is free till May 30th, the first ten days of it’s release. If you catch this blog the weekend it goes up, I encourage you to try it out, but if not I’d like to describe why it’s worth the investment regardless.

The game is essentially 3 vs 3 competitive dodgeball. You know, that sport everyone but the bullies dreaded in high school gym class that many states or school associations tried to make illegal. Still, despite the bullying baggage it is a refreshing change from games where you try to shoot someone no matter how cartoony the assassination attempt may be. The game is the most fun I’ve had since the other strange alternative sport of Rocket League a few years ago, where players drive cars to… play soccer. The gist of Knockout City is that each player has two health, and every time they are hit by a ball twice, that counts as a knockout for the other team. First team to ten knockouts wins. Players throw the ball using the right trigger, and just like in real dodgeball they can attempt to catch the ball with the left trigger, and consequently throw it back at their assailant. Players can charge their throw to zip the ball faster and there is a great timing element to catching the ball; too early or too late and you end up getting pegged in the face, just like real life. There is a red border that goes up on screen anytime you are being target with a helpful directional indicator to give you a chance to react before getting thwacked from behind. 

Catching a ball keeps up its momentum so that your return throw will be even faster

This is where the pong comes into play, as every volley back and forth increases the speed of the interaction. A game of chicken ensues as players test their reaction time and positioning just like the game of yore, except with a lot more zazz. But the simple joy of the volley is there in spades. Every time I get hit by a ball in this game I feel like there was a chance I could have saved myself, and equally every time I land a hit I feel the joy of outsmarting or outmaneuvering an opponent.

I mostly lose but the game is fun enough to keep trying.

This is the shining core of the whole thing. A modernized physics filled game of pong. Everything else layered on top is either to add diversity or nuance to the experience or to monetize it, like so many modern competitive games. Let’s touch on the fun stuff first since the team has built some fun system to add to this core of pong. First there is always a special dodgeball in play to mix up a given match. This could be a sniper ball, that take a moment extra to target but if aimed correctly zips in twice as fast, a cage ball that puts the player who is hit in a ball shaped cage which can then be deviously thrown off a cliff, or the delightful multi-ball that evokes it’s pinball namesake in allowing players to throw three balls rapid fire, right alongside the satisfying pinball sounds. In fact, all of the sound in this game deserves to be commended, from the strange disembodied announcer who apparently emcees these matches from the moon, to the perfect sounds of nailing someone with a dodgeball, which sounds exactly like it should. If these unique dodgeballs aren’t enough to mix it up there is always the ability to turn yourself into a ball and be used by a teammate to take out your enemy. This has the risk reward of being a one hit knockout, if you’re not caught and used to take out your own team. 

The result of all of this flavor is the joyous shouts of success or groans of defeat that make a game like this shine. The game is silly, and it knows it, and this comes through in all aspects. There are different arenas with their own geography to capitalize on, as well as some more nuanced play hidden in the movement mechanics of the players, with the ability to dodge balls completely, tackle the ball out of an opponent’s hands or even lob or curve the ball like in a tennis volley. But time and again it comes back to the heart of pong.

As in most of these games the prize for your success is the ability to make your player character look positively ridiculous. Players unlock different outfits, dances, emotes etc. to customize their visual flair. This part of the game is monetized so players can shell out real money to buy whatever suits their fancy, but it’s entirely optional. Most games of this kind are free and entirely supported through this model, but given that the game will cost $20 after this initial free period, I’m not 100% clear on the eventual business model here. Still, I would argue that the core back and forth game of chicken is worth that $20. There’s plenty of depth here to explore and if it is anything like the other lifestyle games vying for folk’s time I imagine they will add more special dodgeballs, stages, and mechanics to keep the experience fresh. 

I generally avoid these types of games as I don’t find the core loop of many of them to be terribly much fun, but I give this one a try because of all of the buzz I had heard online. I am here to amplify that buzz and encourage you to try it out as well. There is something that is pure and simple fun here like the games of yore. It will certainly leave less of a mark than a traditional rubber dodgeball and I assure you it’s fun for everyone this time, not just the bullies.

Yearning for the golden days of RPGs

Beautiful sprites and simple 3d in BOFIV

Let me talk today, a bit off topic from board games, about the heyday of JRPGs and how limited technology drove innovative game design choices. In 1997 Final Fantasy VII launched. It had a sexy razzle dazzle commercial that made the video game look like a movie. And people took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Millions of people bought a game in a genre that was previously only reserved for the most niche weebs like myself. So many people bought FFVII that other publishers thought it might be good to jump in the pool and bring over games that were previously left to languish untranslated in the Japanese market. Similar to how everyone had to copy Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo, everyone who was anyone had to have at least one RPG series, if not two, for good measure. It was truly the golden age of the genre.

I wax poetic about all of this, because despite loving games to this day and admiring how far we’ve come in terms of graphics and gameplay and even virtual reality, I am still living in the golden age through my nostalgia glasses. Firing up a PS1 game, and hearing that iconic Sony logo noise brings me right back to being in high school, in my basement, buried in the latest RPG release.

While cutting edge at the time FFVII has aged poorly.

Some of these have aged… poorly. The PS1 was not a powerful system, and Final Fantasy VII looks downright archaic by modern standards. But other examples in the genre stand the test of time and still hold up today if played in the right format. I recently fired up Breath of Fire IV and was amazed at how charming the game was 20+ years after the fact. Ironically games like these that weren’t necessarily pushing the limits of the processing power of the system are the ones that hold up the best. 

Broadly speaking developers took 3 to trying to make an RPG on the system. The first is 3d models with pre-rendered backgrounds. This is your classic PS1 final fantasy title where the art of the backgrounds is the best that current technology could render and the camera angle is fixed while you wander these paintings of a sort with a crude 3d model. Other examples are Chrono Cross and Legend of Dragoon. These often age the most poorly because the pre-rendered backgrounds were created for a certain resolution and the 3d at the time couldn’t really push enough polygons to make the characters terribly readable or realistic. Another approach was to just double down on 2d and create beautiful painterly games like Legend of Mana or Valkyrie Profile. At the time folks were not always excited about this because 2d games were not the latest and greatest technology. But these games hold up relatively ok because they were not relying on the underpowered polygonal graphics of the early 3d system. The third type of approach is by far my favorite, and is the system Breath of Fire IV and others use. 

Sticking to 2d worked well for Legend of Mana

Here the world itself is 3d, oftentimes with sprites mapped unto the 3d to give it more dimension, and the characters are traditional 2d sprites. To my mind this is the best of both worlds. You have these incredibly expressive animated characters paired with a somewhat rudimentary but immersive 3d world. Unlike the previous two examples, the three dimensions actually matter in that you need a camera system in order to rotate around your characters and navigate the world. Other games that use this style are Breath of Fire III, Xenogears, and the amazing Grandia. The design was created out of the limitation of the technology. Consequently when the ps2 and future systems came along and more mature 3d graphics were possible developers got away from this type of design. They literally don’t make games like this anymore, in part because those limitations are gone. 

In recent times there is some energy being put towards trying to recapture the spirit of this generation of games, with mixed success. Square Enix, one of the most prolific creators during the heyday put together a studio that was unironically called RPG Factory. And  just like a factory it rapidly produced three games in relatively short order that aped classic games like Chrono Trigger. But something of the soul was lost here, and it’s hard to define exactly what.

RPG Factory produces games aping this style

I have some guesses as to what might have happened however. For one thing, the Playstation 1 RPGs commanded the top talent of that era to work on these games that were then cutting edge. Some of those same names are still working in games, but are more likely working on current cutting edge vs throwback like titles. For another, imitation while the highest form of flattery is not necessarily enough to stand on its own. Trying to ape old titles feels more like a sort of pantomime than something truly inspired. Kind of like how a cover band is a good imitation but is always missing a certain something. Other modern games that aim for a classic feel or look are Octopath Traveler, that looks something like if you’re super Nintendo copy of Final Fantasy got put through some amazing Instagram filters, and Bravely Default II that has an almost twee aesthetic harkening back to earlier titles. And both of these are good and capture some of that classic feel in their own way, but they are not the A-team bringing all that they’ve got.

Octopath Traveler is certainly beautiful

I am fully aware that a lot of this is nostalgia on my part. A time and a place where I had a lot of free time to explore and fall in love with the genre. A player revisiting these games now without any context might wonder what the big deal is. But I would hope that some of the charm and ingenuity of these games would still come through 20 years later. It is striking to me how much technology defines video games and movies where it is hardly a factor at all in the board game world. Granted the manufacturing techniques of games have gotten remarkably advanced and you see more and more grandiose productions on kickstarter every week. But on the whole the hobby is much more timeless; there is not a certain style of board game produced in a 5 year span of the 90s like the games I am talking about. There are trends and fads like the hundreds of roll & write games produced in the last two years, and the me-too deckbuilders of the early 2010s, but these are also not driven by limitation, but imitation.

There is also the tragedy of how on earth to play these games in modern times even if you wanted to fight through their somewhat archaic nature. Sony has not proven to be the best curators of their old systems, so no modern system can play these right out of the box. Instead they can be played on PSP or PS Vita or a PS3 if you still have one kicking around. Original disc copies of Breath of Fire go for roughly $100 on ebay so that avenue is pretty price prohibitive, not to mention that PS1 games look terrible on modern TVs without a lot of tweaks. More obscure board games go out of print but if you do manage to track down a copy there’s never a question of how to play it. There are more illicit ways to play PS1 games out there of course, and people often seek out these methods because it is often the easiest in addition to being the cheapest. 

During these strange covid times it is nice to escape into nostalgia once in a while. With that said, I think there is a weekend of Breath of Fire IV ahead of me, and maybe my non-high school self will not get stuck on a tough boss battle halfway through. What is your favorite nostalgia escape and in what media?