Casual Friday: Rockstar Presents Table Tennis (2006)
I really do yearn for the days of video rental stores, especially if they had a kick-ass video game store hooked onto them the way my local Hollywood Video stores all had GameCrazy. That's the place where I bought my beloved Nintendo 64. It's the same place where I developed my love of bargain-hunting. It was Chris Pranger's first job that he could stomach. And thanks to demo console kiosks, I discovered some true gems of the video game industry that would have flown neatly under my radar otherwise. The very first game that I experienced on the Xbox 360--which, at the time I derisively referred to as the "Crazy White Circle Box"--was a game arguably designed to be a demo, but so undeniably polished to warrant a full-scale release.
Rockstar Presents Table Tennis is such a weird game, but not for any aesthetic or mechanical reason. Just because Rockstar made it. As impressive as Rockstar eventually became with their cinematic plot progression and living, breathing environments in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption on the same platform, here the company created a game with the thesis of "bigger isn't necessarily always better." Good grief, just look at Table Tennis's direct ancestor, Pong. It's the most stripped down, elegantly simple home video game every conceived, and here we have the same concept. Just, you know, with really impressive HD graphics. The first use of RAGE--Rockstar's proprietary engine that still powers feats like Red Dead Redemption II--here makes the physics and realistic character designs the headline reason to play.
The characters were among the most photo-realistic ever released, and still hold up quite well to this day. Their clothing would wrinkle and bunch with their movement, sweat stains accumulated under their arms with an impressive degree of fidelity to the length or intensity of their match. The illusions of weight, gravity, and inertia were impressive, and quickly became the standard for similar demo console darlings like EA's Fight Night Round 3. Rockstar's decision to focus solely on building an engine to push the newest hardware to its brink, and then release a game that demonstrates it with such brevity, what a concept! Especially doing so before using said engine to dive into a gigantic Grand Theft Auto sequel. I suspect such a decision would be laughed out of the room over at Rockstar these days.
But, hey? Is this a fun game to play? Yeah, totally. If you like ping-pong. The conspicuous stripped-down approach extends to the actual gameplay: it's one-on-one play only, there are only eleven stock player characters to choose from, and the offline singleplayer game consists of four tournaments of varying difficulty. Button-mashing will probably get a player through the opening few matches, but the AI kicks up a notch as one progresses, of course. Each rival player does possess their own style of play and weaknesses, kind of like a Knockout! with beefed up visuals. And with paddles. There is a split-screen mode for playing against a buddy on the couch, and the online mode pits up to eight players together in instant tournaments.
Players have four different types of spin to put on the ball, which can also be combined into hybrid spin techniques. There are meters for the level of power and spin you wish to put on your serve, and a power-up "focus" meter that can be tapped with the shoulder button for an added power effect. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? That's on purpose. The focus on the core gameplay of table tennis leaves you, the player, to find your rhythm and your technique. By watching the ball, and the color of halo around it, you can discern what kind of spin your opponent has used and try to counter it appropriately, making reaction and adaptation a key virtue.
I can't say this loud enough...Table Tennis could be argued as the best EA Sports game of its generation, and the sport is ping-pong. Also, it was made by Rockstar instead of EA. What can I say, 2006 was a very strange year for video games. Don't ask too many questions, just be thankful it's backwards compatible.