Not all games fit the industry standard price tag for new releases, and Pseudo Interactive's Cel Damage was one of them. It was a very basic game in which prototypical cartoon characters raced around in over-the-top driving machines, battering one another one with spring-loaded boxing gloves, ice blasters, giant mallets and other ACME-inspired creations strewn around various wacky locations. It was noteworthy because of its masterful cel-shading - which remains as close to the heart of the average cartoon as anything before or since - and because it fell so hard on its face that most people flatly ignored it. Critics and punters.
However at the time we thought it had some merit. OK you wouldn't spend Ł40 on it, we reasoned, but it could outshine the contents of the average bargain bin with no trouble at all. And somebody clearly listened, because here we are a year later with Cel Damage Overdrive, the PS2 version, which costs just Ł9.99 from publishing upstart Play It, a budget game specialist with the spirit of Firebird and Mastertronic.
What's up, doc?
Cel-shading has come along way since the days of Jet Set Radio, and now that Miyamoto's tackled it with the fabulous Zelda series, Cel Damage looks a little bit shabby, with none of the depth and liveliness of its contemporaries. But it scores points because it looks a lot more like an actual cartoon than anything else - even the adventures of Nintendo's green, Master Sword-wielding fairy-boy. Each character and their respective homage to Wacky Races is bouncy, beautifully inked and subtly animated, from the little fellow/lass/demon in the driving seat to the flags waving around in the back, and as they get smacked around they gradually disintegrate until finally they shatter in a black-edged ball of thick grey smoke. Or fall off a cliff, in that distinctive where-did-the-ground-go-whoosh style.
The levels meanwhile are mostly static, unadventurous affairs, which you can belt around in no time at all. Each has a couple of comedy traps, of the swinging log, trapdoor-bridge or magnet-plus-car-crusher variety, and these are triggered by smacking into nearby targets, and can be pretty entertaining if your enemy is racing away at breakneck speed and you're in a position to smack the target. They look good too, and everything is black-edged, even the crest of a hill or bridge, right up until the last possible moment. It's a cartoon and no mistake.
But the mainstay of the game is the various power-ups dotted around, which respawn a few seconds after they're nabbed. Whether it's a massive axe, mini-gun or box of mines (toon-inspired black holes through which everyone tumbles to oblivion), these bolt onto the front or rear bumpers and can be deployed using the X button. And if you manage to smack an opponent with one, that's just what you earn: smacks! The main game mode - Smack Attack - has you trying to run up a total of hundreds of smacks (300 is the default), and you earn more for multi-hit combination shots (a lot easier with the boxing gloves, mini-gun, etc) and precision weapons (axes, mallets) than you do for aimless catch-alls like the tazer gun thing.
The other game modes are Flag Rally (a sort of CTF game where multiple flags are wandering around the arena - yes - and the player has to collect them and deposit them in a yellow circle to score points) and Gate Relay (checkpoint racing), and these share their 12 arenas (three each for Wild West, Transylvanian, Jungle and Space themes) with Smack Attack.
However what stopped us getting too excited about Cel Damage last year was its apparent inability to be more than a slapstick deathmatch. Smacking your opponents around isn't as satisfying as it should be, because of a mixture of weak sound effects and indistinct damage animation, and it strikes us that the developer missed an opportunity to have emphatic split-in-two meat cleaver incidents and other such cartoon gimmicks. Given the manual's insistence that toons never die and always come back for more, it seems a bit odd that the only real barometer for damage is a counter in the top left of the screen.
Likewise, it seems odd, that despite massive death-dealing contraptions and plenty of destructible scenery, the closest thing to a level comes to producing a secret grotto of tactical wealth is a couple of easily reached mortar-toting islands and glaringly obvious caves. And unless you're playing against three other players in split-screen, you'll find yourself doggedly pursued by the AI wherever you go anyway. There's very little strategy beyond whomping and kapowing them with various implements.
Confusing though the level design and general arrangement seems to be though, nothing is as frustrating as the combination of all-too-basic controls, unwieldy "comic" physics and an unhelpful camera. Instead of a targeting system or even a rear-view mirror, we get a very basic third person chase-cam which refuses to do anything but face forward - and let us assure you that 90 per cent of the attacks which damage you will come from out of sight. Some sort of handle on this was definitely needed.
The controls and handling for their part don't help either - you can accelerate (R2), brake (L2), fire (X), turbo boost (square) and so on, which is all well and good, but the cars handle like they would in a cartoon, moving fast and feeling very, very loose. In fact, you almost feel disconnected from the on-screen action, which is as off-putting as the invariable smack-them-first mechanic, which even dominates the Flag Rally and Gate Relay races. In fact, if you don't turn off power-ups entirely then the latter is almost unplayable, because any attempt to take the lead prior to the finishing line is largely futile.
All in all it's a bit of a shame, because there are some lovely touches at work in Cel Damage Overdrive of which not enough is made. The funny, almost South Park-esque parody of an opening movie, the beautiful cartoon visuals and the wacky personas (wonderfully realised right down to the obvious but genuinely amusing voiceovers) just don't get the game they deserve. In the end it's too fast, it's too simple (with misplaced attempts at depth like the 'trick' system of basic mid-air flips) and it's too gawd-darned repetitive.
But then again it is only ten pounds, and some parts of it are more entertaining than whole other games which cost forty. The rocket boosters which allow you to fly and dogfight are genius, and squashing your mate with a massive black 7000-ton-weight is one of 'those' moments.
So would we spend Ł9.99 on this? In all probability yes, but only if it had to be a PS2 game that week, because the ranks of quality PC titles going for even half that swell to totally obscure Cel Damage Overdrive from view [and the amount of good deals on PS2 games for that matter – Ed]. It makes a good substitute for that one-pint-too-many and subsequent kebab and fills the same slot in the evening without too much trouble, but it probably isn't the best thing to spend that last tenner of the night on. However frivolously. And you're hardly going to rush it home from the shops and tremble in sheer ecstasy at any other time of day. Thank goodness gaming boutiques close with the rest of them at 6pm, eh?