As the history goes, Tennis for Two (1958) was the first sports videogame. Displayed on an oscilloscope, the game had each player take hold of a controller that featured a single knob matched with a single button. The screen displayed tennis from the side view: the net was a squat vertical line in the middle. The knob controlled ball angle; the button controlled the hit. It was a sort of proto-Pong (1972), 24 years before the cultural cornerstone did away with the excess of the hit button. Pong was just a player, a knob, and the digital ping-pong paddle they moved up and down to hit a ball across the screen, back and forth, back, and forth, punctuated only by the gentle ping of a connection or the startling, instant reset of a gained point.
Decades later, Videoball (2016) is here with the colorful palettes you might expect from a game designed with an eye towards minimalism. Sweeping blocks of smooth monochromatic colors and clear geometric shapes smear across the screen. Each player shoots clean-cut triangles of varying sizes at smooth round balls, attempting to goad the floating orbs into the opponent’s goal. To defend, you might try and disrupt your opponent with triangles of your own, deftly swatting back an oncoming ball or even shooting your opponent directly to stun them. Or, you might make a massive square appear on your side of the court, to act as an obstacle to the ball’s direct path.
Or, you might say, “Shit. This sounds complicated.”
To be honest, it is—and at first, the connection between it and ancestors such as Tennis for Two or Pong might be tenuous at best. But for all of Videoball’s playing-field nuance, it’s all reduced to a single button, paired not with a knob, but an analog stick. Move your player up and down, back and forth, and tap, or hold, or hold even longer the lone button. The action is plentiful, but the controls are few.
The action is plentiful, but the controls are few.
The past five years have seen a sort of renaissance of such a game—that is, the minimalist, control-light game that’s tempting to break out at parties because a reduced controller is just as easy to explain as it is to use. 2013 was a boon for the fighting game alone: several games, such as Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg made the most out of their action with stripped down controls and one-hit kills. More importantly, there was Divekick (2013). Published by the same company as Videoball, Divekick did away with the complicated combos, actions, and movements of traditional fighting games in favor of something that felt like (and was intended) as parody. Here, two buttons were all that you needed: dive and kick. The former performs a vertical hop, while the latter sends your character foot-first towards your opponent.
Both Nidhogg and Divekick saw brief exposure at the EVO fighting game tournament, and for good reason: their immediate appeal is obvious, with short, quick rounds punctuated by flurries of action that are incredibly easy to revel in, even for the casual observer. Unlike a game of, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (2011), these games require no strict, archaic knowledge to perform well, and as such, they require nothing special to make a player feel awesome. These are the games in which a single button press can win the round, or lose it. You don’t need an intricate sequence of commands to write triumphant legends; they come pre-packaged, accessible for anybody willing to give it a shot.
Even so, for an event like EVO, these games simply don’t hold the staying power necessary to find a recurring audience. Even more traditional fighters have a hard time gathering mainstage interest at an event like EVO. Divekick, I fear, was a bit too reductive a rendition of the very genre it attempted to enter. It subtracts from a traditional fighting game, boils the essence down and reduces it into something minimal in the same way Tennis for Two reduced tennis. Why watch a simmered-down version of something that’s attempting to compete with the full-featured, more intricate rendition? More importantly, why play it? On both sides of the screen, Divekick was a fighting game with its soul laid bare—only to find that it sorely needed a built-in skeletal structure to support it against so many heartier competitors.
Videoball attempts to sidestep this issue with the way it presents itself: as a “sport.” The game’s press materials are quick to fall back on real world comparisons to explain the frantic action: they cite the depths of soccer, basketball, football, the pre-eminently watchable games of our common consciousness. And in a world where EVO 2016 was just broadcast on ESPN, why not? The line that distinguishes videogame and game is quickly disappearing with each passing moment, and while it’d be easy to think that the Video in Videoball was a reference to the fact that it’s a videogame, I think it’s probably just a nod to the fact that you still have to play it on a screen.
What if we didn’t settle for simplicity of play?
While Tennis for Two was a simulacrum of a real-world sport, we’re getting the point in our medium where videogames are continually redefining what a sport—E- or otherwise—can be. It’s easy to think of the relative minimalism of Videoball as a stripping down of games before it: a reduction of your Maddens, your Fifas, or even your Rocket Leagues (2015). Instead, I think it’s a moment of reflection against the videogame’s modern excess: what happens if we get rid of some of these buttons and re-use those original methods of play and apply it to today’s technology? What if we didn’t settle for simplicity of play?
The answer, as it turns out, is something like Videoball: a game that sneaks in on a platform of minimalism built out to reveal maximum potential for the players involved. Videoball isn’t a look backwards (unless you’re a diehard fan of Milton-Bradley’s Crossfire (1971)) to ancient controls and concepts as it is a new form of competition: ready for quick and easy consumption, not just for player, but for the spectator too.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Lindgren / @Vexanie