In the early 90s (practically the infancy of gaming as we know it) there was a tremendous controversy over videogames, sex, and violence. There were concerns that, since videogames had progressed past being red dot versus blue dot and now featured tremendously less abstract decapitations, videogames were profane and poisoning the poor kiddies playing them, and, please, won’t someone do something to protect us all? In a move that certainly wasn’t just a shortcut to placating the masses, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was founded in 1994. It was thus to be the job of the ESRB to rate games according to their content, and clearly label every release with information denoting it as “E for Everybody” to “M for Mature”. However, a year earlier, Sega of America introduced the Videogame Rating Council, a slightly more primitive version of the ESRB that had much the same goal (pacifying Karen). In this case, we had three ratings: GA for general audiences, and two version of MA (mature audiences) with two different ages: 13 and 17. Games that earned a MA-17 rating included Lethal Enforcers and Mortal Kombat 2, while MA-13 went to the likes of Super Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat (1), and Lunar: The Silver Star Story.
And Ballz. Ballz is for mature 13-year olds only.
In a lot of ways, Ballz was improbably ahead of its time. For one thing, it’s a 3-D fighting game released about seven seconds before the era where that was the only fighting game style available. Shortly before the release of Tekken or Battle Arena Toshinden, here was a fighter taking place on a “real” 3-D plane where you could just as easily side-step around a fireball as jump. There are even techniques involved here that would become standard within the genre, like dodge rolling away from a fallen position, or grappling with an opponent in a manner that is impossible (or at least boring) in 2-D titles. And there are some systems that never caught on that could be very interesting in the right hands. Every character can morph into every other character. Could you imagine that in a more robust fighting game engine? You’re fighting the entire roster at once every time! High level play in such an environment could be amazing! Counter pick after counter pick until the timer runs out!
But one feature that was certainly adopted by Ballz’s fighting game descendants is the overt bombast of a seemingly average fight. The fighting game genre has always been “loud”, and anyone that spent ten seconds in an arcade in the early 90s could tell you exactly how many sonic booms were tossed by Guile in an afternoon (the answer is infinity plus one). But, as fighting games evolved in graphics, they too evolved in piercing presentation. Possibly as a result of copying real-world, “real” sports, fighting games went on to adopt cinematic staging by standardizing features like replays, wrestling-esque taunts, and announcers. As a result, the average fighting game nowadays is chattier than your average JRPG, and we’re never allowed to forget that the soul still burns. Whether or not this makes things better is up to the player, but it’s pretty clear that if you play a Japanese fighting game, and it doesn’t have seven different settings for “announcer”, toss on your hazmat suit, because you’re handling toxic garbage.
Ballz has its own announcer. Its announcer is just a little more… silent than the modern incarnations.
Ballz’s designers knew the game had to drip attitude, and that that wasn’t going to be properly conveyed by a simple fight between a ballerina and a rhino. No, they needed something more. Silent protagonists were not going to cut it, and primitive 16-bit cartridges weren’t going to support the literary magnum opus required of Ballz. What Ballz needed was special. Ballz needed a damn Jumbotron ™. Ballz decided to screw subtlety to the sticking-place, and just ram a gigantic television screen into the background. Maybe even a couple! And this screen could display taunts, announcements, and a comprehensive running fight commentary in the background. So, during each and every fight, you’ve got a background that is expounding such complicated thoughts as “administer smackies” while a few lesser screens display what appears to be an animated GIF of fireworks before displaying the game’s logo. Is it distracting? Of course! But does it convey exactly what Ballz is all about? Also yes! While it is always confusing who the hell is “talking” through the various screens (some are clearly statements by the combatants, but there seems to be an omniscient “narrator” somewhere in there, too. And then there’s some random malcontent that really wants you to “taunt the ostrich”…), all of the statements stick to the basic theme and attitude of Ballz. It’s irreverent! It’s anti-establishment! In a world of sober Fatalities and Cinekills, Ballz is juvenile and insolent. Ryu is seriously trying to test his serious skills in a very serious tournament, but Yoko the Ballz Monkey is seriously going to fart in his face. This whole game is a synonym for testicles! Get it!?
And it is for this reason that I must compliment the Videogame Rating Council on a job well done.
Initially, it seemed ridiculous that this title would be rated MA-13. It’s silly! It’s a “violent” videogame, but all the characters are made of multi-colored balls. They are barely human shaped, and the idea that this title could be taken seriously in any legitimate way seems as ridiculous as a sumo wrestler tackling a kangaroo (which, to be clear, can happen in Ballz). Ballz being rated MA-13 literally puts it on the same level as the infamous Mortal Kombat, and, unless there’s some missable stage hidden around here, there is absolutely no one that has their still-beating heart ripped out of their ribs. Mortal Kombat defined videogame violence for an entire generation, while Ballz is roughly as vicious as the Pixar logo. Did you see what that desk lamp did to that letter? I am amazed children are allowed to view such a thing.
But Ballz does warrant its rating. Not because it is a violent videogame, but because only a thirteen year old would enjoy this. Ballz has a tone that matches the way a young teenager farts in the general direction of authority. This isn’t high satire, this is a game precisely designed for someone that is just mature enough to be thirteen.
And everybody behind Ballz knew it.
So thank you, gentle members of the Videogame Rating Council in 1994, for knowing that, too. You truly thought of the children.
FGC #499 Ballz
- System: Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo initially, and then a “director’s cut” for the 3DO. There’s a system seller!
- Number of players: Two fighters comprised of ever so many balls.
- Port differences: This game was very obviously designed for the Sega Genesis (the three button control scheme gives it away), but it looks so much better on the SNES. However, Nintendo did not have its own ratings board, and demanded that Ballz remove its more risqué elements. There’s no almost naked butt to be found on the SNES version, and instead of starting with “you gotta have… Ballz!” the intro reads “you’ve got to play… Ballz!” One little change makes all the difference, apparently.
- Favorite Fighter: Crusher the Rhino-Man is exactly the kind of Spider-Man villain that I want to see appear in more games.
- Favorite Boss: There are five separate bosses randomly sprinkled across the single player campaign. The first three are all animals, and obviously follow the traditional threat graduation schema of ostrich -> kangaroo -> tyrannosaurus. From there, you’ve got an opponent that is a blue genie that transforms into other animals, but is not actually an animal. And then the final boss is a murder clown.
- So there’s a clown factor? Boomer the circus clown is a regular fighter, and The Jester is the final boss, organizer of this tournament, and theoretical announcer. That’s two scary clowns in one game! There should be a videogame council that exists to protect children from that.
- Did you know? Lamprey the Genie is so named because of the general pun on the phrase “Genie’s Lamp”. He has nothing to do with eels. Thank God.
- Would I play again: Nope. There are so many other fighting game options that are actually, ya know, good. Maybe find me a version of Ballz where everyone doesn’t feel like they’re scooting around on rollerblades, and we’ll talk.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bah. It’s #500. Let’s keep it a surprise. Tune in Friday for something or other. I’m sure it will be nice. Please look forward to it!