Review: Super Dodgeball Brawlers (Nintendo DS)

Super Dodgeball Brawlers
Genre: Sports/Beat-em-up
Developer: Million
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: 05/27/08


Technos is one of those companies whose products eclipse their brand name; if you walk up to someone and go “Hey, remember the cat with the exclamation point on his shirt?” or “Hey, remember the frogs who beat up pigs?”, chances are good people will go “Bubsy and Battletoads!”, but if you ask “Hey, remember who made those games?” you’re more likely to get a blank stare than anything (for the record, Accolade and Rare, respectively). This is how it is, or rather WAS, for Technos; by name alone, a lot of you might not remember them or anything they’ve made, but even though the company has long since gone out of the game making business, their two most notable franchises live on in Double Dragon and what could probably be called the Kunio-kun franchise, AKA Renegade/River City Ransom/Super Dodgeball and all associated games.

Developer Million has seen fit to pick up both licenses in the wake of Technos’ demise, and has generally done well with their remakes; the GBA remake of Double Dragon was flat-out awesome, and their GBA remake of River City Ransom was generally pretty good (though more than a few people have noted that they find it inferior to the original, largely because it was too easy to beat and exploitable insofar as lack of difficulty, to which I say: sometimes it’s fun spamming Acro Circus and mowing down enemies, so unless you’re a difficulty Nazi you should find and play the remake AND the original on the VC, just because). Unfortunately, Million took a four-year US hiatus, content to re-release the various Kunio-kun games in Japan for the GBA (which apparently no one saw fit to bring to the US, because OF COURSE NO ONE WOULD HAVE PAID MONEY FOR THOSE) before finding their way back, courtesy of Aksys, with a reinvention of Super Dodgeball.

Now, let’s get this out of the way up-front: Super Dodgeball Brawlers is essentially something of an update of the original Super Dodgeball, but it is BY NO MEANS the only attempt at doing such a thing; aside from Technos releasing several of its own SDB games (including on Neo-Geo) before they went out, a few other games have found their way stateside, most notably Atlus with Super Dodgeball Advance and Midas Interactive with All-Star Slammin’ D-Ball (originally a Simple Series game in Japan), which basically retained the feel of the original ideas of SDB, only without Alex and Ryan, basically. So any SDB remake, while certainly welcome, can’t just be a remake of the old, original game to be worth anything; it’s going to have to actually be something GOOD.

And, interestingly enough, Million mostly delivers: Super Dodgeball Brawlers is generally a good game all around, and is a fairly worthwhile bearer of the Kunio-kun/River City Ransom franchise name.

So, there’s no story here; “being the best” is a good way to START a story, as the vast majority of modern anime has taught us, but when that’s the only thing we’re given with no exposition or dialogue, well, we got nothing. So let’s talk game modes. Super Dodgeball Brawlers offers three game modes: Tournament Play, which is your chosen team facing off against the world in a multi-round tournament, VS Match Play, which is basically you against another team, and Brawl, which is just eight guys against one another pounding each other until one survives. You can play VS Matches and Brawl with other people; VS Matches against one player and Brawls with up to eight players at once, and both offer DS Download play in case your friends don’t own the game themselves, though with DL play you just play as the two high school teams (as one would expect, considering Kunio nee Alex and Riki nee Ryan are the stars of the franchise and all), while regular versus play lets you pick any team you want. Still, DL play in any form isn’t bad, and there probably wasn’t a lot more you could do with the product insofar as gameplay was concerned, though you’re also given a “Locker Room” where you can build your own custom teams of players from other teams or created characters.

There’s always something awesome about a game where you can make an entire team of your friends and make them beat up other people, so bonus points to Super Dodgeball Brawlers for that.

Visually, Super Dodgeball Brawlers looks like a cleaned up version of the old-school games; character models are generally made up of one uniform body with any one of a billion different heads on them, and as such animate quite well, and the various backgrounds have interesting local flavoring to them (the High School teams play on school grounds, teams from colder climates play on snow, etc). In general, the backgrounds often have more personality than the characters themselves; the US characters, for instance, just look like tanned characters from any other team, but their stage, complete with various displays of the Red White and Blue and area of effect bombs, is stereotypically hilarious. Aurally, the music consists of upbeat and sporty MIDI tracks that are cute and contribute to the game theme well, and the sound effects are generally pretty decent and do what’s expected of them. In both respects, the visual and aural style is more important than the substance, and in both respects, it works well enough.

Gameplay-wise, you’re pretty much always playing dodgeball in some form or fashion, but how you do that is both similar and different from mode to mode. The basic controls are simple enough; you have a button to throw the ball at an opponent/catch the ball and a button to pass to teammates/duck under shots, and you press both buttons to jump into the air. As a dodgeball game goes, this makes perfect sense… until you get to the punch and kick buttons, whereupon propriety go right out the window. Yes, in Super Dodgeball Brawlers, there’s a significant focus on beating the mess out of opponents, either with the ball, your bare hands, or with weaponry (which there’s a whole lot of). Each stage has randomly spawning items of various sorts, from chains, boxes and sticks to bombs, soda machines and cheeseburgers, each of which can be used to inflict damage by being thrown or used for melee attacks (or, in the case of food items, for healing), as needed. All three modes work in this fashion, though you can modify the rules in most respects to eliminate these sorts of things if you’re some kind of purist for the sport of dodgeball (or a pansy). Everyone is also afforded Power Shots they can use, which can be implemented by properly timing your tosses; Aerial Power Shots are used by throwing the ball at the apex of your jump, while ground Power Shots are done by taking five steps, then throwing, both of which require a little practice (and knowledge of, for that matter). Still, it’s a cute mechanic that doesn’t breed abuse and works reasonably well, and as such, it’s a pretty neat idea that works well in all modes.

Where the modes differ is in the implementation of everything else. VS Matches essentially boil down to you and an opponent playing out a game of dodgeball, as expected, but Brawl and Tournament are where things go wonky. Brawl mode is, essentially, eight characters trying to obliterate one another either with weapons or the dodgeball itself. It’s a cute diversion from normal play if you’re just looking to pound someone, though the game tends to follow around the dodgeball more than any of the players (for good reason; the dodgeball does more damage than a lot of the weapons, especially thanks to Power Shots), which can be a little irritating at the best of times.

Tournament Mode, however, is where you’ll spend most of you non-multiplayer time, and with good reason: it’s got the most depth in the game. You can either start up with a pre-made team or with one you create in the Locker Room (more on that in a bit), and from there you’re offered several options. First is Team Formation, which basically dictates the positions your characters take on the field, like Rush Attack (players run to the center line and attack), Retreat (players hide by the back line), Scramble D (players stay near the rear line), Scramble A (players stay near the front line), and so on, out of about 12, each with its own strengths and drawbacks. Second, you can customize your Ultimate ability; as you play, a bar on the top of the bottom screen fills up, and when it’s full, a giant S appears that you can tap to enable the technique (which can easily be done with the nail on a finger, thus eliminating the need for the stylus here), which can be anything from heavy damage shots to super armor to awesome catching or whatever. Third, as noted, you can turn on or off the weaponry and melee action on a per-match basis. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, you’re offered a shop, which allows you to buy all sorts of statistic boosting items to make your characters faster or stronger, like the Power Glove (stronger shot power) and the Octopus Glove (better catch stats). Some are one use items, some boost or degrade multiple stats, each costs a different amount, and all are pretty interesting to use, even if they’re really only useful in the Tournaments.

From there, you can take your team through numerous matchups, beating the crap out of various opposing teams on one of three basic difficulties (easy, normal, or hard), earning experience points and cash as you go. Cash is used in the shop to buy (or replace, as they can break over time) items, while EXP upgrades your teammates stats as the team levels up. Going through one Tournament takes maybe an hour, but you can consistently keep bringing the same team (levels and all) through multiple Tournaments, which means you can earn oodles of cash to buy the best items in the shop as well as level your team to insane degrees, thus making them giants amongst men (for some reason, women aren’t available as characters in the game, though considering the game involves being beaned in the face with a ball, perhaps this intentional). You can also unlock special teams to face off against by performing well in addition, which makes the Tournaments worthwhile for that reason alone if nothing else.

Finally, we have the Locker Room, which allows you to create custom teams and players to work with. Custom Teams can be made up of various default characters from the regular teams if you happen to like a specific character’s stats or Special Attacks, from your own personal custom characters which can be named and have their default stats assigned by you personally, or a combination of the two as the need dictates it. Created characters tend to have lower starting stats than most of the pre-set characters, though this isn’t anything a few levels of EXP can’t fix, and on the plus side, custom characters can have their Power Shots set by you… sort of; each character’s birthday changes what their Power Shots will be, thus meaning you’ll have to poke around with birthdays until you find the right combination of shots to suit each character (or spam mercilessly against other players, whatever). You can also customize your team formation and outfit color from here as well, if you’re so inclined.

Now, despite all of the aforementioned depth and such, Super Dodgeball Brawlers does unfortunately have one rather crippling drawback that makes the experience somewhat harder to recommend than it ought to be: unless you enjoy ripping through Tournament matches to level your characters to insane degrees or you have friends who own the game, you’re not going to have as much fun with the game as you might if it were on, say, a console of some sort. See, as noted above, DS Download Multiplayer is included in the game, which is out-and-out a good idea in most respects… but you’re restricted to playing as the two High School teams in either Brawl or VS Match games in Download Play; this makes sense from a concept standpoint (Kunio nee Alex and Riki nee Ryan are the main characters from the franchise, after all), but it gets boring when you can’t bring in other teams to play around with. In other words: multiplayer is fun for goofing around with when only one person owns the game (in particular the Brawls, which can get up to eight people going at it) but it’s not really GREAT unless everyone owns a copy of the game.

It’d would also have been nice if more than two people could have played normal VS Matches, however; I can understand that this might have been a problem with assigning who plays what characters and such, but part of the reason that the game is only fun for Multi-cart play or grinding is because, in fairness, the AI isn’t all that bright. Now, in theory, turning up the difficulty should, one would think, make the computer either stronger or tougher in some respects, and to a point, this happens; higher difficulties mean the CPU is more capable of catching shots (even Power Shots) and more able to time their own Power Shots properly… but even so, the CPU ISN’T particularly smart, and falls into various patterns or traps on every difficulty. If the ball drops somewhere close to the line, you can simply stand at the line and punch or kick the CPU as they charge in to grab the ball, which, at best, means you can whittle down their life, and at worst, means they could end up dropping the ball on your side of the line. This becomes even sillier when you smack the opponent as they charge the line, causing them to drop the ball, and thus forcing them into such a situation. The CPU isn’t particularly capable of doing much to fake you out, either, relying mostly on a few passing volleys or the odd Power Shot to do most of its work, which are fairly easy to work around; conversely, this means you can work out your own strategies for faking out the CPU, as above, which work a lot less often against human players. The AI issues also extent to your own teammates, as they’ll often stand in the way of a shot that you dodged or weaponry that the opponent has thrown, though they don’t usually get in your way or cause you undue problems, at least. That’s not to say that harder difficulties aren’t challenging; fighting an opponent who catches a lot of your shots and makes frequent Power Shots can be quite taxing if you’re not too skilled, but if you have your timing down well the CPU won’t pose much of a challenge.

On the opposite side of things, the game isn’t terribly intuitive and doesn’t provide any sort of a tutorial, which means that unless you 1.) bought the game, 2.) read the manual, and 3.) spent a decent amount of time getting your bearings on how things work, you’re going to be at a severe disadvantage against anyone who did. This is problematic on two levels: first, if one opts to rent the game rather than purchase it to test it out (as I did), one won’t know how the controls work (as I didn’t) and one CERTAINLY won’t know about how the Power Shots work (as I didn’t). This makes Gamefaqs your only refuge for learning how to play the game properly, which is bad enough (for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who has actually been on Gamefaqs). The SECOND, and perhaps WORSE, problem is trying to explain all of these things to someone who is taking up the second player role in DS Download play; playing a match between someone who has learned Power Shot timing, has their catching timing down solid, and knows the controls well and someone who is playing for the first time, well, it’s not incentive to run out and buy the game, let’s just say that.

In the end, Super Dodgeball Brawlers is a fun game that will appeal to a wide variety of people, so long as those people have friends who buy it or don’t mind not exploiting CPU AI issues. The game is cute and pleasing, fun to play, offers a lot of variety and a solid amount of replay, and has enough features that someone who has friends to play against or enjoys leveling up their team to amazing levels of power should have a pretty fabulous time with it. That said, the AI in the game isn’t too bright, and if your friends don’t own and don’t want to own a copy (or you don’t have any friends), the replay value of the experience is somewhat hindered as a result. Still, there’s a lot of depth to the game and it’s not too expensive, so conning your friends into buying a copy (or buying them a copy as a “gift”) shouldn’t be hard, and it’s fun enough that once everyone’s up to speed, getting a few games going shouldn’t be hard at all.

And if nothing else, Brawl mode is pretty hilarious if you can get enough people together, so there IS that.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Like the final score says, Super Dodgeball Brawlers is pretty damn enjoyable. As a product on the whole, it’s bright, colorful, well presented, and generally easy to jump into after a few minutes of reading the manual, and even though other dodgeball games have come and gone, the overall product is fresh enough to be interesting. As a single player excursion, it’s got a lot of depth between making characters and playing in Tournament Mode, though the AI is exploitable at any level, which kind of hampers the experience. As a multi-player excursion it’s a blast so long as the players are at about the same skill level (or playing with statistically varied teams to off-set the skill difference). It’s good, enjoyable fun with friends, and there’s SOME fun to be had in single player if you’re the sort of person who makes characters in Fire Pro and plays around with them just for your own amusement. All in all, Super Dodgeball Brawlers is worth its asking price, as even if it doesn’t move mountains, it’s still pretty damn fun.

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