• Beach Spikers Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    When both Mario Sunshine and Beach Spikers arrive on the same day an interesting dilemma arises. On one hand you have the latest title from Sega favourites AM2 and on the other you have the eagerly awaited next instalment of Mario that you've been waiting six years for, which to play first? Since you just know that Mario will be impossible to put down from the moment the game begins, Beach Spikers gets the first nod, just for a quick go you understand. Ten minutes later and things are going well, the tutorial has been cleared, Arcade mode is about to start and Mario remains sealed. An hour later, Arcade mode has been completed. Mario remains sealed.

    Three hours after starting, the single player World Tour is well underway, the thumbs are aching, the AI partner is finally starting to return the ball and Mario has more or less been forgotten. Sega are hardly known for their wise business sense and indeed releasing Beach Spikers on the same day as the biggest and most important game of the year is something of commercial suicide, however don't let be said that this game deserves to be ignored - Beach Spikers is by far the best sports game on the Gamecube.

    Based off the wonderful world of beach volleyball, Beach Spikers emulates its sport in a similar way as Sega's Virtua Tennis series; brilliantly simple mechanics combined with incredibly deep and immensely playable gameplay. Even with just two buttons, AM2 have successfully designed a system where every passing shot, defensive move or devastating attacking spike is easily pulled off. Serving for example starts with the camera placed behind your selected female character and a power bar rises and descends awaiting a press of a button. Pressing A on the pad will perform a standard overhead serve but pressing B will pull off an underarm serve. Pressing both together will result in a jumping service, which will usually result in the recipient being knocked to the floor due to the sheer power.

    Every situation you are faced with in Beach Spikers has multiple solutions, some may lose you the game, others will win it, and due to the speedy nature of arcade gaming you are often expected to react within a miniscule amount of time. That's the crunch; you are always just a split second away from winning a point and yet at the same time just moments away from losing. Whenever your opponents leap up at the net in preparation for a crushing spike you simply cannot help but feel like the point is already lost, however a defensive block later and the point is still up for grabs. On the flip side, whenever you jump up to spike you always feel like the point is already won, only for your opponent to rudely snatch the ball before it hits the ground. Beach Spikers certainly plays with your emotions, especially during a mammoth rally where either team have ample chances to win the point.

    An average point in Beach Spikers plays as follows; once your opponent has served the ball anywhere inside your half of the court, either of your two players must stand on top of a coloured ring that appears in the sand indicating the balls landing point, a press of a button and the ball will be passed to your partner who in turn must do the same; pass it back to yourself. The idea of these two passes is to set up the spike, or in layman's terms, a smash. Once a spike has been initiated, the camera will track behind the player and the power bar will appear and rise quickly to 100% and back down to zero again, press either button (or both together) during this time and the ball will be 'spiked' into the opponents half of the court. Simple.

    Simple? Not quite. Any decent opposition will be prepared for any substandard spike and will be hovering around the net area ready for a cheeky block. A straightforward spike with almighty power may get blocked, but the poor female on the receiving end will probably be knocked off her feet and the ball could, quite literally, go anywhere. Perhaps it would be a better idea to lob the ball over the player at the net with a sneaky deep shot? Perhaps, but remember the second opponent is probably already waiting at the base line. That large open court is suddenly beginning to look mighty small, and you are given a frightfully short amount of time to decide what to do.

    The single player game in Beach Spikers is enjoyable but somewhat disappointing, especially after the brilliant World Tour in Virtua Tennis 2. While the arcade mode will have you controlling both of your team members, the World Tour lets you create your own persona plus an AI controlled partner from an impressive array of costumes, faces and hair designs (including hidden ones based off classic Sega characters of old). Your AI partner will start off being virtually hopeless in everything she does, unable to react, pathetic spiking and defensive ability but after each match you are given a few points to increase her stats in a number of areas. Interestingly, your own character isn't given an option to improve, as unlike many sports games each character is exactly the same; only player or AI controlled skills making the difference. Eventually your partner will be able to start winning points before winning games and finally championship stages through the season.

    An original idea that adds a little bit more depth to the system is that during the game when changing ends of the court, you are given a choice of four comments to give to your partner (You're doing great, Could do better, You're awful, No comment), and depending on what you choose your AI partner may raise or lower her game accordingly. Giving encouragement can sometimes be thrown back in your face, while scolding the partner with a damning insult can be met with disastrous consequences when she all but gives up. Sometimes though, a little insult here and there can do the world of good, suddenly she will realise where the problem lies and becomes the real hero of the game. It's a decent and welcome idea, although once you've raised your partner up to full stats and reached 100% with the comments, it becomes slightly worthless. The World Tour mode offers a fair amount of game time and you are unlikely to win it until at least the second season, but it is unfortunate that the AI partner can be maxed out within such a short time. Enjoyable, certainly, but at the end of the day Sega's Tennis series offers more for the single player gamer.

    Beach Spikers can be best summed up as being classic Sega. From the cheesy commentator to the dreadful yet catchy tunes, the beautiful graphics to the delightful little touches, Beach Spikers is everything you could want from a sports game. Once you've tried and dismissed the amusing but pointless multiplayer party games and got stuck into the faultless four player mode, little niggles such as a slightly hyperactive camera and disappointing single player campaign become a distant memory. Due to the sport it represents it may not be as instantly gratifying as other titles about, but to allow Beach Spikers to be washed under the sea of Mario's hype would be an unforgivable crime.

    A review by Pete Johns