I’ve long held a fascination with the premise of bouncing balls against inexplicably floating brick walls, though only in video games – all the bricks I find in real life are frustratingly bound by gravity, and besides, vandalism’s really not my thing. But the allure of individually dislodging pieces from a carefully constructed design with a paddle and a ball has endured through the years via games like Arkanoid, Alleyway and some generic knock-off I downloaded to my high school graphing calculator a decade ago.
Magic Ball tries to take the basic premise of such titles and bring it into the modern era. While not the first game to attempt this style of game with a 3-D interface (genre originator Breakout had an ill-received PSOne/PC iteration), it may very well be the first to completely do away with the established template of knocking out various types of bricks or blocks at fixed positions. Instead, Magic Ball presents colorful 3-D arrangements filled with the likes of pirate ships, castles, medieval knights and towers comprised of oversized playing cards. As if the concept of launching a ball at hovering bricks wasn’t silly enough, now you’re firing soccer balls at giant sharks that float along in formation.
Aside from the obvious aesthetic shift, Magic Ball plays very similarly to its spiritual predecessors. The game employs an isometric perspective that depicts the entire game board, which, unlike most 2-D genre entries, is not entirely rectangular in shape. Rather, the expected corners on each end of the board are replaced by diagonal walls that may deflect the ball in a different direction depending on the angle of the shot. Despite the atypical board design, similar strategies prevail, like getting the ball between the top of the board and its contents, allowing you to sit back and watch each successive bounce remove even more of the puzzle.
Following in the footsteps of Arkanoid and other brick-busters that utilize power-ups, Magic Ball features a wide array of weapons, special attacks and modifiers that will – in most cases – help you clear the screen more quickly. Downed objects on the screen will occasionally spout out collectables that can outfit your bow-shaped paddle with a firearm (machine gun, cannon, laser, etc.), increase or decrease the size of the paddle, let you hold any ball that comes back your way or change the style of the ball (into the schizophrenic crazy ball or unstoppable iron ball, among others). Meteors and lightning bolts offer a bit of destructive help, while wind gusts and hammer-induced earthquakes are more amusing to watch than actually beneficial in completing a stage. Regardless, having such a wealth of available pick-ups keeps things interesting, even if a couple are largely detrimental to your success.
Watching the perfectly arranged set pieces splinter off into smaller chunks by the force of your ever-moving soccer ball is one of the biggest draws of the game. However, the three-dimensional characters and items create one of the game’s central issues: It’s too easy to lose track of the ball on the screen. It’s not impossible to keep up with its trail, but larger pieces often obscure the ball, especially amid the aforementioned environmental modifiers. Another annoying quirk is the curved paddle, which can cause balls bounced off the far edge into a wall to head in the wrong direction, causing you to lose a life in the process.
Magic Ball consists of 48 core stages plus a couple of bonus levels, with the first two-dozen sporting a high-seas pirate theme and the rest set in a medieval kingdom. Like the arcade greats that launched the genre, Magic Ball simply gives you a trio of lives to work with and tasks you with staying alive as long as possible. It’s a tricky, though not particularly frustrating venture – the game offers up many more life-ending skull pick-ups than hearts, but it’s hardly a major issue when you can easily boot up the latest stage from the main menu and continue on with a fresh slate of lives.
The game also features local and online co-op/competitive two-player modes, but splitting the board in half for each player makes for a fairly ho-hum experience. Games of this sort are essentially single-player Pong, so a multiplayer-focused version of it would theoretically just be something akin to Pong, right? Despite numerous attempts, I was unable to locate another random player with whom to try the online modes, which almost certainly has to do with Magic Ball‘s under-the-radar status as a PlayStation Network title. Don’t count on a burgeoning online community for this game going forward, let alone the ability to find a single opponent at the ready when you want some competition.
Magic Ball has a Peggle-like potential for lengthy play sessions, but in addition to the aforementioned gameplay qualms, the whole experience simply feels lightweight and insubstantial. The game never aspires to be more than a fleeting diversion – although a light snack amid meatier fare is never a bad thing.
Bottom Line: Fluffy and simplistic, Magic Ball rarely wows but proves an amusing distraction most of the time.
Recommendation: Give it a shot if the concept strikes your fancy. You don’t have to lower your expectations, just know that this attempt to modernize the genre doesn’t quite nail the formula.
Andrew Hayward tried shaking this Magic Ball, but it didn’t have any answers.