Nintendo has been highlighting TOO DX's Sportsball at various shows and conferences as one of several particularly strong "indie games" available on the Wii U eShop, promoting it as a quality party game. Though at first it looks like a primitive, simplistic Joust clone, its charms quickly become apparent with fast-paced gameplay and hilarious presentation. A local multiplayer arcade experience that's easy to learn while still being incredibly nuanced and skill-based, Sportsball is not to be missed — so long as you plan on playing with friends.
Sportsball is, as described by TOO DX, soccer-meets-jousting-meets flying birds. There are several different modes to play, from basic Rallyball matches to Sportsbrawl, which eschews balls entirely in favour of a traditional jousting match. Games are customisable, with rules and variables that can be changed; we found that the most fun modes were the main Rallyball game and the Duel, which is a one-on-one match. Players can also team up by choosing birds from the same team.
Players choose between 16 different birds from 4 different teams and compete to hit the most balls into the net. Each bird has its own attributes — some are big and heavy and don't fly well, but are strong and can knock out other players easily, while some birds are so light that they naturally float. With varying strength, speed and length, each bird feels very specifically crafted and unique; the various attributes are fairly balanced, and no one bird feels too powerful or too weak.
Most rounds are 2–4 minutes long, and the quick-fire movement and scoring require the player to focus and not just go for speed. There are several different arenas to compete in, with wacky names like "South Africa International Space Station." The arenas tend to recycle the same background graphics and colours, but there are different layouts in each stage, with barriers, extra nets, and strategically placed platforms that require quick thinking and planning to score.
Although this is played mainly with A and B buttons, there's quite a bit of skill to develop. While most players can (and will) get by with the basics, there are several manoeuvres that can be discovered; we realized at one point that one particularly long bird was able to balance and carry balls to the net. Birds can also nosedive and dunk — nosediving becomes a very important tactic in quick scoring and in the Sportsbrawl option.
Sportsball can be controlled with virtually any Wii / Wii U input, including the Wii Remote, the Classic Controller/Pro, the Wii U Pro Controller and the GamePad. The GamePad functionality doesn't seem to include audio, but it's somewhat redeemed by a novel new feature. Using the GamePad's microphone, someone can act as "announcer," with his or her voice booming in the background. This is a fun (if not entirely necessary) bit of functionality, but we did experience a fair bit of delay when speaking into the mic.
Unfortunately, Sportsball doesn't include a real single player mode. There is a training mode that players can try solo, but it won't last more than a few minutes. The game is also local-only, with no online multiplayer; yet buying Sportsball expecting solo or online play would be missing the point — the fun comes from playing in a room with friends, which is clearly TOO DX's intention. It's hard to fault the developer for that, especially since the game is marketed as a multiplayer party game.
Visually, Sportsball is well-animated and moves at a consistently smooth frame-rate. The 2D graphics are not particularly memorable, save for end-of-round bird explosions that must be seen to be believed, but this game isn't about visual effects. The soundtrack, which includes a catchy vocal title track, is instantly memorable and solid. Also impressive is the amount of world-building TOO DX infused Sportsball with — beginning with a tongue-in-cheek "Inspired by true events" title card and with funny team names like "Gang of Green," every aspect of Sportsball is bursting with personality.
Players should definitely read the manual, too, which contains a detailed history of Sportsball, giving the game a substantial amount of context and lore. Everything from the arenas to the birds have back-stories, which we'd love to see more of in the future. Most of this information is not conveyed in-game, and we were reminded of old NES titles where players had to read the manual to find the story. We think that's the idea here.
For fans of local multiplayer and party games, Sportsball is a must-have. The visuals may leave a bit to be desired, and there is really nothing here for solo play, but that's not what Sportsball is about. Frantic, fast-paced fun, cool features like GamePad announcing and a good deal of variety will have groups of gamers playing for hours on end. And don't forget to read the manual!