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Shooting without killing: the cozy cult of Nerf Arena Blast


When I was a child, I wanted a toy gun. I can't remember why exactly. Probably simply because that's the kind of toy that many kids end up wanting, rather than anything nefarious. Regardless, my mum wouldn't allow it. It was glamorising a weapon after all. She felt the same about the Teenage Mutant Hero/Ninja Turtles, so the nearest I got to one of those was some beloved Turtles stationery. In hindsight, I guess I could have inflicted some nasty damage with a Leonardo-adorned pencil, but I resisted. Instead, one day, out of frustration, I made a gun out of Lego and, well, that's how I ended up being allowed to own toy guns until I grew out of them.

Given the effort involved in possessing the most violent of toys, you'd think once I was able to choose games to play, I'd pick the most excessively violent titles possible, wouldn't you? Instead, one of my favourite multiplayer shooters ended up being Nerf Arena Blast - a title that many parents would love to see a resurgence of, I promise. It offered all the thrills of extreme gaming violence with none of the gore or unpleasantry.

You see, Nerf Arena Blast was basically Unreal Tournament reskinned with Nerf guns and a suitably vibrant backdrop. A loose storyline had you pursuing the Nerf Champion of the World title by completing various maps and game types. It was an incredible amount of fun. Probably because it was so garish and ridiculous. One mode had you racing through coloured flags in order, trying to tag other players along the way by shooting them. Another, called BallBlast, was a scavenger hunt where you collected coloured balls and shot them at specific targets. There was a Deathmatch mode too, but that wasn't where things were exceptionally creative, although it was still gleefully violence-free.

As a child, Nerf guns were a tad prohibitively expensive so this was a fun way of enjoying them without having to spend much at all. But the standout element was the arenas themselves. They were designed like giant obstacle courses, with a theme for each of them.

You could find yourself running and jumping across trees, or tackling anti-gravity areas, all amongst chirpy indoor arenas. It's all far more lovely than a typical drab arena of death - kind of like a soft-play centre; colourful, childlike, and perfectly safe. Think Splatoon but not really, and you're sort of there. You could achieve some incredible jumps, making this a game about agility as well as shooting prowess. There was no realism to be seen here, which is precisely what made Nerf Arena Blast so lovely.

At some later point, I found myself with the option to delve into Unreal Tournament and, sure, that's a traditional classic. I get it. But it's the memories of Nerf Arena Blast that make me genuinely smile. It turns out you don't have to kill in a game to enjoy a shooter after all.

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