Game 32: Bal Cube (Metro, 1996)

Playing rules: Difficulty: Factory Default.
1st: 185,750 - Mark Spaeth - 2002
...that's it!

Well, that’s a surprise and no mistake. Looking at the next game on the list I was thinking: “Game I’ve never heard of? 1996? MAME isn’t going to be able to play that properly – Just enough time for a bollock related joke before skipping on past”.

Hang on though – not only does it work just fine, but it looks pretty interesting to boot. Who knew? So, right, strap yourself in, we’re going for it. Get ready to Bal Cube it up.

As a change from the norm, let’s start with a short “questions and answers” session.

What on earth does “Bal Cube” mean? Well, young traveller, I don’t have an answer for you. It was only released in Japan and I’ve already passed on the ball jokes, so I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all.

Very mature of you. Ok then, can you at least tell us what sort of game it is? That’s rather a demanding way of asking the question isn’t it? You’re not the boss of me. Ahem. Well, Its quite easy to explain. Imagine a game like Arkanoid, but instead of controlling the bat you control the ball. Only the ball isn’t a ball, it’s a block. Only it isn’t really a block, it’s more of a cube. (Tell you what, that could be what the name Bal Cube means. They clearly started writing the name, like you would etch a name on a trophy, and then, three letters in they realise they’ve buggered it up. “It’s not a ball stupid, it’s a cube. Shit. Ok. Abort that word, delete it. You can’t delete it? fuck it, move on and just add the word Cube. Nobody will notice. To be honest by our ‘crazy Japanese’ standards this is a pretty accurate name all things considered. Job done.”) Now further imagine this game with elements of an upside-down Puzzle Bobble, sort of a bit like Tetris and with visuals looking like those dodgy porn Qix knock off arcades they used to have in shady pool clubs (and Quasar in Hull back in 1995 if I remember correctly. I know! fascinating isn’t it? Bet you’re glad I’m back.) You got that game visualised in your head? Yeah, it’s just like that. Exactly like that in fact.

Not with me? Don’t blame you to be honest what with the standard of imagination these days (another Call of Duty? Why the hell not!). Ok, let’s take it one step at a time.

Have you ever played Breakout or Arkanoid and thought – “You know what, I’d love to play a game like this, but instead of controlling the bat thing down there, I want to *be* the ball (live the dream) – control that little bugger directly somehow”? No. Of course you haven’t. Ridiculous idea. Ok. What if that ball was a CUBE? huh? What then?! I know – we all want to see that game right? Whole different ball cube game that.

Well, you’re in luck – that’s what Bal Cube is. At least I think that’s what it is – I played it half a dozen times before I had the remotest idea what was going on if I’m honest, but I think I’ve cracked it.

See, in answering a dream that nobody had, you’re asking for problems. If you let the player control the ball/cube/whatever, then what do you do with the bat? Who controls that little guy, a guy so accustomed to being the saviour that being abandoned so blatantly might just be the end of him? Futhermore; what will become of Pong-Bat Town? Assuming the bat is left to its own devices, what does it do? It’s never had to move for itself before, that’s the stupid balls job, bouncing about on its angular journey of nonsense.

..and then it all becomes clear. Typically the ball has always showed Mr Bat where it should be, why should that change now that the ball is the one being cruelly manipulated? It shouldn’t change anything and it doesn’t. You can almost hear the bat scream “I’m looking out for you buddy!” as it follows the ball’s every horizontal move like a well drilled team of firemen moving the stretched blanket below a baby falling from a tree.

This all makes complete sense. Good job everyone. Right, go on – start the game. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. <greensleeves>

That was quick. Yeah. I know. Where’s the fucking bat, right? There isn’t one that’s where. What on earth is that all about? Where the bat should be, you have a bunch of triangular blocks that create a wall between you and off-screen death. (*What* is actually beyond the edge of the screen in these games? A void? Lashing flames of doom? Maybe it isn’t death at all, just a really boring waiting room with only one magazine between everyone and that’s a beaten up copy of Heat magazine from 2002 with the crossword filled in with nothing but the words “Peter Andre” – not very different from death then to be fair.) I’ve seen this sort of thing before in other Breakout style games – protection power-ups that essentially means that you have a bloody great wall down there. This will be a walk in the park – who needs a stupid bat? Bring it on!

Even when you notice that the triangular block disappears once you hit it, you are soon soothed back into confidence as you notice that only one of the blocks is gone at one time. You hit one, it goes away. You hit another and the original one comes back and now this one goes away. Nice and simple and ultimately means there is only ever a single block missing from this wall o’ protection.

Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a piece of piss?

Even when you start playing it feels way too easy. So if it’s so easy, why do you inexplicably keep on finding the only poxy hole and die. Over and OVER again. You scream at yourself to simply move somewhere else, just go *OVER THERE* for fucksake, and for a short while it works. That is until you concentrate somewhere else on the screen and before you know it, boom, really-weird-and-out-of-place man screaming sound effect and that’s you dead. It makes absolutely no sense.

But does it? hmmm *rubs chin*. Ok, here comes the science bit, concentrate.


(Man, I feel old even remotely remembering that advert, let alone remembering it accurately enough to search for and find in seconds)

So yeah, my theory. We’ve all played breakout games right? Course we have. What about Pong style games? You know it. What’s interesting about these games is that keeping a consistent angle or line is often a valuable thing to do, vital even. While it is useful to deviate for attacking purposes, keeping control of the ball tends to involve keeping a consistent and steady angle going, like treading water (just without any treading and on land/sky/whatever. Actually, has there ever been an underwater Breakout/Pong clone? Who cares? as you were.) This is even more prevalent when you are in danger or are struggling generally – your natural instinct is to regain control and that means a nice consistent angle and line. Cor, isn’t science boring. It feels like I have typed out the same sentence over and over (I have? oh.)

To summarise, for those that barely made it past Jennifer Aniston, let alone read that last bit – all these years we have been taught that keeping control of the ball is important and when the chips are down and your natural instincts kick in, you tend to revert to keeping the same line as you did before. Which of course in this game means you die. Over and over again.

You see. Piece of piss, this ain’t. One minute you are happily bouncing a slow cube between each new “wave” of blocks, internally applauding yourself for keeping the bounces away from the tiny death hole (If that isn’t also the name of a midget porn film then I’m kicking off), the next the game is throwing angled blocks that send you off on the wonk (technical term) and speeding up really rather unfairly. Which for those that were paying attention, extra speed + unreliable bounce = panic setting in = natural instincts = dead.

The scoring doesn’t make much sense either. There *seems* to be some sort of bonus going on, but it isn’t immediately clear what it is.

Hang on! What were we thinking? We’ve broken the inaugural rule of “who wants to be an arcade champion”! (no, not the “don’t write any bloody updates you lazy get”, the other one). We haven’t watched the attract screen! That will surely answer all our questions and give us some handy tips.

Now, remember, this game didn’t get a release outside of Japan – so when you’re thrown a title screen that looks a bit like Amsterdam it throws you a bit. Just like the complete cube overkill that follows before you finally get to see some of the game. Hmmm..no explanations, just a single player game and then a two player split screen that looks very similar. Not much use. AH! What’s this, a demonstration, now we’re talking. Ah yeah, Japanese, that’s right. As some of you may remember from one of my older posts when this were all fields, I have been tentatively learning Japanese, but this is beyond me and will be for pretty much everyone reading this (hello mum!). It does seem to be laboriously explaining things though – it takes about 12 separate boxes of text to explain that the cube bounces a bit and then throws some blocks in and explains that the cube bounces a bit again. Not much use then, although it hints at bonuses coming from hitting the same colour in a row maybe? Sounds feasible to be fair. Ah, also you can die from letting a block reach the bottom of the screen, just like upside-down Tetris. Makes sense.

So, overall, not much use then. Straight into the game!

Easy…….easy!……..hey this is quite fun…..whoops, straight in the hole (steady) – and again. How hard can it be to avoid the SINGLE hole for goodness sake. Oh, quite hard. Game over.

16,990

Rubbish.

It is weird though. You really expect it to feel like Breakout or somesuch, but it doesn’t. It feels more like playing “keepy up” with a football, only with a ball you are able to steer in the air. It takes a lot of getting used to that’s for sure. There are powerups too, very similar to a game like Arkanoid and just like Arkanoid, they float down the screen for you to collect. problem is, this game is Arkanoid UPSIDE-DOWN, so that means the powerups are going the wrong way in relation to the thing you are controlling. It makes the whole thing much harder than it should be and more than a little annoying. Not to mention they make very little sense even if you do manage to collect one. “Change” for example makes your ball a tiny bit smaller, which in the big scheme of things makes no difference to the game whatsoever. What’s the point?

Anyway, the key is to keep reminding yourself to steer away from the single hole. Almost every single bounce you need to mentally tell yourself to deviate. It works to an extent as my next score was much better.

41,380

Straight in for another go and I notice that quite early on they also change the size of some of the triangle platforms at the bottom, with the edge ones now twice as wide. I’ve not really paid it much attention, but of course that makes it a lot harder, as the saviour blocks are now fewer and the space they leave are now larger. Sneaky bastards!

Still, the technique still works –  46,350

Now I’m getting cocky and remember the bonus for grouping colours and boy does it effect the score! Even makes it feel a bit “puzzley” which can only be a good thing – 106,010

That’s not bad at all. It’s not a million miles from the record either (which usually means the record is shit, but hey!) Overall, I reckon it’s a pretty fun game. Ok, it may look like garish 90’s shit, have music to match and generally make you feel like a thumbless wonder, but for a quick challenging blast you could do a lot worse.

Also, the name almost has the word ball in it, as in cock and balls. Can’t buy that sort of class.

 

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