With the 2007 NFL season lumbering into action last week Microsoft clearly saw the potential for some post-game impulse purchases on the ol' Live Arcade, as pumped-up frat boys staggered back to the dorm for some celebratory videogames and "brewskis". Hence, presumably, the arrival of this mostly forgotten American Football arcade game, which swaps steroid enhanced beefcakes for battling robots and the traditional pigskin for a bomb. Dude! It's, like, totally extreme!
(Punches the air while whooping and hollering)
(Shotguns six-pack of Miller Lite)
Ooh. That's better. Sorry.
Originally punted into arcades back in '88 by Atari, beneath the quaintly futuristic title Cyberball is actually a fairly decent - though inevitably basic - gridiron game. You have a seven-strong team of robot linebackers, quarterbacks and receivers. There are over 100 different plays to call, covering breakout runs for the endzone, passing tactics, safety defence and others. As you'd expect, you call the play (depending on whether you're playing defence or offence) and then the robots grind into action.
As they follow the paths set out in your play, you make the pass and control shifts to the receiving robot as you steam up the field. Here's the catch: the bomb-ball gets hotter with each play, and must be reset by crossing the fifty yard line. Should the ball go critical, it'll explode at the next tackle - destroying the robot carrying it. Robots can also take damage from the general rough and tumble of the game, so repairs can be made at half time, or you can simply replace knackered players with upgraded models after the match.
At the most basic level of choosing plays and dashing for a touchdown, Cyberball has aged reasonably well. There's lots of variety, and this Live Arcade version includes features from the Tournament edition as well - such as the Game Breakers challenges and other game modes. All of them involve the exact same gameplay, of course, but for a two decade old arcade game it's fairly well stocked with stuff to try.
What it's not is balanced. To start with, play can be a teethgrinding frustration as you acclimatise yourself to the rudimentary AI. There's not a whole lot of subtlety in the design, so expecting your initial robots to do much in the way of effective blocking or tackling is a lost cause. Accurate passing is also something of a chore so you just have to bludgeon your way to victory, learning the plays as you go. Once you've worked out the most common plays, however, the game flips and becomes far too easy.
The CPU simply follows set patterns for each play, always passing in the same place, so practice means that you'll be able to see where the ball is going before your opponent even throws it, and interceptions become pointlessly simple to predict and win. Meanwhile, the game contains no explanations for those unfamiliar with American Football, so casual players will be put off by the typically dense tactical guff, while fans of American Football will soon be bored by the simplistic scope of the thing. Neither side really benefits.
The robotic façade doesn't add much to the proceedings and, while the exploding ball adds a curious twist, even that element feels fairly perfunctory. When you think of robots playing a lethal game of American Football you picture insane carnage, but Cyberball deviates so little from the original game that you half suspect Atari had a normal football game, and added the robots at the last minute to make it more marketable to the wide-eyed 80s youth. Swap explosions for injuries and the game remains unchanged.
Most galling of all, the game features a bafflingly restricted multiplayer mode. The original cabinet boasted two monitors and four joysticks, so you could have two players against two. This version retains the two-player co-op mode, which makes passing easier, but offers absolutely no way of playing against a human opponent, either locally or online. Given that the limitations of the CPU player are what ultimately sink the game's long-term challenge, it's an incomprehensible omission.
American Football fans looking for a cheap retro fix will probably squeeze 400 points worth of fun out of Cyberball before déjà vu sets in, but the absence of any real multiplayer challenge means any amusement comes with a built-in expiry date, one that arrives sooner than you'd like. It's no Speedball, that's for sure.