Videoball review

Every sport comes down to timing: knowing when to dive for a ball, swing a bat, send a pass, release a jump shot. Videoball is no different.

A single Videoball game consists of hundreds of split-second decisions, each of which has the potential to turn the tide of the match. "Decisions" is the operative word there. In video games based on team sports with higher player counts, such as soccer and football, it can seem like outcomes are determined by computer calculations rather than by you. But even when I played Videoball with AI-controlled characters, I always felt like I was in control.

That’s a testament not only to the smarts behind the AI personalities in Videoball, but also to the game’s precise mechanics and fine-tuned design. Videoball makes no secret of its arcade inspirations, what with its simple geometric shapes and flat 2D art style. Those old-school sensibilities extend to the act of playing Videoball, which is one of those quintessential easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master experiences.

Videoball screenshot 33 1920

Videoball is perhaps best described as a fusion of soccer and air hockey, with a twist that resembles the South Asian board game carrom. The game pits two teams of one, two or three players against each other, with the object being to knock one or more balls into the opponent’s goal. Each person is represented by an arrowhead icon, and instead of striking balls directly, players fire triangles toward balls in order to push them forward.

In the spirit of arcade simplicity, it only takes one analog stick and one button to play Videoball. Yet this bare-bones control scheme, combined with the physics at play in the game, is intensely tactical. Tapping a button sends forth a small triangle that will gently push a ball. If you hold the button for a second or so, you’ll produce a larger triangle with more oomph. The next level of charged shot fires an even bigger triangle for a "slam," which sends the ball flying as if it’s been shot out of a gun.

Sights and sounds

Videoball would succeed on its sound mechanics alone, but it excels because of the delightful wrapper around the play experience. Ken Snyder’s thumping synth jams could’ve come straight out of a mid-’90s character select screen. And with two whimsical announcers and a silly information scroll along the bottom of the screen, Videoball‘s goofy tone is charming without feeling like it’s trying too hard.

As in air hockey, it’s easy for opponents to redirect a slam — they just have to fire a triangle of any size at a slammed ball — so smart players will keep an eye on a striker’s charge icon and simply reverse a careless slam. I learned very quickly that slamming a ball nonchalantly was a recipe for giving up quick goals.

If you hold the button for a bit longer after charging up a slam, you’ll produce a solid square that you can place anywhere; it serves as an obstacle that players and balls bounce off. You can fire triangles to break up those blocks and to cancel out other people’s triangles. And because the best offense is a strong defense, Videoball lets you shoot triangles at other players to "tackle" them, which sends them flying backward and briefly incapacitates them. (The same thing happens to you if you touch a ball directly.)

These are the fundamentals of Videoball. They’re all covered in some instructions in the menu, and you’ll need to depend on those instructions, since the game doesn’t feature a dedicated practice mode. Entering the fray in two-on-two matches — me and an AI-controlled teammate playing against the computer — I lost four games before I won for the first time.

While I was initially disappointed that there isn’t a playable tutorial of some kind, the Arcade mode serves this purpose admirably enough. The mode puts you in one-on-two games against the CPU, which sounds like a bad way to be introduced to the game. Instead, I made it all the way to the sixth or seventh Arcade level before I lost, and I learned a lot along the way.

Videoball screenshot 41 1920

House rules

It’s common to come up with your own rules when you’re playing local multiplayer games with friends, and Videoball gives players full control in that respect. The game offers a variety of color schemes for the playing area, and you can change the lines on the field as well as the field pattern itself.

More importantly, it’s possible to customize the rules and scoring system of a Videoball match. Regulation games are played with three balls and no time limit; the first team to notch 10 goals wins. But you can tweak the setup so that special scores — I’ll let you figure out what things like Home Runs and Downtowns are — count for more than one goal.

Even though I spent most of my time playing regulation matches, these customization options provide the kind of variability that helps make arcade sports games perpetually replayable.

The Arcade stages demonstrate Videoball‘s AI personalities. All 14 of them have descriptive one-word names, like Homer (stays on your team’s side of the field) and Punchy (a tackle-happy brute), and Arcade mode is a great way to get to know them. I was thoroughly impressed by these characters, whether I was playing with or against them. Many local multiplayer games in the vein of Videoball have lackluster AI, or don’t bother with it at all (see Sportsfriends). I played about half of my games of Videoball with the AI rather than with other humans, and never felt like my CPU teammates or opponents were dumb.

The Arcade mode is also a good introduction to the 30-plus arenas that Videoball offers. The playing field always takes the form of a rectangle with the same basic dimensions, but can vary in terms of the obstacles on the field and the sizes of the goals. If you don’t feel like running through the Arcade mode gauntlet, though, don’t worry: Thanks to Videoball‘s efficient visual design, I was able to pick up on the finer points of the game as I played. As long as you pay attention to the interface — which elegantly conveys a great deal of information — you’ll soon understand how everything works.

Videoball boils down to action and reaction

Videoball boils down to easy concepts of action and reaction. Think of the Videoball arena as a closed system governed by Newton’s laws of motion; the objects on the field behave as you would expect them to behave. That allowed me to expend my effort figuring out strategies instead of learning the game’s physics system, because I already knew the physics instinctively.

Every second of every Videoball match, I was making tactical choices. Should I play man-to-man defense, or split the field into zones? Should I power up a blast, or fire off a string of potshots? I sometimes found myself out of position, with the enemy having an open path to the goal. But a well-aimed triangle can nip almost any attack in the bud, whether you’re redirecting a moving ball or tackling someone to interrupt a shot.

As I played Videoball more, I came to understand it more deeply; I learned to anticipate my opponents’ movements, attacks and defenses. I felt like I was becoming one with the game.

Source: Polygon – Xbox One

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