The primary attraction of the arcade puzzle game is the immediacy of the arcade experience. Unlike a game like sudoku or a crossword, there's no taking time to figure out what to do next, you simply play out the game reacting to events and aim for the highest score possible. Of course the key to a good arcade puzzle game is having a solid play mechanic and good controls; fortunately Virtual Toys has succeeded on both counts and Spaceball Revolution is a worthy addition to the arcade puzzle genre.
The goal is simple: light up squares on a grid at the end of a 3D corridor (or alternatively bottom of a well or ceiling of a shaft — depending on your perspective) in a pattern matching the figure in the upper left corner of the screen. Your instrument for grid illumination is the titular spaceballs — so called because the grids appear to be floating in space — and you launch them at the grid using the IR pointer to aim and or to fire. If you illuminate a square by mistake you can clear it by hitting it again, and you can bounce the balls off the corridor walls to get around the obstacles that eventually appear to impede your progress. Each figure must be replicated within a set time limit, otherwise the camera will pull back from the grid; if you fail four times in any round, it's game over.
A disclaimer is displayed before the main game menu stating that expert players have completed every level; the purpose is clearly to assure people that all levels can be finished with a little bit of patience and practice. The game's 15 levels may not seem like much initially, but considering that each level is divided into five rounds of increasing difficulty consisting of 10 figures each — it's good to keep that message in mind!
Before starting the game's main Challenge mode you need to select a starting difficulty: Easy consists of 5 levels and clears the grid squares after each figure is completed, Normal consists of 10 levels with figures remaining after completion and Advanced difficulty presents you with all 15 levels and figures remaining as in Normal play. Clearing Advanced will unlock Master difficulty that offers yet more challenge. In addition to stated differences, Normal and Advanced difficulty levels also have shorter time limits; coupled with the fact that hitting obstacles reduces the clock faster means there is less margin for error as the difficulty increases. Spaceball Revolution is simple in concept but difficult to master, like any good puzzler.
Whilst the game offers a challenge even in Easy difficulty, the challenge ramps up gently. The first few figures in every round appear on an empty grid; as the round progresses obstacles appear and their behaviour changes until the final figure is reached. You might start out with a cube that moves slowly around the grid in an anti-clockwise pattern and then have a second cube added and finally a third. The next round will then have a stationary bar spanning the grid which will require banking shots off the walls in order to illuminate squares underneath. Later levels introduce additional environmental challenges such as rotating the playfield after a set amount of time; adding to the existing time pressures by necessitating hasty editing to unfinished patterns that no longer match the indicated figure once turned upside-down. The obstacles on the grid are what unifies each level thematically, and whilst every round in a level starts out gently, the end of the round will be more difficult to complete than the one that preceded it.
After completing the fifth round in a level you'll mark the end with a break in the form of some target practice where you aim with your reticule to target spinning disks against a starry background for bonus points. It's complicated by the fact that you have no point of reference for depth yet the discs are clearly varying distances from the camera, so leading of your shots is necessary in order to hit them. It takes some time to get the hang of how much to lead them by and often seems arbitrary in its difficulty. It's the weakest part of the game, but since it's just for getting extra points and taking a break from the more tense action in the game it doesn't drag the overall experience down too much.
Spaceballs demands precision above reflexes and as such the pointer could present some issues. Thankfully, that's not the case: assuming no external interference from room lighting, you'll find the cursor is steady in movement and able to target very small parts of the screen. This is good because sometimes the density of obstacles (or if you're doing poorly, distance from the grid) will require pinpoint accuracy. Your accuracy in hitting specific areas on-screen is rewarded with bonus points for creating a figure with the least amount of shots possible. Hitting the line separating two squares will turn them both on or off and hitting the junction where four corners meet will illuminate (or darken) all four squares surrounding it. This also has the advantage of completing the figure in less time, so exploiting this aspect of the game will be essential to performing well in the Normal and Advanced difficulties.
Most obstacles seem to float above the grid you're shooting at, providing a challenge in getting underneath them if they're stationary. There's no rigid demarcation of gridlines on the walls as there is on the playfield you're trying to illuminate, so a little bit of trial-and-error is required before you get the hang of where you need to aim your shots on the walls to hit various places on the grid. This isn't broken so much as a way to ensure the game doesn't become too easy and to provide variety in the visuals.
The often-translucent well/corridor is set against a starry background filled with twinkling stars. The walls will shift in colour and lighting in an impressive display of special effects, so if your visual cortex is easily overloaded then exercise caution when playing! Audio is fairly simple, with whooshing sounds from the remote speaker when launching balls and bleeps and bloops from hitting the grid. A voice will indicate your figure is done by announcing "Complete;" if you don't make any mistakes and complete a figure in the least number of shots possible you'll be told how "Perfect" you are (always rewarding even without the bonus points). The music helps keep the action tense and you'll find there are several high-quality 90s-style techno tracks on offer that strongly remind this reviewer of the best parts of the Tempest 2000 soundtrack — excellent! Unfortunately, if either effects or music are displeasing to you there's nothing for it but to mute the game — there are no volume control options.
The game's 15 levels are designated collectively as Chapter 1 with another three chapters being greyed-out. According to the game's producer, there are plans to release another chapter for download before the end of the year (pricing still to be determined) with the possibility of more depending upon how well the game sells (the leaderboards have scores for up to ten Chapters presently). In the early levels grids consist of squares laid out in a 3x3 area, but later grids are 4x4 in size. The figures never approach Picross-like complexity, but are usually more simple structures like the pieces from Tetris or Block Out. The difficulty lies in navigating obstacles rather than complexity of patterns, which makes for a faster play experience, but more variety in the shape of the grid would have been interesting and will hopefully be considered for DLC.
Getting the highest score possible is the name of the game with extra points awarded for perfect figure clearing and the percentage of targets hit in the bonus rounds between levels. You can continue from the last level started after losing, though this will reset your score. If you choose not to continue your score will be recorded locally and can be uploaded to the online leaderboards via WiiConnect 24 where you can view your position in the list and the top 10 worldwide. Your name will be the name entered against your profile (up to four in total) when you first started the game and your Wii's country will also be indicated. Worldwide scores are only recorded from Challenge mode sessions and grouped according to chapter and difficulty; these can be viewed by selecting the Ranking option from the main menu.
Every level completed can be played by itself in Free Play or Multiplayer modes. The multiplayer game is a vertical split-screen. Interestingly, players select level and difficulty independently. It's a great feature that allows more experienced players to select a handicap and keep the game more fair when going up against a less skilled player. Players are essentially playing separate solitaire games, but can interfere with each other if desired. Cursors are blue and red respectively, and each can launch balls at the other's grid from a starting pool of three to impede their opponent's progress. By foregoing the bonus for a perfect figure clear, players can choose to hit glowing targets to obtain more balls to mess with their opponent or trigger effects like rotating their opponent's playfield. It makes for a flexible game where players can choose to play cutthroat or simply see who can get the better score. The game ends when one player loses as in the normal game (failing to complete four figures in the allotted time) or according to who has the higher score at the end of the level.
Spaceball Revolution provides an interesting and welcome new take on the arcade puzzle genre. More variety in the actual playfields would have be welcomed, and the lack of even basic audio options seems a strange omission, but the combination of impressive visuals, simple gameplay and solid controls create a challenging experience that will please any fan of the genre.