Shortly before Wolfenstein 3D kick-started interest in the genre, Xanth Software F/X treated Game Boy owners to Faceball 2000: a first-person shooter that saw players working their way through maze-like corridors battling giant smiling faces (Smiloids). Less violent than other FPSs, Smiloids disappear when defeated rather than explode in an orgasmic shower of blood, and should they take your life, your happy assassin will cheerily wish you a nice day. Xanth had previously used the idea for MIDI Maze on the Atari ST (tagline: Kill a Happy Face) but would transferring the concept to the Game Boy prove to be an impressive technical achievement or an example of over-ambition?
Upon starting the first level, it appears to be the latter as pushing forward on the d-pad results in some slow and jerky movement. However this is just an opening level quirk and for the rest of the game is much smoother. Admittedly it’s not as fluid (or fast) as Wolfenstein or Doom but it’s perfectly playable. You can only see so far in front of you which mean there is plenty of pop-up. It’s not any trouble when it’s an object in the distance but occasionally walls and enemies may appear unexpectedly in front of you. It’s rare for this to put you in danger but it is distracting.
Controls are straightforward: d-pad to move and A button to fire. You only have the one weapon (and unlimited ammo), so you don’t have to worry about switching. There is no strafing in the game, so you’ll find yourself avoiding enemy fire by moving in a backwards arc – strange if you’re used to side stepping attacks but Battlezone players will feel right at home. Pods contain powerups such as armour and ones that increase your walking and shooting speed. You have a map that can be called up at any time that shows where you have already been: a seemingly pointless addition at first, but it becomes essential once the levels get more complex.
The main mode of play is Cyberscape where the aim is to find the flashing exit before the timer runs out, shooting Smiloids along the way. This mode starts off extremely easy: the first level is a short walk to the exit with only two non-violent Smiloids in your way. These initial Smiloids are called ShootMe’s (no, really) and cannot move or harm you. You will be faced with these for the first few levels and whilst you are soon introduced to ShootMe2’s (they explode if you walk into them) it’s not until level 8 that a Smiloid will fire back. Even then it’s a few more levels until you find one likely to hit you.
Initial level design is also straightforward as you simply follow the corridors around to the exit. Luckily as you progress you are introduced to the likes of keys, switches, invisible walls and teleports that make gameplay a lot more interesting.
The plain walls that make up each level make the game visually unvaried and later levels are easy to get lost in. This actually works well for a game where your aim is to escape a maze but it can get dull to look at. The range of Smiloid shapes adds a bit more variety, and as they get increasingly aggressive you will be too busy trying to survive to worry about any visual repetition.
There are only a few sound effects in the game and whilst quite basic they work well with doors being blown open, Smiloids blinking out of existence and bullets hitting walls all having a distinct sound. Aside from a celebratory “level cleared” tune there is just the one piece of music that plays throughout the game: an adventurous and excited sci-fi track. It doesn’t quite have the happy vibe of the visuals, but it is catchy and doesn’t annoy.
There’s no save feature in the game but you can choose from one of six difficulty settings to determine which level to start from. “Very Easy” puts you at level 1, whilst “Radical!” lets you start from level 51. Whilst it’s tempting to skip the early (dull) levels, players may opt to play through them in order to acquire powerups and extra lives to help them out later on in the game.
After a slow start Cyberscape is a lot of fun to play and gets very challenging with the tougher Smiloids (Bouncer’s, Vampire’s, Ninja’s: all still smiling faces) taking life after life from you and the timer getting dangerously close to zero as you try desperately to find that hidden switch. The timer does become something to keep on eye on because should it run out, not only do you lose a life but the defeated Smiloids respawn.
There are 75 levels in total but level 70 is the final one, with the other levels providing a secret shortcut to reach later portions of the game. These levels are extremely tricky but rather than provide an alternate ending upon clearing the 75th you are sent back a few levels to continue on your way to level 70.
Trying to clear Cyberscape will keep you occupied for a long time but the most fun to be had with the game comes from the second mode: Arena.
Arena is a death match mode where you compete against computer and/or human controlled opponents. There are 15 different arenas of varying shapes and sizes and the first player to get 10 tags wins. The stupidly easy Smiloids are not available to fight against in this mode, yet neither are the toughest. However there are six difficulty settings that adjust the type and number of your foes as well as a seventh “Custom” option where you can have up to eight computer controlled opponents: should you opt for the full eight, it will be a tough challenge.
Of course the best part of Arena is fighting against human opponents. The game was designed to use a special adaptor to support up to sixteen players, but it was never released so you’ll have to make do with four. Internet rumour has it that linking several four-player adaptors together will allow more than four people to play, however whilst reviewing Faceball 2000 an attempt at a five-player game using this method proved unsuccessful.
When playing against other human players you will want to visit the options menu as here you can change the name and appearance of your Smiloid and set up Team Play. Offering an alternative to the free-for-all, this lets each player choose which of the four possible teams they want to be on, allowing for a variety of matchups such as 2 versus 2, 1 versus 3, etc. -- or all the human players could opt to take on the computer controlled team. Lastly, if you’d like to try a different type of teamwork multiplayer is also available for Cyberscape.
Attempting a First Person Shooter on the original Game Boy hardware may sound like a crazy idea, but it works surprisingly well despite some annoying pop-up and the lack of detail in your surroundings. The Arena mode is incredibly replayable thanks to the variety of stages and the different types of match ups that Team Play allows for. Cyberscape mode may start off ridiculously easy but the game is hard to put down once the challenge increases. Overall Faceball 2000 is a basic but addictive FPS that should provide plenty of entertainment.