Much like I know that, pulling up next to a car full of otherwise normal teenage boys doing a pitch-perfect rendition of Katy Perry’s California Gurls, they have to be ‘on something’, so too do I venture to guess that the developers of Happy Pong (240 MSP) were ‘on something’ during the genesis of their game. My detective’s intuition tells me something is going on here, though what that something is, I haven’t a clue.
It’s certainly a videogame in the general sense, with a control scheme, pause button, menus and the like, gameplay that’s a vague mashup of Pong, pinball, and a vertical shooter. Similarities to any of those ideas end there. The description itself foams at the mouth, promising Mad Cow disease and life-giving Bacon, with four different modes and ten modifiers, though Happy Pong defies regular categorization, let alone its ‘Classics’ designation. It’s… busy. Yes. This game is busy.
From start to finish in a single play, you’ll witness the full spectrum of discernible color. It moves non-stop, bouncing and jerking around, running endless lines of enemies at you, splashing / swapping visual filters and sound messily over everything (epilepsy warnings abound with this one) in an attempt to convey… something. Immediacy? Bizarre? Fun? It’s all debatable. It can be summed up best by saying that something is always happening on-screen, and all you can hope to do is match it the best you can.
The primary setting sees you pulling double-duty, shooting at ‘unhappy campers’ Space Invaders-style while trying to keep several balls in play, knocking out enemies and adding to your combo. Powerups and special attacks factor in, as well. The other game modes available focus on one area of attack (balls only, guns only), but play roughly the same and with the same objective. Curiously, there’s no real penalty to letting the balls hit bottom and reset, as you’ll only lose health / lives from being hit by enemies or laser fire. The shooter aspect of the action, however, suffers from the hand-crippling inability to hold down the button to continuously fire, leaving you more tired than challenged.
The modifiers (it’s better to call them ‘distractions’), too, are mostly useless, from a gameplay perspective. Almost all of them distort the screen or its colors, stretching and warping the action to an uncomfortable degree (my brain hurts at the mere memory of it), multiplying your potential score by turning the options on, yes, but rendering it nearly unplayable in turn. Does anyone really want to squint at their TV screen and / or take educated guesses on where their paddle is, just to boost their ranking on a local leaderboard? The question is rhetorical because the answer is no.
If you know what’s going on here, you’re a better man than I.
It’s a different take on a traditional concept, minting ‘Busy’ as a new sub-genre, but Happy Pong feels more like a novelty item than a serious attempt at breaking new ground. It’s all visual diarrhea and ridiculous gameplay modifiers that don’t make sense to use, and the shooting portion, if taken on its own, is basic (and flawed at that). A little weird is fine, but not ‘$3 worth of weird’ fine.