Last time out I wrote about Gladiator, and I mentioned that the name didn't seem very appropriate. Well, that's not true of today's game: in Japan it's called Gun Ball, and it's all about guns and steel balls. That makes it sound like a Duke Nukem spin-off, but it isn't. It's a combination of - get this - Smash TV, Mercs and pinball. It was renamed Nitro Ball for overseas release and that's the version I'll be playing, so here it is: Data East's 1992 melange-em-up Nitro Ball!
Okay, so the title screen's about as interesting as a sightseeing trip to Coventry but it gets better, I promise. Let's have the intro bring us up to speed, shall we?
Well, that's everything explained nice and succinctly. Pinball worlds, blast things, avoid the goons. No, ignore that last part. Don't avoid the goons, you might hurt their feeling. Shoot them instead and feast on the warm spray of points that gushes from their shattered bodies. Because Nitro Ball is at least thirty percent pinball, one of your main aims is to rack up the biggest points total you can and that's not going to happen if you ignore the enemies.
Here are some of the fabulous prizes you can win in Nitro Ball, with everything from sports cars to one of the gold coins from Scrooge McDuck's money vault. That must be one hell of a car if it's worth the same as an ocean liner. Maybe it's the actual car from OutRun.
Also of note is the "H" item, which apparently activates hudging. I have no idea whether or not I want to get hudged. It sounds like if someone who harboured a slight resentment towards you went for a playful nudge and accidentally hurt you.
As I'm playing alone I'll be controlling Gary, an ex-Navy sregeant. Hey, dyslexia is not a bar to joining the armed forces. Gary is confidently strapping on his armour, blissfully unaware that this game features one-hit kills and he might as well have wrapped himself in tissue paper like a last-minute Halloween mummy.
If I had friends, I might have been able to see Harry in action. Gary and Harry, brothers in arms. Harry is an ex-police officer, fired for using a ridiculous gun that looks like an uzi with a Super Soaker barrel instead of his standard-issue sidearm.
The game begins with the host appearing on a holographic screen and announcing that the first stage will be Strange Football Field. He is not kidding.
Once the gameplay starts, the comparisons to Capcom's Mercs become almost unavoidable, with a very similar style of run-n-gun action where the combat takes place on a long vertical screen and you can only fire in the direction you're facing. No twin-stick controls here, sadly, but it doesn't hamper the gameplay any. Gary moves at a fair old clip, and the controls are precise and reliable, although it did take me a while to compensate for the starting weapon's projectiles not travelling all the way across the screen. Just lift your gun up a little, Gary! What's the matter, is it too heavy for you? Aww, diddums - but you'd better figure something out quickly, otherwise a gun turret shaped like an American football is going to perforate you. Strange football field, indeed. If the NFL are really looking to promote gridiron in other countries, I think adding pigskin-covered machine gun nests to the Superbowl should do it.
Yeah, something like that, that'll get the Europeans right into American football.
The other game that Nitro Ball draws influence from - to an almost lawsuit worthy-degree - is Smash TV, although aside from them both being top-down arena-style shooters the connections are more obvious in the setting. Both games are framed as a deadly futuristic game show, both games have blonde announcers in a sparkly jacket, both games have voiced sound clips shouting "Bingo!" and "Good luck!" and both games see you collecting consumer goods for points and have a post-stage screen where your points are totted up. The biggest difference is that the protagonist of Smash TV has realised the futility of their existence and doesn't bother wearing chest armour. However, don't misunderstand me: I'm not complaining about the setting being pilfered, because Smash TV is great and, ah ha, I love it. It must be disappointing for the games developers and sci-fi writers of the past who thought the game shows of the future were going to be hyper-violent deathmatches when what we actually got was Total Wipeout. Maybe one day we'll get a version of Pointless where Richard Osman drops his usual comedy patter and coldly executes the losing contestants with a single gunshot to the back of the head, but until then I'll have to stick with watching The Running Man over and over again. This is not a problem for me.
Then a cheeky chicken appeared and started throwing the contents of a sultan's spare room at me. Can I quit now? I've just picked up ten Rolexes and I'm not a greedy man. I'd like to cash out my winnings. No? Oh, okay then. Thank you anyway, chicken mascot. I'm grateful for your generosity, although it was slightly soured moments later when you turned around and started waving your arse at me.
The third and final pillar that Nitro Ball proudly stands upon is pinball. Yes, regular, mechanical pinball, transposed to the shooter genre. The pinball theme is evident in several ways, the most obvious being the focus on racking up a high score and the preponderance of pinball table parts in the levels. Each stage is packed with buffers, bumpers, rails and holes, just as you'd find on a pinball machine. These can almost all be shot and destroyed for points, but even better than that is using the enemies to score points. Regular grunts fall over and roll around when shot, and you can shoot them into the buffers or down holes for big bonuses and extra items, so as well as the usual "shoot everything and don't get shot" mechanics of the genre Nitro Ball has an extra layer of trying to score points by shepherding goons into the right position and then knocking them into the table elements with precise shooting. It's a combination that works fantastically well, especially in the earlier, easier stages when you've got more time and space to plan your moves.
Just in case that wasn't enough pinball for you, you can also collect a power-up that turns you into a pinball. It's not very subtle. It does make you invincible, though, so you switch from fighting enemies to fighting the ball's slightly weird, momentum-influenced controls. It's pretty good fun.
Eventually I made it to the first boss, and he's not as football-themed as I thought he was going to be. He looks more like Jason Voorhees gave up slaughtering teens and became a baseball catcher, and also his head shrank to a ridiculously tiny proportion of his body mass. This is not a problem unique to this boss, as we'll see later.
He's fairly standard as first bosses go, being mostly content to stand at the top of the screen and fire at you, either using three-way spread shots or a solid laser beam. All very predictable, and you can even hit the TOUCH DOWN panels to get yourself a special weapon. Here's I'm using the Ring Laser, which launches a spray of blue discs roughly in front of you, and very handy it is too. You can also find a missile launcher - although "rocket hose" might be a better name for it, given it's firing rate - a flamethrower that passes through enemies, and the Rail Blaster, which isn't an edgy reboot of Thomas the Tank Engine but a gun that fires a thick, chunky wedge of pure death and is easily the best of the weapons. True to Nitro Ball's refusal to countenance anything approaching subtlety, the weapons are described in the intro as weak, medium, strong!, very strong!! and incredibly strong!!!
You also have a limited use "Z Weapon" that makes you pirouette while Christmas baubles fly out of your body. The Z Weapon's description is simply "!!!!" so it's either the most powerful attack in the game or it feels like stubbing your toe on the corner of a marble fireplace.
The boss goes down, Gary moves on to the post-stage round-up and you're treated to a nice comic-book style illustration of said boss. I take back what I said earlier about the boss looking like Jason, it actually looks like the Michelin Man, risen from his dank and rubbery tomb to slay all those who would buy other, inferior brands of tyres.
Stage two is the Combat Field, a theme that is a little disappointing in it's plainness after the last one. It's not even a Strange Combat field. It also has the effect of making the game look more like Mercs than ever...
...although the whole "become a living pinball" thing definitely reduces any sense of over-familiarity. Those poor fools manning the turrets are going to wish they had a supple wrist soon, very soon, just as soon as I wrestle the pinball in right direction.
Halfway through each stage there's a short challenge area, usually in the "destroy x enemies / objects in y seconds" mould. In this case, it's a race to blow up ten tanks. The tanks helpfully have "TANK" painted on the side, just in case you mistook them for a small jar of pickled eggs or something. I'm trying out a tactic where I crawl towards the tank on my belly so I can shoot it from close range, and I definitely didn't die because I momentarily forgot that tanks have big guns.
The boss is a gun so big that it takes two tanks to carry it. The smaller tanks also have three guns each, and if guns were living, sentient creatures with feelings then I'd imagine these smaller guns would be feeling pretty goddamn inadequate right about now. Thankfully, gun's aren't alive. It would be horrendous if they were, brought to life only to be told that their sole purpose is to kill unless they're extremely lucky and they're one of the chosen few that get to start races.
So, how big is the tank's big gun?
Very big. Foolishly big. So big that the logistics of manufacturing and delivering these shells would cripple a nation's economy, yet slow enough that a man named Gary can dodge them. They also look, and I know this is just me but I can't not see it, like the top half of a sock.
Between stages you get the chance to participate in a bonus round with no enemies and treasure, treasure, treasure! All the points you amass here are added for your total for the next stage, and accumulating points here is extremely helpful (if not mandatory) if you want to beat the stage's record and earn an extra life for doing so. I managed to do so on the next stage, after collecting enough motorcycles and crowns to put together the world's most regal biker gang, with plenty of sapphires left over to order a bulk lot of denim vests and "SATANS KINGS" patches. The problem is that to access the bonus round you have to stop a spinning reel of numbers so that it matches the final two digits of your score. However, the number the reel stops on seems to be predetermined - I tried loading saves multiple times and pressing the button at different ponts and the same number always came up, so you're out of luck if you don't have an appropriate score at the end of the stage.
The next stage is Ghost Town, which is rather exciting for me. Ghost Towns are my wheelhouse, and with this I am so far in my wheelhouse that I've made a pillow fort. The gameplay is the same as ever, but you're fighting zombies and off-brand Slimers. Smilers, even, sinister grinning spectres that have somehow retained their eyebrows after death despite losing their legs. After a while, you can ignite the trail of oil and blow up the tanker, and it's all rather wonderful. Graphically Nitro Ball is a real treat, with well-animated sprites and very detailed environments that are packed with destructible scenery and charming flourishes. For example, the name of the company on the oil tanker is Incredible North Oil. No hiding their light under a bushel for them, they're very proud of their oil and they want everyone to know it.
After completing this stage's mid-point challenge, a goofy living car appeared and started throwing pianos at me, as though I'd unwittingly wandered into a Warner Brothers cartoon. Thanks, mysterious car who I guess is thematically supposed to be haunted or possessed or something. Yeah, possessed by the spirit of generosity! For those of you into deeply obscure videogame references, the car looks a bit like Tryrush Deppy's meaner older brother.
I'm sorry, everyone. I tried my best to get a decent screenshot of the Grim Reaper enemies in this section - you can just about see one hiding behind a zombie in the top-left - but I just couldn't manage it. There was so much going on all the time that I never got a clear shot. It will simply have to suffice that I can assure you that in this game you can shoot the grim visage of Death itself right in the bony face. And who do you always fight after defeating Death?
That's right, it's Dracula! A Dracula, anyway. A larger-than-usual Dracula with no feet, but definitely a vampire fancy enough to fall into my own personal category of "A Dracula." I like to think he's the mayor of Ghost Town, having narrowly defeated The Wolfman in a recent election. It was his "The Candidate With Bite!" slogan than really won over the voters.
The boss' main power is to summon a flock of ineffectual bats to fly into your bullets, although I suspect this is actually an attempt to lull the player into a false sense of security before zapping them with his eye-beams. I just wanted to show off how the boss' cape gets visibly damaged as the fight progresses, which I thought was a nice touch.
The next stage is Aliens World, and because this is a videogame that specifically means it looks like the works of H.R. Giger, rest in peace. He's airbrushing biomechanical dongs on the side of Lucifer's totally sweet van now. Anyway, that means a lot of fleshy architecture, bones galore and skulls sticking out of other things. It's a lot more colourful than your usual Gigerian hellscape, mind you. Lots of rich blues and salmon pinks. It reminds me a lot of the PC Engine pinball game Alien Crush, which seems appropriate.
Just in case you think I'm overstating the influence of the Alien movies' design aesthetic on this stage, take note of these eggs that are one hundred percent straight-up xenomorph eggs. Sadly facehuggers do not hatch out of them. Instead, there's a snake monster with the face of a lady writhing around. Two lady faces, actually, one at either end. Which one is the front and which one is the back? I'm not sure, and I'm going to pretend they're both the front. The alternative is too unpleasant to think about.
The boss is the top half of a skeletal monstrosity composed of sinew and bone that walks around atop two columns of severed testicles. What a cruel twist of evolution. No wonder he's so angry, and the boss's rage - and constant attacks with screen-filling spread shots - are where Nitro Ball starts to get really difficult. The Z Weapon can help you if you're in a real tight spot, and I was just starting to get the hang of things...
...when one of the bony snake-demons suddenly rocketed down the screen like a stupid dog that hears mail being pushed through the letterbox, crushing Gary beneath its vast bulk while the boss rides on top. I should have known this was going to happen. There are clues everywhere. It says "DIE" in big letters right over there! Of course, I was killed by this attack the next time it happened, and the next time, and the time after that. I think this is because I was trying to concentrate on several different things at once and that never works out well for me. I can either dodge the snakes, avoid the projectiles or keep away from the boss himself, Nitro Ball, but I can't do all three. Not at my age.
The final stage is the Space Station, and I was a little worried it wasn't going to be as interesting as the earlier stages, but then I noticed the regular enemies are Terminators and my fighting spirit was reinvigorated. Not just Terminators, but Terminators that roll into balls when you shoot them and careen around the screen. Skynet's remorseless armadillo battalion, that's what you get in Nitro Ball. I haven't seen Terminator Genisys, partly out of an irrational hatred of the word "genisys," but I have to assume that it would be vastly improved if all the Terminators could roll up like woodlice.
If you're looking for Gary in this screenshot, good luck. You can just about see his hand on the very left edge of the screen, because he's been sucked out of an open airlock and into the vacuum of space. Episodes of Nitro Ball must get incredible ratings, viewership figures high enough that the company behind it put money into building an actual space station and launching it into orbit instead of using a set decorated with tin foil and flashing lights. Maybe Nitro Ball is so popular that it's created an unshakeable social connection between all of Earth's peoples, and now that they're united by a love of Nitro Ball they've stopped having wars and can therefore spend all their former military budgets on constructing interstellar death-traps. It must be a weird time to be a NASA scientist, is what I'm saying.
Then the chicken mascot from the first stage reappeared as a cyber-chicken. He's still wearing dungarees. Why would you go to all the trouble of becoming a cool cyborg and then ruin it by dressing like a toddler? You're a goddamn enigma, Cyborg Chicken Mascot.
As I approach the end of Nitro Ball, I can tell you with some confidence that it's a really fun game. It's fast, relentless and exciting, and despite almost every one of its constituent parts being ripped off from somewhere else it still manages to feel unique. It looks really nice, (even though I had some emulation issues in the Alien stage,) with plenty of small details and fun enemies. Even the soundtrack is above average:
Is there anything I'd change about the game to make it better? I'm not sure. As much as I enjoy twin-stick shooters I don't think that particular control scheme would work here, at least not without some major rejigging - a lot of the bosses would be laughably easy if you could still shoot at them while moving away from them. Auto fire would have been a nice addition, because I don't often get sore thumbs playing shooters but by the end of Nitro Ball my firin' finger was definitely feeling the burn. A "dodge" move would be a fun addition, and I do mean more for fun than anything else, because while it'd be helpful to dive out of the way of certain attack, like the monster snakes during the Aliens World boss fight, mostly it'd just be cool.
The final boss is a robot overlord with two additional brains located in the towers by his sides, and in one final display of "inspiration" Data East made the boss' face look just like a Cylon from the original Battlestar Galactica, complete with phasing red lights in its visor. In for a penny and all that.
As is to be expected from your last opponent, the robo-brain is a real challenge and will not hesitate to suddenly fill the screen with a deluge of projectiles that puts most bullet-hell shooters to shame. If that's not enough, his side-towers are seemingly part brain, part robot and part enormous deadly yo-yos that whip around the screen trying to flatten you. It's a fun battle, even if by this point my thumb was begging me to stop, and in the end I managed to triumph through sheer gumption and thoroughly abusing the Z Weapon.
Gary is now the Nitro Ball champion, so that's where the fame comes from. The wealth is a result of picking up all those ocean liners and grand pianos. What's more, he's miraculously still alive to enjoy these things, so what else could Gary possibly want out of life?
He became a president! Not the president, a president. President Tiny Head, specifically. Makes sense to me, who wouldn't vote for the man who survived Nitro Ball, a man who spent his winnings on a set of Iron Man-esque armour that looks like business suit with just his head poking out? No-one's going to try to assassinate him, that's for damn sure. All hail President Gary, that's what I say.
The other characters also have endings, and because they all have different dreams they claim different rewards. There's a third, yellow character the only appears on three-player versions of the Nitro Ball machine, and he uses his wealth and fame to become a king, crown, ermine robe and all. Harry - sweet, uncomplicated Harry - "bought luxury cars." Harry is not a man overburdened by ambition.
The credits roll, and with a final special thanks to Steve Miller - presumably not the space cowboy / gangster of love - Nitro Ball comes to a close. It's a rare day here at VGJunk, because I've found a bona fide hidden gem of a game, and when the games I play are almost always either shite or well-known then that's something to celebrate. If you want arcade action and beefy men called Gary, then Nitro Ball delivers and you see it out in the wild about as often as Lord Lucan, so if you play it you can have fun and increase your level of videogame hipsterism. All in all, a strong recommendation from me and I might even go back and play it again. Maybe this time I'll try the three-player mode and find out what the other character's name is, although if it's not Larry or Barry I will be extremely upset.