Cosmic Smash is a heavily stylised sports game with the emphasis placed strongly on arcade gameplay, which received only a small budget release in Japan. A big departure for respected Sega Rally developers Sega Rosso, realism is dropped in favour of immediate gameplay, funky music and pre-eminent cool. Ushering us in to this gaming metaverse, an announcer simply declares 'Welcome to Cosmic Smash', in a manner so laid back you imagine it took quite some effort.
Cosmic Smash delivers a claustrophobic gaming environment based on the game of squash, set in enclosed cuboid arenas. A single humanoid figure faces off against transparent blocks, racing against a ticking clock projected onto the playfield floor. Escape from this pressurised container is granted when each court's blocks are defeated, which takes our faceless protagonist onto the next stop on a surreal bus route. Following different routes, each destination brings ever more complex arrangements of blocks, with 50 stops in total and one secret level.
Clearly inspired by Atari's classic Breakout arcade game (itself derived from Pong), the gameplay of Cosmic Smash more closely follows that of Virtua Tennis. Using digital controls you have two basic moves available using the face buttons: Smash and Jump. Shots can be controlled in a familiar way, by holding a direction whilst charging a Smash. The ball can bounce off any surface, and level arrangements encourage you to try bouncing a shot around various surfaces to strike as many blocks as possible. Lining up a shot requires quite a bit of skill - the height a ball comes at you is crucial, so setup shots can be used to skilfully position the ball.
The Jump action allows you to intercept shots mid air, but with the normal Smash shot timing needs to be spot on. Extending this basic skill set is the Trick Smash, which charges the ball upon contact, allowing it to travel through blocks and take more of them out in a single shot. The Trick Smash also has the special ability to slow down the ball and suck it towards your racquet, if timed correctly. Trick Smashes take longer to perform, and speed up the countdown, so they need to be used sparingly.
Holding the control stick in different directions when charging a Trick Smash can produce a variety of stylish Tricks. Your on-screen alter ego can fire off shots between his legs while gambolling mid-air, encouraging you to strive for more visually impressive moves. A bonus score is awarded for finishing each arena with a Trick Smash, complete with a celebration pose, and an even larger bonus is available if you can complete the game with a Trick finish in every court.
While the controls are enjoyably intuitive, it is the level arrangements and tight time limit that hook you in to this game. Starting with 80 seconds, each round is a frantic rush that keeps the adrenalin flowing despite the relaxed presentation. You are rewarded with only 20 additional seconds at the beginning of each new level, so managing precious time to survive the more difficult areas is an essential part of the game. A few simple mistakes early on, and your game will be over in a few scant minutes.
Blocks can be of different sizes, indestructible, or require several hits to destroy. Some blocks contain power ups when smashed, either causing small blue balls to fly around the court, or giving you a green spin power up making the ball more controllable. Some blocks have the ability to move along straight lines or in circles, all of which allows for creative level design. Sometimes, judicious use of the Trick Smash is needed to clear many multi-hit blocks, other times perfectly hooking the ball behind indestructible blocks to take out normal ones is the right approach. Moving blocks follow a pattern, so timing your shot when they converge, or controlling a moving block that is hemmed in can be advantageous.
Managing time, carefully choosing your route and mastering different level designs is key to improving at Cosmic Smash. Like most good arcade games the challenge is open ended, pushing your high score further and further is the main aim and addictive hook. Cosmic Smash does have some obvious flaws, however. The game options allow you to increase the time limit, which greatly diminishes the challenge for less patient gamers. Once learned, most levels are easily negotiated and the game is short enough to be finished in a few minutes by a skilled player.
Visually, Cosmic Smash is a virtuoso performance in minimalist retro-future chic, instilling pure joy in anyone old enough to remember the beautiful artificial vistas of Tron. Playing arenas are either clean white with grey line details and strong, disembodied light sources, or pitch black with green neon strips of colour defining the room. The player model and ball both emit light that gives enjoyable, subtle lighting effects in white areas, and a warm glow in black ones. Blocks are shiny and transparent, casting reflections on arena walls.
The player model is entirely transparent, save for an internal stickman structure. This stick skeleton features a brain, rounded joints, and along the spine spinning plates which all glow red when the character exerts himself. The model is outlined in a similar fashion to cell shading, and crackles with orange and yellow energy when charging a Trick Shot. This clean, simple design is extended to the game's presentation and menus, which include a beautiful attract mode featuring an exciting selection of dynamic camera angles. The game's visual style is even extended to the packaging, which features a transparent DVD case and inlay. The red-printed GD-ROM is clipped into the front of the slip case, becoming part of the cover art.
While gameplay is fast, fun, simple and addictive, it is best enjoyed only in quick bursts. Learning the optimum bus route, mastering the levels, and pushing that high score are all enjoyable activities, but limited ones. Unapologetically so, in fact: this no frills conversion of the arcade game wears its heritage on its sleeve. These are not so much design flaws as they are design choices. As an expression of style and design simplicity Cosmic Smash succeeds handsomely, but is a game that would benefit from greater depth.
A review by Richard Davies