A rare local multiplayer treat
Welcome back, old palNow here’s an anomaly for you: Sportsfriends is a multiplayer-only compendium of video games that doesn't feature online integration of any type, and at least a quarter of its content requires precisely four players to function. That means you and three other people physically congregating in a room together with a set of controllers, sat on a sofa, trading insults, or in the case of mini-game Johann Sebastian Joust, actually physically interacting with other folk in the name of entertainment and leisure.
And you know what? It’s excellent. So many of my fondest gaming memories are generated from local multiplayer, and it’s such a rare treat in the age of Steam, PSN and Xbox Live that it has to be worth celebrating a title that focuses entirely on just getting people together. In the spirit of Micro Machines, Super Monkey Ball and Bill Gates’ favourite game of all time - Fuzion Frenzy, Sportsfriends evokes a golden, and arguably much purer, age of video games.
Balls & PolesSportsfriends contains four different games from which to choose, each rendered in a clean and colourful 8-bit throwback style. It’s an aesthetic that fits the experience beautifully, matching each of the games’ minimalistic control schemes and allowing anybody to pick up a controller and take a punt against their friends. The visuals convey the action with a friendly clarity, and the most finger-bending title only requires two buttons and a single analogue stick to control.
BaraBariball is probably the most complex of the four. Two teams of two players face off against each other on either side of various symmetrical single-screen levels, aiming to for possession of a ball and then dunk it into a pool of water on your opponent’s side. If it sinks beyond the boundaries of the screen then you score, while if your own player sinks in the process then you’ll lose a point. Leave the ball unprotected as it begins its slow descent and your opponents have a chance of recovery, but accompany it to the bottom of the screen and you risk getting knocked into the depths.
It’s plays like a reductive, sports-themed Smash Bros. Key to the action is a rechargeable jumping mechanic, indicated by a number of floating spheres that refill when your player touches solid ground. Risking your final couple of jumps to try and reach a sinking ball is always tempting, but you have to make sure you have enough hops left to propel back up to a ledge. Industrious opponents will usually wait for the right moment to pounce on a risky player, pummelling them away from safety and relishing the inevitable flurry of swear words that follow a point lost.
Barabariball is a hectic tug of war at times, but exhibits enough nuance and depth to sustain both team play and individual moments of brilliance. That sentiment is also apt for Super Pole Riders, which takes a similar two-on-two template but replaces some of Barabariball’s intense focus for slapdash physics-based lunging.
Unsurprisingly, this one is at its best when drink is involved. Teams of two face off against each other armed with nothing but a vaulting pole (controlled with the right analogue stick), with the main objective being to thrash a ball (suspended from a rope above the stage) towards your opponent’s target and score a point. To do so you’ll need to either whack it with your pole or vault towards it and produce a flying kick that propels it at speed along the wire. Momentum is key, but there’s enough woolliness and wobbliness in the pole control to reduce any attempt at professionalism to a laughable, crumpled heap.
It’s pure and frantic chaos, of the best type. The physics system governs all interactions between player, pole and ball, resulting in moments in which somebody will inadvertently propel themselves into the air off somebody’s head, launch over the ball and flying kick the opposition in the face; or, in one memorable moment at the weekend, manage to get stuck with one leg over the ball itself, suspended in motion by players from both sides exerting equal amounts of force as their poles were raised triumphantly in the air. A swift kick the head soon put paid to that situation.
Pixels & PushingThe third game in the compendium, Hokra, is the simplest to grasp. The action takes place on a top-down single-screen playing field, on which reside four large numbered squares each representing a player, a smaller square that could be loosely described as a hockey puck, and then several large scoring areas that match the colour of each two-on-two team. The objective is to pick up the puck and transport it back to your same-coloured scoring zone, which gradually fills towards a victory point the longer you can keep puck within its confines. A single button allows you to either slide the puck in any chosen direction, or alternatively charge towards your opponent if you’re not in possession.
It’s an intuitive concept to grasp when you see it in motion, and yet Hokra hides a good layer of tactical depth. Each match ebbs and flows as teams battle to shift the puck towards their own scoring zone, with players working to intercept passes, cut off charging players and feign their way to safety with quick shimmies or rotations. Obstacles litter each course, netting slows down players as they pass through it, and there’s even a robust level editor available for those that fancy a turn at crafting their own designs.
2v2 top-down Hockey is probably the best analogy I can come up with for Hokra, condensed into lightning-fast exchanges of possession that better resemble something like Basketball. As minimalist and easy to grasp as it is though, it can’t quite beat the back-to-basics nature of the final game, Johann Sebastian Joust.
Indeed, so minimalist is the design for J.S. Joust, you don’t even need a television to play it. What you do need is plenty of space, a good clutch of willing friends, a sound system, a sackful of PS4 or Move controllers (up to seven if you’re playing on PS3 or PC), and all breakable objects cleared away to a safe distance. A quick caveat needs to be made here in that my living room space was unfortunately too small and cluttered (and my friends too clumsy) to safely play the Sportsfriends version of J.S. Joust without breaking everything I own, but having played it at various trade shows over the past few years, I'm well-versed in its charms.
The concept is simple. A slowed-down version of a Bach concerto plays in the background, dictating the speed at which players can move. If your controller moves quicker than the music, you're out; so the general game plan is to stay as stable as possible whilst simultaneously attempting to bump and jostle your opponent so they lose control. Any swift controller movement instantly removes you from the game when the music is at its slowest, and then intermittent tempo changes give a little more room to lunge and move around in pursuit of others.
If you have the space and a willingness to potentially have Move controllers or Dualshocks clattering the ground from time to time, J.S. Joust should be top of your Sportsfriends list. It’s the sort of ridiculous choreographed brand of idiocy in which all manner of foul tactics are viable and (provided you’re playing with the right group), positively encouraged. It’s a thoroughly physical experience and yet still clings to video game technology in a manner that can’t fail to raise a grin.
- Local multiplayer brilliance
- Clean, crisp art style
- Charming design
- Simple, with plenty of depth
- J.S Joust might wreck your insurance
- More games would be welcome
Sportsfriends PS4 ReviewThe largest complaint that can be levelled at Sportsfriends is that it doesn't contain any singleplayer content whatsoever, but then that's kind of like complaining that Call of Duty features guns or that FIFA placed a multi-millionaire on its cover for the umpteenth time in a row. This is multiplayer. Don't buy it unless you plan on having people over.
But when you do have people over, I can pretty much guarantee everybody will find something to enjoy here. Barabariball and Super Pole Riders are likely to be the initial crowd-pleasers, but Hokra can also sink its claws deep if you have any competitive folk amongst your ranks, while J.S. Joust is more of a super-enhanced version of Twister than anything else you'll likely experience. Sprinkle liberally to break the ice amongst strangers.
For £11.99 you could maybe argue there's a question of value to be addressed, but realistically, for the cost of three pints you'll be picking up a title you'll likely come back to time and time again. Sure it might only be for an hour at a time, once every couple of months, but that doesn't make Sportsfriends any less worthwhile.
Local multiplayer has been gone too long, and between this and Towerfall, the PS4 currently has us spoiled for choice.
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