When it comes to causing carnage and unleashing violence, few things fit the bill as well as vehicular combat. From the heyday of Destruction Derby to the headline-baiting prime of Carmageddon, using a car to smash your friends/foes to bits is so satisfying it’s almost primal. Hell, there was even a Star Wars game back on PlayStation where you could ride a rancor into battle and fight speeder bikes and AT-STs. They’re just brilliant fun, regardless of the licensed backdrop or hardware.
Back in 2001, Canadian studio Pseudo Interactive decided to have its own go at the genre with Cel Damage, a vehicular battle arena game which took the power-up collecting violence of Twisted Metal and fused it with the cartoon slapstick of Wacky Races. Without the actual licence for that Hanna-Barbera series, the developer instead used a similar cel-shaded look (back when cel-shading was still new and fresh) and created its own roster of madcap racers. There’s Fowl Mouth (a noir-style black and white duck), Sinder (a miniature demon), Dominique Trix (a dominatrix, unsurprisingly enough) and more. Each one has a unique item they can fling to knock enemies aside or reduce their health, but for the most part, they all have the same floaty, bumper car-style driving model.
Along with the 10 racers on the starting grid, there are three modes to choose from. Smack Attack is just a free-for-all where the first contestant to meet the required number of hits wins, but it’s still Cel Damage HD’s purest setup. Flag Rally is basically 'Capture the Flag', except all the flags are running about on their own respective pair of legs and need to be dropped off in a special area to 'bank' them. Gate Relay is the poorest of the three, with its basic racing formula falling apart mostly due to the sloppy handling model. There are 13 arenas to choose from, and 10 characters to play with, but with only three modes Cel Damage HD is still frustratingly bare almost 18 years on.
It’s also still way too easy to unlock every one of its arena variants and 30 or so weapons. Like most Switch ports, Cel Damage is very much the same game that appeared on PS3 and Xbox 360 back in 2014, but a handful of new items to celebrate its appearance on Nintendo Switch would be nice (even if they’re not Nintendo-themed). The lack of anything ‘new’ does make this particular version a little less special, especially on a console with so many local multiplayer games vying for your time and money.
Here’s the thing about Cel Damage HD. Much like every other port of this game (it was ported to PS2 as Cel Damage Overdrive in 2002 then got that HD treatment on last gen hardware in 2014), there’s nothing particularly remarkable about any of its parts. The driving model is floaty and without precision; its characters lack any real sense of memorable personality; its content is far too easy to unlock across all three modes. But as a split-screen local PvP experience, its messy action somehow comes together, which is probably why people still talk about it in hushed tones all these years on.
Against the AI, its three modes are far too easy to dominate in and as a solo experience, Cel Damage HD will lose its appeal within an hour or two. But much like the original versions, which were designed at a time where couchplay multiplayer was still the norm, this Switch port comes alive when fired up with some friends. Now grabbing a boxing gloves power-up is even funnier as you sucker punch a mate and send them tumbling into a river full of piranha, and sending two of your friends flying off the edge of a rocket platform with a buzzsaw is a riot to pull off.
It’s easy to make the argument that Cel Damage would have a much greater chance at success with the introduction of online multiplayer – something this writer has made the case for in regards to similar ports in the past – but online servers aren’t going to elevate this game any more than its local options. This is the kind of game that works best when played in the same room as your friends, laughing out loud as you smash a mate into a croc-infested swamp while swinging a giant baseball bat. With support for up to four players, this Switch version is already a significant step up from the version that appeared on Vita many years ago. It's just a shame this long-in-the-tooth local multiplayer affair lacks anything new to make its Switch port stand out in a very dense crowd.
Cel Damage HD isn’t going to rocket to the top of the eShop charts and become the kind of unit-selling monster that publishers only dream of, but that doesn’t mean it should be passed up if you're a brand new player. As a local multiplayer affair, its vehicular combat is bombastic and silly in a way that makes for countless rewarding matches. It’s still too easy to unlock every new weapon and arena in a couple of hours, but with full support for four-player multiplayer, this cartoonish caper finally gets the handheld iteration it deserved all along.