You may already be familiar with Super Dodge Ball, one of the first games available for Nintendo's impressive new Game Boy Advance. It lets you control an aspiring team of youngsters bent on winning a deadly world-class dodge ball tournament. The game's cute characters literally pound each other to death with a rubber ball--a proud tradition that actually dates back to 1987, when the original Super Dodge Ball game by Technos was released in arcades. Technos was already famous for its Double Dragon and Renegade side-scrolling martial-arts action games. But Super Dodge Ball gained most of its popularity a couple of years after its initial release, when it was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1996, a rare new version of Super Dodge Ball appeared in the arcades running on SNK's Neo Geo hardware. Unfortunately, Technos ceased operations shortly thereafter--but Super Dodge Ball lives on thanks to Atlus, which has re-created the game in a format that promises to give the game more exposure than it's ever had before. This latest revision of the original arcade classic will be instantly familiar to fans of any of the previous versions. Like all the others, it's a good-looking, fun-filled game that has lots of charm and plenty of action. However, some of the game's initial appeal does wear off soon enough, as its single-player mode is a little shallow and its two-player mode doesn't play smoothly. These problems don't mean Super Dodge Ball for the Game Boy Advance isn't worthwhile, though they'll hopefully be addressed in a future installment in the series.
Super Dodge Ball includes exhibition, championship, and two-player versus modes of play. The rules in all these modes are the same: You have seven team members on the court--four on your side, and three behind the opposing team's sidelines. You have direct control over just one player at a time, while the computer handles the others. It intelligently switches your control between members in all the right situations, such that you're always doing the brunt of the work. You can pass the ball between any of your teammates at any point, but ultimately, you're going to end up throwing it at one of the four guys on the other side of the court. The harder you hit him, the more health he loses. When he runs out of health, a little angel floats up off the screen, and he's out of the match. It's pretty easy to catch a regular throw if you're on the receiving end; you just press B just before you're hit. However, it's not quite as easy to catch one of Super Dodge Ball's 50 different types of special throws. By hurtling the ball toward your opponents while sprinting (or jumping), your team members can initiate these various special throws, which make the ball fly across the screen in any number of erratic ways. Special throws can be anywhere from extremely fast to extremely slow. Others zigzag, form star shapes, twirl, drop, and more. There's a lot of variety in the different throws, and they all do much more damage than normal throws, to the point where normal throws are basically worthless since there's no limit to how many special throws you can use. You don't strictly have to throw the ball from your side of the court--you can alley-oop the ball to your teammates on the sidelines to initiate a special throw from behind your opponents. Using one of the Game Boy Advance's shoulder buttons, you can also call upon your teammates on the court to run and jump toward the opposing side--you can use this new Super Dodge Ball technique to set up tricky combo attacks.
It's easy to get into the game, and the controls are responsive. Once you play it for a while, you'll find that there's a good amount of variety in terms of how to attack the opposing side. You'll also notice how different team members perform differently, though this is most apparent in the specific set of special throws available to them. Before each match, you can even set a few tactical options. You can define how your teammates will arrange themselves on the court and how they'll behave when you're not controlling them directly. It's a fair amount of complexity for a game that's so simple to play at its core.
In spite of all this, the single-player championship mode really isn't all that interesting. Particularly at the default difficulty setting, it's quite easy to fight your way to the top. Your computer opponents will fall prey to the same sorts of tricks over and over, and their own tactics tend to be predictable at best. Some of the tougher teams have an annoying habit of trying to throw you off guard by passing the ball around and around before finally chucking it your way, but even this gets very predictable soon enough. In turn, this tactic points to one of Super Dodge Ball's problems--there's no time constraint during the matches. You can hold on to the ball for as long as you like. Oftentimes, when both you and your opponent are down to just one teammate, the pacing of the game will grind to an excruciating halt. Such situations are tense, but also frustrating, because what ought to be a fast-paced game instead slows way down because a player will become too hesitant to attack, for fear of retribution.
Super Dodge Ball's two-player mode can suffer from this inconsistent pacing, and it can also occasionally suffer from stuttering gameplay. You and a friend both need the game cartridge in order to play, yet the game will sometimes pause and unpause unpredictably and inexplicably during a two-player match. Super Dodge Ball is all about timing, so needless to say these interruptions can severely dampen your enjoyment of the two-player mode. Still, this problem won't necessarily affect you, as the stuttering doesn't occur very frequently. When it's running smoothly, the two-player mode is certainly the best part of the game. Your human opponent won't be nearly as predictable as the computer, and the entire concept of the game lends itself very well to quick, competitive matches.
Like many first-generation Game Boy Advance games, Super Dodge Ball looks very good by the standards for a portable gaming system. The clear and detailed 2D graphics in Super Dodge Ball are reminiscent of those found on the 16-bit Super Nintendo system. The characters themselves may not appeal to fans of previous installments in the Super Dodge Ball series. They're not the same tough guys from yesteryear, but instead mostly consist of youngish boys and girls that look like they're Pokemon trainers in the off-season. The action in the game--specifically, the ball itself--moves very quickly, yet trying to catch a tricky throw is hardly impossible and actually quite rewarding whenever you succeed. The sound in Super Dodge Ball is minimal (there's a prominent smacking sound for whenever someone takes a hit), but the music is loud and can be quite grating, so you probably won't mind not listening to it.
Super Dodge Ball does a good job of showcasing the power of the Game Boy Advance--it's fast, colorful, and fun to play. It's true that the single-player modes can get repetitive, and the two-player mode doesn't seem polished. Furthermore, aside from the small variety of different court surfaces that can affect how players move about, all Super Dodge Ball matches are pretty much the same. The rules of Super Dodge Ball could have benefited from some refinement, if not some more variation. Still, the game will invariably appeal to fans of its predecessors, though these as well as new Super Dodge Ball players will likely find themselves hoping that an updated version will expand and improve upon the many unique and enjoyable aspects of the game.