According to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, roller derby is one of the fastest-growing sports in the US right now, and anyone that's ever been to a bout can see why: hard hits, lots of action and ladies on wheels. Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore even got in on the action in the movie Whip It. What's not to like?
So making the leap to video games is a no-brainer, and developer Frozen Codebase's Jam City Rollergirls is the first title of note ever to depict the sport. There are lots of big ideas here and for the most part it all works quite well, but there's an inescapable sense of restriction throughout that is no doubt due to the file size limits of WiiWare.
Roller derby is a sport that requires context to understand, as it's not quite as clear-cut as "get ball in goal." Bouts, as they're called, are made up of a series of two-minute jams that take place on a rounded flat track, and the two competing teams are made up of a combination of blockers and jammers. Teams go round the track, and points are scored when a team's jammer (in Jam City, that's you) passes skaters of the opposing team, who in turn try to block and bop you in order to slow you down. The first jammer out in front of the pack is named the lead jammer, who then has the ability to strategically call off the jam early — good for locking in points or preventing the other team from scoring. And of course, the team with the most points by the end of the bout wins, with draws decided by overtime jams.
But, being a video game, Jam City takes a more over-the-top arcade approach to things befitting the sport's signature rockabilly/riot grrrl style. For one, penalties are out, replaced instead with Mario Kart-style power-ups, tricks, stars and crazy stages that we're pretty sure aren't regulation. The five included teams and accompanying players are licensed from the WFTDA, so if you happen to be a fan of New York's Gotham Girls, Milwaukee's Brewcity Bruisers, Austin's Texecutioners, Madison's Dairyland Dolls or Seattle's Rat City Rollergirls, then you're in luck as each is present and accounted for along with their own unique home track.
Littered throughout the stages are stars, which act as stamina boosts and eventually build up enough to unleash a super boost that can propel you ahead right quick and take out some opponents at the same time. Controls are pretty straightforward: the analog stick handles turns and acceleration, you can jump and do tricks with motions of the Nunchuk and Remote respectively, and bop opponents on either side with a tap of B or Z. A quick waggle with a team mate in front of you will whip you forward for an extra little boost.
There are a couple of ways to play: solo jammers will want to hit up the 10-bout Season, which lets you create a player and join a team, earning cash for equipment unlocks as you go that influence assorted statistics. If you're not up for long-term tomfoolery then Quickplay will satisfy, and if you want to take on a friend head-to-head then the two-player multiplayer is the way to go. Having a human opponent really brings the game to life since the AI isn't all that great, and trouncing them over and over is fun but gets a little stale after a while.
Jam City is certainly unlike anything you've ever played — it is after all the first roller derby video game of note — and does prove that the sport is a very viable contender for a kickass game. The problem really is that there are so many places where the overall package really would benefit from simply more stuff, which WiiWare's stringent file size limitations unfortunately just doesn't allow.
Where the game most obviously suffers is in the audio department, as there is exactly one loop of one song that plays over and over again throughout the entire game — in menus, during bouts, anywhere and everywhere — and the commentator says about three or four different things. Similarly, the five teams on offer are nice and authentic, but it's just five of the dozens of WFTDA teams around. The five courses range from plain to slightly more complicated, but there are also only five of them — Jam City fudges this a bit thanks to the inclusion of mirrored versions, but really that means all those left turns just go right. Graphically the game is quite nice; the punk graffiti style works really well and the skating animations aren't half bad to boot, but there are a few spots where things just look a bit plainer than they otherwise could have been, or where the tracks could have used a little more complication.
And even though bouts last 10 minutes, they seem to go on for a bit too long. It'd be nice to be able to customise how long you want to play, since in our experience a bout was pretty much decided well around the half-way point and we spent the rest of the time further rubbing it in.
Jam City Rollergirls is a pretty neat, if ultimately not too heavy video game introduction to roller derby, and if you have even a passing interest in the sport may serve you well. While it could ultimately benefit from more, more, more, the game still manages to punch out a good time.