If you’re anything like me, the word dodgeball serves to remind you of only two things. One being the 2004 comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Ben stiller. The second being anxiety filled periods during PE, when either rain or a lack of imagination on the teacher’s part meant that you’d be taking your class indoors and becoming the target for people to chuck balls really hard at you.
I’m not sure which experience I’d prefer to replicate in my adulthood.
Thankfully, ‘Super Dodgeball Beats’ is reminiscent of neither of those things. It’s a rhythm game, set against a heavily manga inspired aesthetic, where a young man bursts into a classroom and loudly asks his fellow students “Dodgeball?” – to which they reply enthusiastically, “Dodgeball!” (Admittedly after being literally roped into it).
I want to start by talking about this game’s presentation, because it really is great. The opening cut scene plays out exactly like a manga comic, with beautiful line art being presented in black and white panels that appear from right to left across the screen. The brilliant art and design work is present across the whole game, with nicely animated 2D characters battling it out on a series of colourful and interesting ‘dodgeball’ courts.
The main single player mode will have you playing for the dodgeball championship across three leagues, starting with Rookie, into Pro, and then Legend. Your opposing teams are made up (presumably) of students from other schools, and they’re all equally as well designed and animated. Some examples of those rival teams are the Nekochin Gang, made up entirely of lucky cat statues, plus Danceferatu who are mostly made up of bats, with a woman sporting a goth look, and an older man called Sir G. Pemberton who looks like a geography teacher in an ill-fitting Godzilla costume. There’s also a team called Funkerstellar – so you have some idea of the kind of tone this game is going for. It’s fun, silly, and very creative.
I’d like to give a particular shout out to the character Refri who acts as the master of ceremonies for all of the matches. He’s a rotund, sunglasses wearing middle aged chap who dances like a fiend as he wields his indicator flags on the side-lines, and sure it’s very silly, but I couldn’t help becoming quite endeared to this guy. Thankfully he features heavily in the menus and throughout the UI generally. I can’t say enough nice things about the art in this game, it’s really well done.
Sadly, that’s where most of my praise ends for ‘Super Dodgeball Beats’.
As I said above, the game isn’t really about Dodgeball. It’s a rhythm game, where occasionally characters will sort of throw dodgeballs at each other, but not really. Both teams stand opposite each other on the court, while some music plays. The tutorial the game presents you with when you start in the first league explains that your four characters are mapped to the buttons on the right Joy Con. When it’s a certain characters turn to react, a circle appears under them, with a larger circle that slowly closes in on it, and it’s up to the player to time it right by pressing the corresponding button once the two overlap.
There are a couple of variations on this, such as having to hold the button down until a meter fills, or using the left stick to move a circle from one of your team members to another. Once you’ve demonstrated you’re able to do all of these things, the tutorial character says “And that’s it! You know everything you need to know!” And he isn’t kidding. Once you’ve learned these mechanics, they remain unchanged for the remainder of the game.
So, you battle with other amusingly themed teams on the dodgeball court (but not really), timing your button presses to closing circles of varying speeds, and the more successful you are, the more the match swings in your favour. This is indicated by both a swing meter at the top of the screen and the aforementioned Refri (who is great and deserves to be in a better game) pointing both his flags, and his gyrating crotch in either direction. The only way this gameplay is changed up slightly is through the use of power-ups.
If you manage to successfully land your button presses accurately enough, you can build up a combo and earn yourself some power-ups. All of these power-ups appear to only hinder the other team, rather than giving you any benefit, and since the single player portion of this game is played against the computer, it’s difficult to know if they’re actually being of any use of to you. When the computer uses these on the other hand, you can rest assured that you’re going to be very annoyed by these power-ups. They all have the effect of obfuscating the screen, making it more difficult to time your button presses. I can’t overstate how disappointed I was in this approach.
I’d have preferred it a given power-up gave you the ability to freestyle, or if one was used against you it’d be much more rewarding if they presented a difficulty for you to overcome such as speeding up the timing, or more difficult button combinations. As it is, the power-ups just do things like chucking a massive floating head in front of your characters that bounces around making it difficult to see what’s happening. Another places a donut under their feet, completely obscuring the ring and making it near impossible to time your presses correctly until it’s eaten.
Speaking of obfuscation, for as brilliant as the presentation is when you’re into the meat of the game, you’re not really going to be looking at it. A match in Super Dodgeball Beats consists of concentrating on the rings around your player’s feet, and matching up the timing. That’s it. There’s some pleasure to be found in getting in the zone and nailing your button presses, but when the game looks this nice, it really a shame that the gameplay is reduced entirely to staring at concentric circles. When you’re matched up against a rival team called the Power Dancers, and they have a ‘Power Rangers’ style look, you get two seconds or so to admire it, before it’s back to staring at closing blue circles and pressing buttons.
I haven’t even touched on the music, which you might think is notable, considering this is a rhythm game and you’d be right. It’s an important part of any game in this genre, and unfortunately the music Super Dodgeball Beats is completely forgettable. The beats are funky and arcadey and upbeat, but they don’t stand out at all beyond that. It seems each team has their own theme which is vaguely related to their aesthetic, but honestly I can’t remember a single one of them. For a rhythm game, this really is a pretty big failure.
I kept coming back to the game for it’s very nice presentation, but after a pretty short time I grew bored of it. There is a local multiplayer mode, but with the nature of how the matches play out across an entire song, with an indicator slowly moving from one team or the other, without any real way to turn the tide of battle beyond the other player messing up, I can’t really see how this game would have a lasting appeal with your friends on the couch.
While giving full credit to the artists on the game for doing a genuinely great job, I sadly cannot recommend Super Dodgeball Beats, unless you can pick it up for a very cheap price, or you’re a diehard rhythm game nut. The game still beats those PE lessons on rainy days, I’d rather go back to putting the concept of dodgeball into the repressed memories section of my brain.