Space Squash is one of those games where the premise is so simple you could write it on the back of a postage stamp and still have room to spare. You guard one end of a tunnel and your opponent guards the other as you both float around smacking a spiked ball between one another. Get it past the opposition to score a point. First to three wins.
The left D-pad controls the movement of your character whilst the right d-pad (left, right and up) is used for your shots. You can hit the ball against any of the four sides of the corridor to get a deflection to try and catch your opponent out. Points can also be won by reducing the opposition’s energy which happens by getting hit by the ball – non-fatal hits result in a momentary stun which is a good points-scoring opportunity.
The controls are very responsive and your character moves about quickly allowing you to rush to get the ball. The direction the ball travels seems to perfectly match the angle you’ve hit it at, meaning you always perform the shot you intended – and if you don’t, you realise where you made a mistake and aren’t left feeling like there something amiss with the game.
Space Squash is basic-looking with its simple (but effective) star field background and patterned corridors but the 3D effect works really well giving a great sense of the length of the corridors stretching out in front of you. It works really well especially with the ball changing size depending on where it is in relation to you. There are some great character designs in the game including a robot Elephant and a Bird-like creature. As they are at the opposite end of the corridor you don’t get a good look at them during the match but they appear on the versus screen before the match and in glorious close up after it – with their appearance varying depending on the result.
Matches are fast and exciting as you zip about, sometimes just protecting your side of the tunnel and sometimes hoping to pull off a hard to reach shot. This would keep you occupied for quite sometime however Coconuts decide to keep things extra interesting by having a variety of different stages in the game. Sometimes you will find a stage is smaller than the one before and there are other things in the playing area: hidden blocks that unexpectedly knock the ball back at you and blocks that can be pushed towards you or your opponent, obscuring the view.
The sounds are simple bumps as the ball hits things but depending on where it is in relation to you affects how loud it is, which is very effective. The movement of the ball is also accompanied by a hypnotic wobbly kind of sound that gets louder and quieter, then louder again as it moves back and forth. The music is a strange blend of upbeat and eerie. Sometimes it whines which should be annoying but it plays at quite a low volume so most of the time you don’t even notice it.
After defeating four opponents more variety is provided when you face a boss character. Instead of scoring points you just have to deplete their energy. You yourself can loose the encounter if the ball sails past you. Whilst the first boss (a snake-like creature) just moves about avoiding your attacks the ones that follow fight back so you may find yourself sliding out the way of a projectile then having to quickly move back to the same spot to hit the ball towards your foe.
The difficulty is well judged with your opponents getting faster and the tunnel designs giving you less opportunity to get a winning shot through. To make your life a bit easier there are several power ups in the game that you may find floating in a stage offering things such as increasing your energy or giving you an extra continue.
You also have a special power up you can use in each match. Not obvious if you can’t read Japanese, the pre-match versus screen let’s you pick from (in order): Shoot, Speed, Shield and Homing. Shield momentarily protects your end of the tunnel, speed provides a short boost whilst shoot and homing are obviously shot power ups. Whenever you get the chance you simply charge a meter by holding down on the right d-pad then when it’s full either L or R activates it.
After defeating the boss you get to play a bonus game where you knock away a wall of blocks in front of you for points and if you clear them all: a bonus. On offer is the chance to increase your speed, your energy or shot power. You are given 15 balls which is perhaps overly generous, but it can get tricky when there’s only a few blocks remaining.
Following the bonus stage you are given the choice of one of two further areas (containing the same four opponents) to proceed to. There are fifteen areas in total though you only play four, which adds a lot of replayability as you play again to check out previously unexplored areas. With each complete play through consisting of 20 levels (and three bonus stages) it’s a shame that there is no save feature in the game. You can play through the game reasonably quickly (either to the final boss or your last life) but it’s unfortunate that you may have to avoid playing unless you’ve got time for a complete game.
Also extending the life of the game are the multiple difficulty levels available from a hidden options menu. By pressing select on the title screen you are presented with two additional options Training and Config Mode. In the later you will find the difficulty is set to Normal so if you were perhaps struggling with some of the later stages you can knock it down to easy. Or if you’d like more of a challenge set it to Hard. The difference (whilst noticeable) is not that great so the game could use a Very Hard setting for that extra challenge but one of the other options allows you to set the points needed to win a match (2-4). Setting it to 2 adds more challenge as even the easier opponents may fluke a point during a game. Not a problem before, but now it means they’re just that one point away from victory.
The other options allow you to adjust the number of continues, change the style of the corridors and (if it’s annoying you after all) turn off the background music. The training mode fires a series of balls at you and you have to hit one of the five available targets which is good for either a carefree knockabout or practice for the bonus stages.
Featuring great use of the 3D effect and a variety of different stages Space Squash provides an enjoyable experience. The controls work wonderfully, the audio is effective and the (strangely hidden) options menu further extends the life of the game. An additional difficulty setting would have been a welcome inclusion but the game is still a lot of fun to play and one of the best titles on the Virtual Boy.