26/01/2017

GO! GO! DODGE LEAGUE (SUPER FAMICOM)

There have been too many articles about famous super heroes and icons of the gaming world here at VGJunk this month. It’s time to get obscure, with a game you’ve probably never heard of, a game that might only be interesting because you’ve never heard of it. Oh, and because you can sometimes throw carrots at people. That’s pretty interesting. It’s Mebio Software’s 1993 Super Famicom sports game Go! Go! Dodge League!


I know those two adjacent balls are acting as part of the game’s title, but I’m immature enough that seeing two adjacent balls is making me chuckle, although not as much as writing down the phrase “two adjacent balls” is.
This is a very Japanese-looking title screen, isn’t it? What with the manga style, and all. It’s specifically that kind of manga style you get in lower-end videogames, a style that never looks quite right. I think it’s the hairstyles that do it: the artist knows that anime characters have crazy hairstyles, but they draw hair that looks dumb but not in the usual anime “this is dumb” fashion. I mean, check out that guy on the right. Yeah, the one that looks like a giraffe who’s managed to trick its way into a boy band and is praying no-one notices. His hair is the same shape as the steam cleaner I use on my kitchen floor. The girl in the middle is the only one who comes out of this title screen well, honestly.


As you might have guessed from the title, Go! Go! Dodge League is a dodgeball game. Remember than brief period in the mid-2000s when dodgeball became a thing? That was weird. We’re a weird species. My abiding feeling for the concept of dodgeball is that it’s what PE teachers used to set up when they couldn’t be bothered to plan a real lesson or the football pitch was flooded.
Anyway, it’s dodgeball, Japanese-style. It’s like non-Japanese dodgeball, except all the participants have big heads and huge eyes. You can have a one-off match or take part in a tournament, either alone, against a friend or co-operatively with a friend. Obviously, I’ll be playing alone. I’m not saying that to elicit sympathy, it’s just that I only have one game pad. Rest in peace, my old Saitek P380 joypad. You were a dependable workhorse, even if your D-Pad was designed by someone with a grudge against thumbs.


I decided to play through the tournament. Despite being called Go! Go! Dodge League, this game doesn’t have a “league” mode. You play each team once, and are knocked out if you lose, which is really more of a cup than a league.
You get to pick your team, of course, all of them named after animals from the Chinese zodiac. Okay, so it’s usually a goat rather than a sheep in the Chinese zodiac, but they’re close enough. You might be drawn to teams like the Tigers or the Dragons over the Sheep and Rats, but that’s forgetting two important facts: one is that the rat was supposedly the animal that won the mythical race to decide what order the animals would appear in the zodiac, and the other is that clearly the monkey is the best-suited of all these animals to actually playing dodgeball. They’re agile, they’re used to being in groups and they’re the only animals on the list that can grasp and throw a ball with any degree of accuracy. That said, I’ll be playing as the Rabbits, because that’s where my cursor happened to end up.


Well, I guess that clears up the whole cup/league situation.


Oh hey, the Rabbits have turned out to be an all-female team. This might be interesting if there were any differences between the types of player other than their sprites, but as far as I could tell there are not. The fat players might be able to take more hits before being knocked out, but I’m not certain about that. They might also be slightly easier to hit on account of their size, so swings and roundabouts.


So, it’s dodgeball, then… except it isn’t, really. It’s a very videogame-y approximation of dodgeball. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Dodgeball, if you like. The idea is still to knock out the opposing team by throwing balls at them and to avoid getting hit when they throw balls at you, but it doesn’t follow dodgeball rules. If you catch a ball someone throws at you, that person isn’t out of the game, for instance. You have to hit your opponents multiple times to knock them out, too.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and making a sport less complicated is probably a good idea when you’re working with 16-bit hardware. It’s just that this game isn’t all that similar to real dodgeball, much like Super Soccer doesn’t play much like real football.


How does it all work, then? The mighty Rabbits occupy the bottom half of the court – wait, is it called a court in dodgeball? Let’s just assume it is, “dodgeball pitch” doesn’t sound right. Their opponents are in the top half of the court, so let’s sling some balls! You throw balls with the B button and pass to your team-mates, including those standing around the edge of the opposition’s half, with A. Y makes you jump, while X is used for a kind of diving slide which I guess is meant to help you, you know, dodge balls. I never got much use out of it, myself. It’s not a very fast action, which hampers its usefulness, but the bigger issue is that dodging balls isn’t the best strategy. You should be endeavouring to catch the balls instead. If you dodge the balls thrown at you then sure, you don’t get hit, but the ball flies past you and is usually picked up by one of the opposing team that’s lurking around the edges of the court. Catching the ball is a much better idea, because then you can throw the ball. Specifically, I’d recommend double-tapping the d-pad to start running before you throw, because then you’ll throw the ball harder. You don’t have much control over your aim – the eight cardinal directions are about the extent of it – but the ball will “home in” on the other team a little so long as you throw it in their general direction.


When you manage to throw the ball badly enough that it flies right off the court, and you will do that, you’ll get to see that the extremities of the playing area are rather more visually appealing than the court itself. This beach court, for instance, has a small crowd of rapt sunbathers enjoying the action. Then you look again and realise that the crowd’s proportions are completely different to those of the dodgeball players. The only reasonable explanation is that one of the two groups are not actually human. I’m going with the dodgeball players, because their heads make up eighty percent of their body mass. Not humans, then, but Grey aliens who have come to Earth in disguise so that they may experience this pastime the hu-mans call “dodge-the-ball.” There is further evidence for this scenario later in the game.


The Rabbits managed a nail-biting victory in their first game, triumphing with only one player remaining and that sole player being one hit away from elimination! That’s why she’s white in the screenshot. Players flash when they’re one hit away from elimination, she hasn’t turned into Casper the Friendly Dodgeball Player or anything.


With little fanfare the next match begins, this time against the Dogs. The thing is, one match in Go! Go! Dodge League is almost identical to any other match in Go! Go! Dodge League. You see one team named after but in no way based on an animal from the Chinese zodiac besides maybe their colour scheme, you’ve seen ‘em all. The teams have different sprites in their line-ups – boys, girls, skinny boy, fat boys – but like I say, I never noticed any difference between them. That’s not to say there isn’t a difference between them, but if I played over thirty matches of GGDL and didn’t spot them they must be very minor indeed.


The fourth or so match takes place in outer space, thus confirming my theory about the extraterrestrial origins of the players. The match’s tip-off is facilitated by a traditional Japanese-style alien, too, which is nice. Where we in the West tend to imagine aliens as big-eyed “Grey” type, in Japan they’re often represented by creatures that are basically walking jellyfish with a bit of octopus throw in. If I remember correctly, they’re based on the description of the Martians in War of the Worlds. In videogames, the best example I can think of are the Mars People from the Metal Slug games.


There he is, look, umpiring the match from the sidelines and monitoring the artificial gravity field that allows these two teams to enjoy a dodgeball match that plays exactly as it would under Earth’s gravitational effects. How charming! I wonder if there are any more aliens nearby?


Yes. Yes there are. I think this is what a Space Invader would look like if you got up close. I’m sure our new pixellated overlords will rule our planet with a tentacle that’s firm but fair.


This court has chubby penguins all around it, which measures pretty highly on the ol’ Adorable-O-Meter. I especially like the one that’s peering in from the left. Yeah, the one that looks as though it’s just realised it’s being watched. There’s something about these penguins that looks very Konami-esque, as though they’re related to Penta from the Antarctic Adventure and Parodius games. I mean, I know there’s only so many ways you can draw a cutesy penguin, but they’re definitely got that same look about them.


Less endearing is this sword that the opposition are throwing at my team. That can’t be an accepted part of the rules, can it? It certainly wasn’t mentioned that I’d have deadly blades thrown at me while playing GGDL. I doubt many players would have turned up for this tournament if it had been mentioned. “Dodgeswords” is a very different proposition than “dodgeball.” Admittedly, it’d make the matches more exciting, but it makes it difficult to keep a tournament going if all the players look like a half-finished game of Pop-Up Pirate by the second match.
What’s happening with the sword is that the other team are using their special attack. Every team has one, and they’re all basically the same aside from the object they transform the ball into. In this case it’s a sword. The Rabbits’ special move turns the ball into a floating ring of carrots, which I think we can all agree is distinctly less special than a magic sword. You can perform a special move whenever you like (assuming you’ve got at least two team-mates still active) with no power bar to fill or anything like that. What you do is grab the ball and jump onto the head of a team-mate. Their curiously squishy body will propel you into the air, where you can throw the ball and gasp in wonderment as it turns into a weapon, an animal or a selection of root vegetables. One problem with this system is that there’s no way to tell your team-mates that you’re about to try a special move, and being sensible people they’ll often move out of the way when you try to plant your feet on their skulls. You’ve got no mid-air control of your character once they’ve jumped, either.


Then there’s the special attack itself, which is a strange thing (and not just because, as seen above, the ball is now a presumably very confused sheep). There seem to be different types of special attacks, in two main varieties: one where the ball flies forwards very quickly, and one where the ball floats and hovers around the court in a seemingly random fashion before either trying to land on a player or simply falling to the ground. As with so many aspects of GGDL, I never really managed to determine the mechanics behind this. Some team's attacks do seem to belong to one camp or the other – the sword, for instance, is a more direct attack. Beyond that, however, I could never tell whether my attack was going to confuse the opponent by whirling around them or fly off to a random part of the court. It might be something to do with the timing of when you hit the throw button. I didn’t have much chance to look into that possibility, partly because even lining up the opening head-bounce was a pain but mostly because it didn’t seem worth it. Simply chucking the ball at the other team as hard as possible had a much higher hit rate and took a lot less time to set up.


As I move into the latter stages of the tournament, I have to ask myself the question: am I having fun playing GGDL? The answer is yes, sort of. However, my misgivings aren’t down to the game being bad, per se, but rather that it feels as though it could have been a lot better. The basic ball-dodging and ball-throwing action is solidly decent, but there’s a lot that could have been improved. Take your team-mates that surround the opponent’s half of the court, for instance. You can pass the ball to them, they can collect wayward shots and they can even throw balls at the other team, which is useful in theory… but the fact you only control one character at a time makes it a bit of a pain. If you’re controlling one of the non-active players and, say, you throw the ball at the opposition and they catch it, you have little chance of avoiding the counter-attack because you have to scroll through all six selectable players using the L or R buttons, and it’s slow enough that you probably won’t have time to select an “active” player and move them out of the way. The obvious solution would be to only let you switch between your “active” players and have the ones around the edge move automatically to retrieve any balls that come near them, only giving you control when they’ve actually picked the ball up.


Also, you can catch the ball when someone throws it at you, right? Yes, you can. I’m not sure what determines whether you do catch it, though, adding further mysteries to GGDL’s mechanics. You can press a button to go into a “catching stance” of sorts, but sometimes your characters will simply catch the ball without it. Sometimes they’ll even catch the ball if it’s coming at them from behind, which would give you a distinct advantage if the computer teams couldn’t do it too. Overall, I think it might be a little too easy to catch the ball. This is especially true when you stand right on the half-way line as the CPU runs up to throw, catching the ball and immediately throwing it back before your opponent can react. Often they will do this repeatedly, unable to break through your masterful tactics of getting up in their business. You can also steal the ball from the opposition’s non-active players while they’re passing it around by standing right in front of them. The CPU team never does this. Matches would be a lot more difficult it they did.


And yet, for all these niggles, I’m still enjoying GGDL so the basics must be pretty good. It’s fast, simple action with enough quirks to prevent it becoming too dull too quickly, and while the single player modes are unlikely to keep you interested for long, multiplayer is where GGDL is going to shine. It’s even multitap compatible so up to four players can join in, either as a team or against each other.


The final match of the tournament is against the Elephants, who you might notice were not a team I could select. That’s because the tournament has fifteen matches and there were only nine teams to pick from, so there are a few extra ones that show up. It’s a shame I couldn’t select any of them. I would have definitely picked the Pegasus team.
I’ll be honest, the final match is something of a disappointment. Having matches in space and turning dodgeballs into swords shows that GGDL is hardly aiming for a tone of absolute realism, so for the final encounter to take place on a clay court in a kid’s playground is rather underwhelming. Doing battle on a disintegrating rock floating on the lava of an erupting volcano: that was the kind of thing I was hoping for, not being surrounded by children playing tag.
The Elephants themselves aren’t up to much, either. They seem to be able to knock your players out easier than the other teams, but aside from that they’re the same dodgeball players as ever. It does make you wonder, though: was the team already called the Elephants and their players all being on the chunky side is merely a coincidence, or did they name the team after they’d all gotten together and decided to to just lean into it?


“You Made It!” exclaim the cheerleaders, as they present you with a trophy that is surely far too grand for the winner of a dodgeball tournament. As the confetti falls and the crowd roars their approval, our plucky dodgeball heroes prepare to return to the cosmos that spawned them, content that another planet has been introduced to the majesty of the sport.


So yeah, that’s Go! Go! Dodge League. I had fun with it, but then I tend to enjoy super videogame-ified version of sports. Others will possibly not wrangle as much enjoyment from it as I did. It’s definitely got its flaws, and it’s nowhere as good as titles like Neo Turf Masters or Heavy Smash, but for a simple little dodgeball game with nice presentation, a decent soundtrack and plenty of multiplayer potential, it’ll do for me.

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