Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-07-11 01:06:00

Akira Psychoball

PS2

Little known fact: I love pinball. Seriously, love it to bits. While other kids were dreaming of full-size arcade cabinets in their bedrooms, I would’ve offered up any number of bodyparts for a decent pinball cab. Of all the arcade games out there, pinball arguably requires the most skill: crane games and the like are hideously rigged, and you can brute force your way through virtually every arcade game available – SNK fighting games infamously aside – if you have the credits available. No chance of doing that with pinball, either you’ve got the moves, or you don’t, simple as that.

Slightly more well-known is my love of all things Akira. The manga is one of the best I’ve ever read, and over 20 years on, the film still manages to outclass virtually everything since in terms of animation and design. Condensing a 2000+ page manga into a two hour movie may not have been the best idea, but for my money, it’s still one of the most visually stunning films ever. On the games front, however, it’s been poorly serviced, with some of the worst titles ever to appear on any format bearing its name. In order to be classified as the Best Akira Game Ever, it would simply have to have the sole virtue of not being atrocious.

Akira Psychoball is an attempt to retell the epic and complex story of the film through the medium of pinball. Yes, you read that right.

Released in time to cash in on the Remastered edition of the film in 2002, the game is liberally peppered with clips from the movie. While they do look pretty, they’re pretty much devoid of any context, so good luck trying to follow the plot. Though if you’re playing a pinball game for the story, you have no idea how wrong you’re doing it, and you’re probably having more fun making up the story yourself so, y’know, go wild!

First thing you’ll probably notice is that yes, this is actually a pinball game. Somehow, it’s actually a surprise starting it up and seeing all the ramps and bumpers, but no, this really is pinball and we’re actually going through with this. You’re given a couple of main options to choose from: Story Mode, where you work your way through the tables, clearing targets and goals as you go; Stage Select, where you pick a table and play as you want; and a help mode, which gives you info on what each of the targets on the various boards do, as well as background info on the characters and the vague plot of the film. Thinking about it, that’s pretty superfluous, since anyone with any actual interest in this game probably knows who the angsty kid in the cape is and why he’s turning into monstrous silly putty, but, again, we’ll ignore that and carry on.

So, to the game’s Story Mode, a description skirting with the Trade Descriptions Act at best. Each board consists of two parts, a top half and a bottom half, and there are three of each, themed off various set-pieces from the movie. As you hit targets and complete mini-games, you’ll progress to the next table. Here’s where it gets tricky though: rather than moving tables wholesale, the top part of the table will remain, while the bottom half will be ‘switched in’. Once you’ve gone through all three bottom halves, the top half will change and you’ll have to do the same thing again until you’ve run through all three. Once you’ve done that, congratulation! You win at pinball!

The pinballing itself is pretty solid, if mostly unremarkable. Once you get the timing right, it’s possible to make any and all shots with reasonable regularity. Thing is, on a console, you kinda expect a little more. Consider games like the Crush series – Alien Crush, Devil Crush and Jaki Crush, all popular mainstays of the 16-bit era. These took the viewpoint that on a console, you were never beholden to such boring concepts as, gravity, physics or even reality, and spiced the gameplay up with moving targets, boards that changed physically depending on what you hit, and little monsters that would wander around, giving you points and extra bonuses if you hit them. Hell, they even included bosses if you were any good at the game! Here, there’s a few extra cutaway bonus stages, where you have to take down flying platforms, crack open the Akira capsule or destroy SOL, but they’re still sadly limited. As for board invasions, I saw a teddy bear wander across the screen all of twice, and in the final stages, you have to dodge blasts from the SOL laser satellite which do approximately bugger all to you, seeing as they tend to fire at the other end of the map from you. And as for actual proper bosses, other than SOL, there are none. How hard would it’ve been to include a final fight against Tetsuo’s monstrous form at the very end of the film, with you trying to ricochet shots off of him?

The other main mode is the Versus mode: two players with two sets of flippers sit side by side with their boards joined in the upper middle. They try to fire balls over to the other person and score when a ball drops through their flippers. First to whatever arbitrary number wins. Really, there’s not much more to say than that, the game’s simplistic as it gets. No doubt it’d be a hell of a lot of fun with friends while drunk, but as I was annoyingly sober and alone while playing it, it gets a resounding ‘meh’ from me.

More worthy of note is the music: while they’ve managed to get the rights to the characters and scenes from the movie, someone somewhere forgot to license the soundtrack. So if you’re hoping to listen to all the iconic themes from the movie, tough noogies, original music for you! Actually, that’s unfair, the new music is actually pretty good on the whole. Surprisingly so, some of it actually being borderline excellent. There’s a few musical nods to the original, so subtle you’d barely even notice, but on the whole, probably the best thing on offer here.

The options are fairly limited: there’s no option to switch to the original Japanese voices, surprisingly, and as the game’s based on the Remastered edition, you’re stuck with Johnny Yong Bosch screaming TETSUOOOOO at the top of his lungs, rather than Cam Clarke. The game also lacks a sound test, which is a disappointment considering the excellent music on offer. There’s also absolutely nothing in the way of unlockables: what you see when you start up the game is all you’re ever going to get, so no concept art, no way to view the clips, not even a chance to get a look at the artwork on each table. An extra challenge mode – a few dozen tasks of the ‘score X points in Y minutes, make Z number of shots, etc.’ variety – would’ve added to the replay value of the game substantially, but as it is, once you’ve finished the main mode, there’s practically nothing else for you to do, and for just about everyone out there, that’s the point where it gets buried beneath other, more interesting games.

Psychoball is a remarkably solid pinball game that, as a physical machine, would probably be one of the best around. As a game on a console, however, it’s not that great, and as an overall package, lacking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun game: the gameplay is never anything short of smooth, and the tables are nicely realised. Just that there are things that make a physical pinball table fun, and there are things that make a pinball game fun, and the two are drastically different. If you like collecting Akira-related stuff… well, you’ve probably already got a copy. If you’re looking for something different from the norm, give it a shot. Just don’t go in expecting more than pinball.

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