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The Moonlight War novel by S.K.S. Perry

Airball (NES) artwork

Airball (NES) review

"Any boy transformed into an inflatable purple ball by a wizard probably needs a few breaks. Especially when the wizard won't reverse the spell until the boy retrieves a spell book and six trinkets from inside a massive isometric spike-garden maze. That's the story of Airball, ported from an opaque, over-exacting PC game to a fascinating prototype in the NES's twilight era. It's still got over two hundred junior-grade Escher rooms with the forty-five degree rotated isometric view, but it a..."

Any boy transformed into an inflatable purple ball by a wizard probably needs a few breaks. Especially when the wizard won't reverse the spell until the boy retrieves a spell book and six trinkets from inside a massive isometric spike-garden maze. That's the story of Airball, ported from an opaque, over-exacting PC game to a fascinating prototype in the NES's twilight era. It's still got over two hundred junior-grade Escher rooms with the forty-five degree rotated isometric view, but it adds two easier levels of difficulty and more sensible controls, and it peels the wizard off the instruction manual and onto the game.

Where easy mode lets you learn the basics: holding your controller at forty-five degrees, rolling around spikes, changing direction mid-jump, how far you can jump, and bouncing up stairs. The items--dragon, Buddha, beans, flask, crucifix and pumpkin--appear before the darkened areas, and the entry provides the only significant branches in the sub-maze. You can hold select to levitate over spikes, though they don't damage you much, so you won't need the twiddly air pumps in odd rooms that re-inflate your ball. Learning when and how to roll around to trigger semi-hidden squares and tricky jumps is preparation for finding secret doors deeper in the maze, and detecting half of a glowing item behind a wall is the hardest bit here. Brute-force logic should carry you through.

Then comes the medium level and realism. Your ball now deflates over time, and over-inflating your ball explodes it. Falling too far also fizzes your ball out like a popped balloon. No more levitation; the select button is reserved for moving fast, which you may need if you're low on air. So archways to the next room, with pits on the other side, are death traps. There's no shame in crawling back to easy, where you can take the lamp and explore those darker areas not necessary yet. You'll get all the tries you'll need to jump across big gaps or traverse that spiral walkway, as you discover several rooms where you really hope the treasures won't be.

Medium leaves worst of them for hard but still forces you into the pumpkin-patch maze of forty rooms, which your deflation makes a timed run. And you'll need the barrel, a non-treasure, in several places as a makeshift step to reach archways to new rooms. Medium mode allows clever shortcuts such as getting strategically killed after taking a valuable item, which sends you to the last air pumps you used, or slipping through inconveniently placed spikes to finish a room quickly.

No such luck on hard mode. Nicking any spike finishes you. Getting items in the wrong order slows you immensely. The lantern from the previous to levels has died but can serve as a second stool. You'll need it, along with a third stool, a good map and probably even a 3-d diagram to work out a few swerve-jumps. Oh, and two items here cost a life to take. You have four lives total.

Which, along with no continues and no introductory puzzles, makes the PC version wretchedly backbreaking. The NES gives three, and it lets you center your ball on a tile. Each room is 8x8, but your ball rolls continuously, so unless you stop for a few seconds, it's often on several tiles at once. Then it sits squarely on whichever it covers most. This costs time and air, so you need to find the best rooms to take this needed break from pinpoint accuracy while rolling or making diagonal jumps.

And this leeway helps soften Airball's quirks to allow for humor and wonder. The tiger-heads and coffins, while scarier than the spikes, are harmless and allows for useful landmarking, while the more hidden spikes are, the more stressful avoiding them can be. Rooms have guiding landmarks that help you keep your bearings, except for clear maze puzzles. Everything helps except for hands on assorted pedestals, which point in no particular direction. Your ball sags pitifully when you need to inflate it, letting you watch the game and not the health bar. A relaxing and catchy composition of triads scales up and down, with a light drumbeat in the background, and the colors do well not to trump the architecture. Some rooms have an ice tower theme, and others are botanic, but the general muted red-and-tan of the spikes and floor avoid flashy overkill. One dark secluded room features fifteen fake flasks and a real one. I ran out of air just before realizing two visual clues made guessing unnecessary.

Then there's the wizard: like his puzzles, a piece of work. Despite his nasty puzzles, he has a heart. You have a chance to decline, foolishly, a rhetorical question. He gives three "THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE" continues if you run out of lives. And on the harder modes, the crucifix appears in the restart room. The high-score list is also topsy-turvy. Random gems add more to your score than finding the treasures, and it's easy to picture the wizard, amused at how his puzzles fluster you, giving you points as alms. One stretch of the maze has twenty-four rooms in a row where raised tiles spell out a message you'll lose most of your ball's air reading. So if you're willing to accept that a ball can pick up items or jump on a candle, the wizard is very believable as an eccentric loner who enjoys sadistic puzzles. Especially when he waits until you bounce onto your boat to zap you back into a boy. You can enjoy his vast puzzle-garden, but his living quarters are verboten.

The effect a simple storyline and a few common-sense tweaks had on Airball's playability is staggering. The gradation in puzzles makes it even fairer than your usual perfectly linear puzzle game that leaves a player stuck halfway when the difficulty jumps after some trivial introductory puzzles. Given how satisfying solving easy can be, and how radically different all three levels' solutions are, Airball seems suited for both the casual and dedicated action-puzzle gamer. And it's easy enough to run through for some beautiful scenery, too.

Rating: 9/10

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (June 22, 2009)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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zippdementia posted June 24, 2009:

Sorry to say this, but this is my least favourite Aschultz review, though bear in mind that comes from a guy who thinks Aschultz is the second coming... of Zig.

In any case, I think you attempted to fix some of the issues people have been commenting on in your past reviews. Namely, you tried to be casual with this one. However, being casual in a review takes just as much work and planning as being technical and stiff, probably more, in fact. For whatever the reasons, this review just comes off as sloppy.

That's not very helpful, though, so let me point out a few things. First of all, you should give a much better overview of how this game actually plays. Airball tends to make me think of pinball, but I can see from the screenshots and from your description of the game as a puzzle game that this isn't the case. So I'm totally lost as to what this game actually emulates, or what the play is like. You mention too many side points, like the wizard giving you less continues, and something about tiger heads, without giving us the frame of reference to appreciate these points.

Secondly, this review has lost your usual insight. Remember how I praised you for being able to find the deeper meaning and purpose behind any game, even if it was Leisure Suit Larry? With a game that sounds as screwed up as Airball, I was eagerly awaiting your philosophical interpretation. That's become a big part of your style, don't lose it. Don't stretch to find it, or make shit up you don't believe in, but that part of you that looked past the game a bit was very entertaining.

It's good to see you mix up your style a bit, even if this particular path led you to a dead end. The perfect Aschultz review lies somewhere in between technical and casual, with a dash of philosophy thrown in for flavour. I eagerly await the fast approaching day where I see such a review.
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aschultz posted June 24, 2009:

Thanks for the criticism and the compliments! I agree that I didn't put in a good explanation of how to move the ball, or what it can do. But you can't prove it, or at least I hope you can't with my new revision.

I had a hard time fitting some stuff in the review and consciously wanted to keep it at or around 6 KB. Changes were made--not huge, but I think they are important. I am also not sure this review would have been good with too much technical info because, let's face it, 3-d games are hard enough. This is one time where I thought a FAQ with editorial commentary would work best for describing the intricacies of the puzzles.

I've recently tried putting screenshots in with reviews, but on the other hand, I can't let the screenshots do the talking. I deliberately did want to avoid trying to sound too FAQ-y too soon and I'm glad that effort was noticed, and more importantly, questioned. Because new problems pop up when you try something new, even with proofreading.

As for a bigger meaning, yeah, it's hard for puzzle-for-puzzle's-sake games to HAVE that meaning. I generally look for: did it have something that fooled you and shouldn't have and made you laugh afterwards? (Yes, the flask "where's" Waldo puzzle.) Did it have something new? (Yes, dying to pick up the two items.) Did the graphics offer anything? (Yes, graphics obscured solutions fairly, and sound let you know something exploded.) What other hooks did it have? What puzzle games are more than just grinding the logic out? What puzzles did I generally feel unusually pleased about solving, and why?

In this case, having to go back to easy mode to map out medium and hard and prepare yourself was a key, as in most puzzle games you just walk through level by level, and either levels are retreads of previous ones done several more times, or they are ones where you need "a-ha" moments. Either approach can work. The game's also legitimately 3-in-1, given the positions of the items you need to pick up in easy/medium/hard.

You're right that there's no great philosophical tie-up at the end but I think I was searching for more along the lines of: well, it's a puzzle game. It's too abstract on the PC. It's staggering how a few simpler examples make it a game for everyone. I've had times where I've raved about puzzle games that are great when you know how to get through them. And I think my conclusion mentions that there are a lot of games less challenging throughout that do not give you a payout at the end, because they start too easy and jump too much and throw a tough level at you. Where most people either get stuck, or they find it not so tough.

The wizard is a bit of a crank, a puzzles-for-puzzles-sake type of guy. And I think it's generally amusing he says "this is your last chance" when it isn't. You'd expect him to be a hard-ass from the puzzles he gave, and because I was emulating the game, I usually reloaded before dying and didn't find this out until I left the game running for a "YOU HAVE DIED" screenshot. A bug in the prototype maybe? At any rate, it is one more case in a puzzle game where you need to try everything.

Him not turning you into a person until you're back on the boat gives a general sense of distance you don't see in puzzle games--as if he's saying, I want you to see my huge puzzle garden, but don't you dare snoop around my humble house!

The other problem I had is that in my drafts I was reusing words I don't like to use--learning curve(and Airball has a good one) and so forth. I make a conscious effort to avoid overuse of certain words and in fact have a text file of red-flag words I want to make sure I do not abuse. PERL filters them out. Maybe I need to approach this better.

As for Airball = Pinball, I think you let a misnomer guide you. To me, they seem the opposite(ball full of air vs ball full of metal) and Airball makes me think of a basketball--I think/hope I mentioned the inflation bit early enough. I think that by mentioning it was isometric and that you could jump up stairs, it should be visualizable (eegh, bad neologism) as a 3-d sort of game.

Now, I think I worked some of this into the review, but I want to do that while avoiding what I saw was a recurring pattern of overloading the first two paragraphs with too much technical information. Maybe it will take a few iterations. At any rate, short term, I hope anyone reading your critique who hasn't read my review yet will wonder what your biggest questions are about. If not, I haven't done my job!

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