Review by Wyrdwad

"A reasonably fun children's platformer with a disturbingly wonderful soundtrack."

SmartBall is... not exactly well-known. Or popular. Or deserving of either notoriety or popularity. It broke no new ground. It flew no flags of change. It didn't defy much of anything. But even if it wasn't great, it certainly wasn't bad either. And if you're a fan of Mario-esque platformers, on any level, this game definitely deserves a look.

SmartBall is the story of Prince Jerry. He was transformed into a blob that looks startlingly like your average Dragon Warrior slime, and must take a rather long and complicated route through the whole friggin' world (and the moon, for some reason) in order to reach the evil wizard's castle and defeat him, thus breaking the curse and becoming human again. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. If you've ever played any video game before, in your entire life, this game should pose no real challenge for you whatsoever. I rented it from BlockBuster long ago, and beat it 6 hours after renting it -- and that's including a rather lengthy lunch break while the game was on pause.

But even though it was easy, and even though I beat it, I still enjoyed it immensely. It was old-school platformer fun, down to the last drop, with absolutely no frustration whatsoever. I actually liked it so much that I went out and bought it the next day so I could replay it at my leisure. The easy gameplay and fun levels made it the perfect choice for killing time whenever I got really bored, and I ended up playing it through a half-dozen times over the next few years, and playing the first few levels of it several dozen more (usually while waiting for a phone call or an arriving friend). You wouldn't think it would have that much replay value, but it's fun, like a Mario game is fun. It's mindless, mind-numbing, unreasonably entertaining fun.

You're probably wondering, though, WHAT, exactly, was so fun. It's a very reasonable thing to be wondering, considering that I haven't really described the game AT ALL just yet. Basically, you have the same sort of goal that Mario spearheaded: get to the end of the level. I don't remember if there's a time limit or not, but if there is, it's such a high number that you never ever have to worry about it. But yeah... getting to the end of the level involves getting past baddies and various impasses. The baddies can be taken out by stretching your body upward or ''ducking'' -- or, rather, squeezing yourself downward. Because you're a slime, when you ''duck'', you become longer and thinner, and are perhaps sharper as well (a la women in the world of Edwin A. Abbott's ''Flatland''), and when you stretch your body upward, it has a similar effect. Any enemy that comes into contact with you in this state is destroyed.

Jerry gets some other interesting moves in addition to his stretching, such as the ability to stick to and move around on walls and ceilings, not to mention sliding through pipes (somewhat reminiscent of the NES version of Strider). These abilities are often vital to your survival, and in many cases can also be used to find hidden bonus rooms (of which there are many, as with any good platformer).

There are also various flowers growing everywhere, and if you stand on top of them, they bloom (apparently, you're not just a slime, but a pollen-bearing slime!). These flowers bear any of the following: red rubber balls (''BALL''), iron balls (''IRON''), seeds (''SEED''), or extra lives (''1-UP''). You can tell by sight what they are, but you also see one of the preceding 4-letter words pop up on the screen whenever you pick one up. Hey, it's meant for kids, OK?

But anyway, excluding 1-ups, these items are apparently eaten, and are stored, visibly, INSIDE your body (which, by the way, I think is a really clever way of showing what item you're carrying!). Items can be tossed (or planted, in the case of seeds) with the R button. Regular balls fly out in an arc, and burst on impact, though you CAN catch them before that happens. Iron balls never burst, and thus become the game's only reusable weapons, though they slow you to a crawl, impede your jumping, and prevent you from latching on to things effectively. Seeds, when planted, sprout into beanstalks, sometimes helping you reach areas that were otherwise inaccessible (i.e. if the walls were spiky and thus unscalable, or if a floating platform is just out of reach).

Though SmartBall is easy, and won't take you very long to beat, that doesn't mean it skimps out on levels. For a platformer, it's at least average length, and the sheer number of hidden rooms and such means you probably won't find everything your first time through (but likely will your second time). The levels also present reasonably interesting puzzles which, though not very difficult to solve, will at least stump you for a split second or two, and do a nice job of keeping the game interesting. And the levels certainly offer a wide variety of (admittedly stereotypical but definitely varied) settings, each of which has a different look and feel to it, as well as a new set of puzzles and ''challenges'' to overcome. Some of the game's settings include plains, mountains, deserts, sewers, icy plateaus, underwater caverns, the evil wizard's castle, and, most inexplicably of all, the moon (though you do witness Jerry blasting off in a rocket prior to that level, so at least it's consistent!).

And no review of SmartBall would be complete without mentioning its insane cast of enemies, who are sometimes so bizarre that they alone make the game worth playing. The enemies are actually very well-detailed and generally rather big and cartoony. Of particular note is the ice world, which is home to giant dancing naked babies that wave torches at you, as well as a big stick-figure guy who looks like Mr. Zip and runs face-first into a wall. But man, those naked babies... they'll always haunt my nightmares, and quite possibly yours as well.

In general, though, SmartBall's graphics are little more than passable. Everything is beautifully colored, however, which greatly masks the fact that nothing is particularly detailed. Lava, for example, is little more than a rapidly palette-swapped red brick (think the Windows startup screen, only red instead of blue). The graphics are particularly bad on the moon, which seems to exist solely as an excuse to use mode 7 rotation (though it has that cool lonely music, which makes it all worthwhile!).

And speaking of the music, part of the reason I like SmartBall so much is because it has an unusually fantastic soundtrack for such a haphazard platformer. Every song in the game is an absolute gem, from the extremely happy main theme to the Arabesque desert theme to the snowy-sounding ragtime piano ice theme to the lonely music of the moon. Of particular note is the underwater music, which is probably my favorite underwater music in video game history (next to Super Metroid's Maridia theme, anyway). Some of these songs sound like they would even fit in with a top-notch RPG soundtrack! Don't believe me? Go to Zophar's Domain and download the SPC. Hear for yourself! I can't explain why a game like this would have such a wonderful soundtrack, but it does, and I can only wonder what happened to its composer, and why he/she isn't more well-known in the video game music industry.

So the verdict here is this: SmartBall is certainly not a perfect game. But the fact of the matter is, though there are many things it doesn't quite do perfectly, it doesn't actually do anything WRONG either. If you like Mario-style platformers, SmartBall is actually a really well-made game -- and if you have kids, it's a lot easier than any of the Mario games too, and might be a worthwhile game to get them started with.

SmartBall isn't something I'd go out of my way to track down... but if you do find it, pick it up. Chances are, it won't have a very high pricetag, and it'll be worth whatever they're asking for it. You really can't go wrong with a game like this. Just don't be expecting a masterpiece, and you won't be disappointed.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/27/02, Updated 09/03/02

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