First, there was Pong, and lo the people deemed it to be worthy. Since then it has been immortalised as a test of skill for two players, two gladiators going head to head and shooting for goals and glory. Next, the early nineties would reveal the natural evolution of this classic challenge - Windjammers. A competition for the ages, the sleeper hit on Neo Geo replaced Pong paddles with cool 90s dudes and dudettes, while naturally upgrading the pixellated ball into a radical frisbee. Considered a cult classic by many, and legendary by others, it seems we're overdue another incarnation.
Thankfully, Chequered Cow Games has just launched its first 3DS exclusive title that aims to recapture that Windjammers magic. Power Disc Slam is a 1-on-1 sport game where you and your rival fling a frisbee around an enclosed arena, hoping to score points by hitting the opposing goal zone across several rounds and sets. It's a very simple premise, so in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor, Power Disc Slam really needed to absolutely nail two things as a priority - speed and control. While we'd love to say these aspects have been polished to a mirror sheen, the unfortunate reality is that things are actually a little murky.
Everything sounds pretty great on paper, with a variety of ways to move and shoot in order to outsmart your opponent. Using the Circle Pad or D-Pad to run, you simply need to face into an oncoming disc to catch it, and from there you can either use a basic throw or a lob to mix things up. Aiming shots and keeping on the defensive is key in order to build a rhythm and maintain control. Depending on the choice of arena and difficulty setting certain obstacles may also get in the way, and the goal zones will change in size and value.
Once you jump into the opening tutorial, however, you quickly realise that putting these skills into practice is easier said than done. It's an extremely bare-bones introduction, providing one-line instructions on how to move and shoot then letting you off the leash with slippery movement and haphazard aiming. We struggled to make precise, tactical movements, and the game started off relentlessly difficult as a result. Even in easy mode we struggled to keep in step, but eventually got to grips with the messy controls and learned to work around them. There's some depth to things, with a major example being that shots are faster if you act the moment you get the disc in hand. It encourages faster exchanges, especially as you'll shoot automatically if you spend too much time holding the frisbee. Once powered up, special throws and hammer throws mix things up further, though we never found that lobs were enough to fool the AI.
Even with practice, a few gripes persist with niggling annoyances throughout. For example the 'A' button doubles as both your primary throw and a quick dash, which makes for a lot of accidental throws and clumsy mistakes in the heat of a match. X & Y aren't mapped to anything at all, so we have no idea why they decided to double down on the same button for two of the game's most integral manoeuvres. With this setup, we ended up dashing away from the disc when we were trying to pre-empt a timely shot back. We're also a little embarrassed to say that we never fully figured out how to curve a shot, as the game never directly tells you how you're meant to do it. The tutorial mentions using the Circle Pad as you throw, but every time we managed to pull it off it felt like a complete fluke. It may just have been an oversight on our part, but even the digital manual wasn't much help so it's something we ended up largely ignoring.
There are 5 main single player modes, each setting up a slightly different way to play. Arcade mode pits you against all the available characters in a series of matches, while Free Play lets you set up a match of your choosing for a straightforward session against the computer. Cup mode has you compete to win tournaments across a variety of difficulties, and Survival mode is basically a test to see how long you can last against an endless stream of rivals. Mini Games are also available, with score attacks, target practice and some unique training scenarios to help hone your skills. It even has a Breakout style There's certainly no shortage of content, all centered around different aspects of the core gameplay.
Impressively, the game allows for both local and online multiplayer as well, which is a huge plus for a small eShop title like this. Whether you're jumping online or playing with a friend nearby, you can set up rooms and completely tailor the experience you want by choosing from 8 different courts and setting how long you want to play for. Local play works great, and competing against an actual human is particularly fun considering that they're struggling with the controls just as you are! Our real concern lies with the online community, as it's incredibly difficult to find any active players at the moment. Hopefully over time this might get a bit more populated as it's a wonderful way to add longevity to competitive titles. In the meantime, anyone on your friend list can always join private rooms.
Visually, the game hits many of the same notes as Windjammers in terms of the court layouts and even where the referee is positioned, but it lacks that distinct '80s charm that so permeated the Neo Geo original. Character models and animations are underwhelming to say the least, and the soundtrack fails to impress with some forgettable tunes and standard grunts from the athletes. While it does display at 60 FPS and has the option to use 3D, nothing ever stood out or made us feel like the game had a consistent style. If anything, it's consistently bland and sterile.
It's not only less stylish, but nothing feels as snappy and kinetic as it ought to either. This is due in large part to control issues, but it also depends greatly on the character you play as. Your choices are determined by Power, Speed, Skill, and Control, with male and female options from around the globe. Depending on their stats, the experience varies greatly with speedy characters floating and sliding as if they're on ice, while power characters are more like planted turrets. Fast characters will struggle to keep in place, with more technical characters being outmatched by speedy shots and quick plays, so exchanges often feel imbalanced and as if there's no right way to play. This might not be a negative for some, but conceded points and sudden victories never felt like we had worked for them and made all the right decisions. Whether we won or lost often felt like pure chance.
On a more positive note, there are a few extra little features that add to the amount of content available. The bottom screen will display stats during a match, which is an interesting novelty if nothing else, and there's actually a StreetPass feature where you can play an AI opponent based off the statistics of someone you encounter who also owns the game. Overall there's plenty to do if you have the patience for it, and some decent variety with mini games also. We'd just keep an eye on the price tag, especially considering that clumsy core mechanics definitely detract from how often you're going to actually want to step into the arena.
Power Disc Slam is a game that almost gets everything right, but is held back by some core issues that permeate the entire experience. It needed to be fast, responsive and fun above all else, but while it might have some strategic depth and a wealth of content, it lacks any kind of identity or style. This isn't only a letdown in its own right, but is the risk you run when acting as a spiritual sequel to a madcap cult classic like Windjammers. It feels clunky and lifeless by comparison, but there's a serviceable game to be found here beneath a layer of modest graphics and awkward controls.