Sportsfriends review: With friends like these

It may be difficult for some to imagine now, but once upon a time, a multiplayer video game required that players be gathered in the same physical space. There was no Xbox Live, no PlayStation Network, no online connection whatsoever. Whether you look back on that era with fondness or disdain will ultimately determine how you feel about Sportsfriends.

Sportsfriends is a collection of four local-multiplayer-only games: BaraBariBall, Johann Sebastian Joust, Super Pole Riders and Hokra. Each of these games is tied together by the idea that they could, perhaps in some wacky alternate universe, be considered real sports. In fact, Sportsfriends presents them on the main menu as a timeline, placing BaraBariBall as a game from ancient history, Joust as a more recent invention, Super Pole Riders as the sport of 2014, and Hokra as an invention from the future.

None of the games present deserve to be called mini-games. While some stand above others in terms of quality, each of them feels like a full-fledged release that could be bought and enjoyed individually.

BaraBariBall feels like a mix of volleyball and gladiatorial combat. Your goal, whether playing 1v1 or 2v2, is to dunk a ball into the colored water of your opponent(s). Characters can jump multiple times and attack one another when not holding the ball, which makes matches feel like an aggressive, acrobatic game of cat and mouse. Smooth animations and an uncluttered screen, plus the bright colors of the retro pixel art aesthetic make games of BBB a delight to watch.

Unfortunately, BBB still comes across as the weakest of Sportsfriends' selection. Throwing the ball never feels as forceful or strong as it should, and it's easy to get harassed by opponents to the point that you lose track of where you are and find yourself unable to retaliate. The selection of levels vary in their design, but none of them feel particularly different from one another. BBB's elements are all there, but they blur together in a way that makes it feel mundane.

Hokra, meanwhile, pits teams of two against one another in a top-down twist on king of the hill. Players fight for control of a puck that, when placed inside an area colored to match the corresponding team, fills up said area with color. The first team to fill their area completely wins. There's a lot of focus on evasion, as players who don't possess the puck can dash around the arena, stunning those they hit, while the player who controls the puck can no longer perform the dash maneuver.

Note that while I say "puck," what I mean is a single black square. Hokra features a super-minimalist style, similar to BBB. Here, players are represented by squares which leave colored trails like Tron lightcycles. The goal areas are likewise composed of adjacent squares. The future, as Sportsfriends imagines it, looks a lot like video gaming's past.

Hokra does allow you to build your own arenas, which can be fun to experiment with, but no matter what you design, you're still ultimately playing a pixelated version of the age-old game of keep-away. And while it's an old concept executed well, its sparkle doesn't last long. Hokra is entertaining enough for a round or two, but it doesn't beg to be played over and over again.

Then we have Super Pole Riders, which introduces a head-to-head version of pole vaulting where two to four players try to knock a ball, held aloft on a horizontal rope, into the opposing team's goal. In this game, it's not about the size of your pole, but how you use it.

Players can raise their lengthy, wobbly sticks to tap the ball and slide it along the rope, or they can angle their poles downward to propel their bodies up and kick the ball. The former strategy is safer but weaker, while the latter is more difficult to pull off but shoves the ball farther down the line. Deciding what you what to do in the moment requires fast thinking, and matches often feel like a frantic, desperate battle. When you score in Super Pole Riders, it feels earned.

Super Pole Riders is from Bennett Foddy, creator of the disjointed running sim QWOP, and the game wears its unsteady ancestry proudly on its sleeve. Unlike its infamous predecessor, however, Super Pole Riders strikes the perfect balance between goofy, purposefully-difficult controls and fun, accessible gameplay. You might not always swing your pole in the precise direction or velocity you want, but it's always fun watching the physics at work.

If you're willing to let your brain slip into the gutter, you'll also get an extra kick out of the game's phallic and sometimes homoerotic imagery. It's never explicit or mean-spirited, but is instead presented with subtle flair - the poles have round, red and purple tips, all characters are male and embrace tenderly after a match, and a character with a bear head is simply named "Bear."

Last up is a game you may be familiar with if you've attended PAX or other similar gaming conventions over the past half-decade: Johann Sebastian Joust. Unlike other games in the collection, Joust requires a physical stage for its gameplay. Up to seven players hold a PlayStation Move or DualShock controller in their hand and move to the tunes of classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach (or your own custom playlist, should you choose to set one up).

The controllers sense movement, and when a player – or their hand – moves too quickly, they're knocked out of the round. You want to move in a way that causes a player to jerk their controller forcefully while at the same time taking care that you don't cause your own controller to go off by making your move. The last player standing wins.

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It's an intense game unobstructed by user interfaces, and doesn't even require a screen at all. Controllers vibrate slightly when you're in danger of being knocked out, and shake violently when you lose. The lights on the Move and DualShock 4 turn red upon loss as well, and DS4 even emits a crashing sound from its speaker. Without the necessity of a screen, Johann Sebastian Joust is the least video game-like of the Sportsfriends collection. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on how much you want to shove your friends and be shoved in return.

If you do decide to joust, be mindful of where you play. Indoor environments with hard-edged furniture and breakable objects should be avoided; you never know when someone could trip and seriously hurt themselves or someone's property. Ironically, this video game, tied to a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4, is best played outside and requires more preparation than some board games. It's a lot of effort to get Joust up and going, but with a full set of seven players, it's worth it - there's nothing else on the market that so simply, purely epitomizes the word "play."

Joust, and indeed all of Sportsfriends, is centered on competition. Competition not with an AI or far distant gamertag, but with the friend sitting or standing next to you. While some games are stronger than others, they each create situations befitting a gathering of friends: BaraBariBall inspires trash talk, Hokra challenges you to coordinate with your team while your enemy can listen in, Pole Riders encourages players to embrace silliness and loosen up, and Joust will take you back in time to playing tag on the playground.

In the age of Netflix streaming, iTunes, Steam and online multiplayer, Sportsfriends stands apart by reminding us how to have fun with people, not avatars.

This review is based on a PSN download of the PS3 version of Sportsfriends, provided by Die Gute Fabrik. Sportsfriends is also available on PS4, and the game supports cross buy. Images: Die Gute Fabrik.

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