While Sega has received much praise for its serious sports games in recent years, it has also released, to significantly less fanfare, some highly enjoyable arcade-style sports games. Now, with the help of Virtua Fighter developer AM2, Sega has released Beach Spikers for the GameCube, an all-female beach volleyball game. The game's focus on lovely ladies in bikinis may seem a bit like pandering, but Beach Spikers consistently avoids any overt lewdness you might expect and rises above it by delivering an all-around excellent game with impressive visuals and tight, intuitive gameplay.
Players already familiar with Hitmaker's dependably excellent Virtua Tennis series should have little trouble adjusting to the simpler controls of Beach Spikers, which uses the control stick and the A and B buttons for all in-game controls. Generally speaking, the A button is used for regular shots, the B button for weaker shots, and a combination of the two to produce a special high-powered shot. The analog stick is used for general player movement and can also be used to determine which direction your shot will go while you're powering up for a shot. Overall, the controls are tight and responsive. They're simple enough for a novice to pick up and play without much fuss, but they include enough depth to make it satisfying for more advanced players.
Beach Spikers consists of three main gameplay modes--arcade, world tour, and versus. The arcade mode lets you select from any one of the 16 international teams and participate in an 8-team tournament. Since it's virtually impossible to play volleyball with only one player on the court, Beach Spikers makes solo play possible in the arcade mode by automatically switching controls from one character to another, usually choosing the character that is in the most optimal position to take action on the ball. On the whole, this works well.
The world tour mode could almost be described as a volleyball RPG. You start off creating a two-woman team using Beach Spikers' impressive catalog of hairstyles, faces, sunglasses, and outfits, and then proceed to compete in a series of tournaments. The big twist is that your second character is computer-controlled and starts off playing the game about as effectively as a really stupid rock. You'll lose the first few matches, but as you do you'll gain experience points that can be applied to your partner's different skills, such as serving, returning, blocking, and so on. You'll also be asked to praise, encourage, or reprimand your partner during the game based on her performance, and your teamwork rating will rise or fall based on how your partner reacts to the input. While it's all kind of bizarre, it's also oddly pleasurable to watch your partner develop her skills, going from being a no-talent scrub to matching, and maybe even surpassing, your own skill level.
In the versus mode, you're given a choice of playing a regular match or one of three different minigames. Beach Flags has you mashing on the A button Track and Field-style in order to sprint down the beach and grab the flag before your opponents. In Beach Countdown, the volleyball is replaced with a bomb with a burning fuse. Players must volley the bomb back and forth until the bomb's fuse runs out or one of the teams drops the bomb. Finally, Beach P.K. is a basic spike-and-return competition. With support for up to four players, a regular multiplayer match can prove to be an enjoyable endeavor indeed, but the minigames that you can choose from simply aren't much fun.
Graphically, Beach Spikers is virtually infallible. AM2 has spared no polygons on the near-Amazonian player models, and their animation is quite natural and convincing, right down to the variety of friendly celebratory embraces. The game makes excellent use of lighting, giving sharp definition to the real-time shadows and imbuing each of the sponsored courts with its own unique color palette. Another nice effect is the way the well-groomed sandy court surface will show depressions from the impact of the players as a match progresses. Beach Spikers features an actively dynamic camera that constantly moves around the court to give the best perspective on the action possible. The upside is that it generally does a good job of this, and it completely eliminates any backcourt perspective issues. The downside is that you'll often not be able to see your side of the court at all, forcing you to depend on the small minimap at the bottom of the screen for reference, and sometimes the camera simply just does not move fast enough to keep up with the action. But aside from the minor discrepancies with the camera, Beach Spikers is nothing short of a joy to watch.
If there's a chink in Beach Spikers' armor, it's probably the sound. The soundtrack itself isn't so offensive, composed mostly of arcade rock tunes with an emphasis on wailing electric guitars and punchy synthesizers. The in-game sounds are generally good, though the sound produced by a really strong spike or a successful block has a rather hollow sound that doesn't seem quite right. But no, the worst aspect of the aural presentation of Beach Spikers is the eager announcer who not only vocalizes each menu item, but will comment on every single shot that is made, and with only a handful of in-game exclamations at his disposal, these can become tiresome. You can put a gag on the announcer by turning off all in-game sound effects in the options menu, but there's no way to simply isolate and remove him, and that is unfortunate.
While it's certainly easy to enjoy women's beach volleyball while watching it on ESPN2, it's surprising that AM2 has been able to translate the sport into something that's good fun to play as well. While the provocative eye candy will certainly be enough to lure some players, Beach Spikers is legitimately enjoyable enough to warrant the attention of any player looking for some fun, fast-paced arcade-style action.