Originally an American toy and cartoon series, Madballs isn't exactly a name that has stuck in the collective pop-culture mind. Despite this, Madballs has made its way to Xbox Live Arcade via Madballs in Babo: Invasion. Picking up the series, developer PlayBrains drops players into the role of a rather aggressive ball, an eyeball at first in fact. This eyeball sets out - guns blazing - in third-person perspective, blasting, smushing and blowing his way through hordes of simply-designed, yet unique, enemy Madballs. A strange tale ensues, but that's only to be expected considering the source material being worked with here.
Kicking off the game, it's hard to take the concept seriously, but pun intended, it keeps on rolling. Players take up arms as a new recruit of the BDI's, a cleverly named armed force whose opposition throughout the game are known as the Mercs. Going it alone, guns simply float beside the player-controlled ball at all times, a good thing too considering the mass of enemies to deal with. The story itself doesn't take itself seriously at all and keeps itself from actually being intriguing, and furthermore is only presented via reels and reels of skip-friendly text. While humourous and making incredibly great use of puns, the story ultimately is just a vehicle of the gameplay, the real reason to invest any time in Madballs.
Controlling a ball with hovering guns is remarkably easy, as it should be. Without any familiarity to the source material, at first it seems like a complete cop-out to go with a rolling ball as the playable character--a treat for animators most likely--however as the player presses onward it does prove unique. The maneuverability alone as a ball makes quite the difference compared to the usual gun-tooting space marine from any comparable game. Shape aside, players fight-off and fight-through plenty of equally swift Merc balls, all of whom wield everything from flame-throwers-turned-ice-throwers to shrunken guns, to machine guns to mobile mortars. There's more than enough different types of enemies and weapons out there pointed at Madballs' lead ball, but luckily the lead also has quite the artillery selection at hand to compensate.
Enemies can be quite persistent, and at times a bit too much to handle with just a machine gun and a couple of grenades. Much of the gameplay is picking off one enemy from a group at a time. Running up and drawing a few out is effective, but doing it over and over again becomes less and less fun. Running in guns-blazing is almost always a death-wish, as the camera, controlled with the left stick, can only be moved left and right, and not up and down. This simply compounds the somewhat annoying nature of defeating a group of formidable enemies as the field of view is simply not optimal; it's unnecessarily restraining in fact. It's not possible to see what is up ahead, and worst yet, many times there are vertical elements to the level design, and portions like cat-walks and raised platforms simply hide what is going on. It's like diving into the fray unintentionally, while being legally blind. Considering the player character is an enormous eyeball much of the time, it's somewhat ironic that the view is so limiting.
View aside, as player-skill improves to compensate and the swing of gameplay really gets going, more and more does the gameplay accelerate and recover its pacing. The game features plenty of health, molotov and grenade pick ups, as well as upgrades. Many weapons scattered throughout levels are simply locked and unusable during initial play-through, however, as the campaign progresses, various arms upgrade with use, and more become unlocked for use and abuse. Ammo is unlimited, but unfortunately there is no standard method of blocking enemy attacks. The emphasis is on using the ball's maneuverability and cover through-out levels, though this gameplay choice doesn't always work as many times corridors are narrow, enemies are faster while firing than players, and there's nowhere to hide or dash too but backwards. Drawing out enemies is effective, but sometimes choosing to use the bit of maneuverability at the player's disposal in those tight situations is best used to dodge past enemies to the next check-point.
Level design mostly consists of unlocking gates with switches, catwalks, and maze-link linear paths. The selective use of ramps and jump-pads with different character classes and varied environments mix up the repetition of the level-design a respectable bit, but with so much emphasis on zig-zaggy design opposed to organic design, the repetitiveness of levels still bleeds through. Stages themselves can get so unvaried at times that players can simply get disoriented to the point that it's tricky to tell which direction to proceed to. The game is in desperate need of any form of radar or objective point indicator. At times arrows do pop up in stages, but seemingly only when players are encouraged to rush to a specific point.
On the upside, Madballs looks fantastic, and performs fantastically, as an Arcade title. The attention to detail in weapon animation, sound design, music selection, environment animation and level of shine are very impressive. There is never a hang-up in gameplay, no buggy graphics or elements to get stuck on, and it all amounts to one smooth game. Madballs could easily have been a full release title if expanded on, considering its quality of presentation.
Madballs also features some addictive online multiplayer. Skirmish, team skirmish, and capture the flag are present, but arguably the best online mode is invasion. Put on two opposing teams, players both take turns laying out the design of the match's map and select their home base location. Once the map is generated, players capture control points, and with enough capture points stolen away from the opposing team, that team's home base's defensive shield drops, making it vulnerable to attack. The matches go back and forth rapidly as control points are fought over, but alas when one team's home base is destroyed the victory is to the other. Alongside four-player co-op, the multiplayer elements of Madballs boosts the experience.
Madballs' uniqueness comes from its simple choice to go with a perfectly round character to control. At first this feels like a joke, but instead of laughing at the idea, players will heartily laugh with it as the title proves it's a well developed game. While the camera is limiting and the single-player has far more potential than was realized, Madballs is a solid title to sit down and enjoy with friends, locally or online. It would be great to see a follow-up title as there's plenty left to roll with.