The time capsule presents that Flying Tiger Entertainment and Johnny Turbo keep bringing us on the Nintendo Switch is a fascinating glimpse back into arcades of the 90s. For the most part, my local arcade only kept things that were incredibly trendy and popular (or cheap) in stock: things like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II and the odd pinball table were staples of my childhood. Games that many people enjoyed – The massive X-Men cabinet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – were all games that I discovered after the fact, in deep dives to better understand arcade culture. There was a world outside of my small town, and there were (and still are) games that go well outside my scope. So when a title like Nitro Ball presents itself, I have to just marvel and say “Why?” and “Why not?” in the same breath.
In the far future of some dystopian scope of time, the world has, once again, devolved into watching people fight for their lives in a gameshow of some kind. This concept has been done to death, in television shows, books, movies and, yes, video games. Smash TV, for better or worse, did a phenomenal job, but they weren’t the only ones. Nitro Ball has players walking through what can only be classified as demented pinball tables, fighting their way through waves of explosive traps, hired mercenaries and dangerous robots to collect fabulous prizes. At the end of each table is the big boss, meant to make sure players don’t make it to the next round. Take any of the oddly stereotypical dark world heroes – ex-cop, ex-marine, ex-human – and destroy all you can for fame, fortune and fun. After all, this isn’t just your regular game of pinball: this is Nitro Ball!
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Nitro Ball. First and foremost, someone looked at a pinball table, thought it would be interesting if people were inside it, and then thought that would be even more interesting if those people were all trying to kill each other. That alone shows the levels of insanity that helped make Data East really tick in their heyday. But, at the same time, there’s also some great examples of top down shooting here, and a bit more that gives you insight into why the genre evolved into twin stick shooting in today’s day and age. But even more interesting is the fact that Nitro Ball supports not one, not two, but three players. So they allowed two player co-op action, like you do, but they then decided that a total of three players was awesome but not totally unbalanced. Somehow the cramped conditions of Nitro Ball meant that four was totally out-of-bounds, but three was just the right level of over-the-top mayhem that you’d expect in this kind of shooter. Between the prizes, the ammunition and the sheer number of objects on the screen, the amount of draw that Nitro Ball creates is actually impressive, especially given the era.
And there’s a lot to like about Nitro Ball, in all honesty. For anyone who’s played a single twin stick shooter in the last few years, you’re going to dominate at this game. The enemies come in predictable waves, the bosses have easy-to-follow patterns, and you have to shoot the same direction that you aim but that doesn’t affect the gameplay overall. Due to some pretty simplistic patterns and lack of real omnidirectional movement, almost every NPC and obstacle can be shot at from a comfortable distance without much danger. There are various weapons upgrades that get dropped along with the cash and prizes, and each player does have a limited “power up” shot that acts as a room sweeper, decimating and eliminating everything with the exception of bosses. With three players at the helm at once, as long as you’ve all played a video game before, you can bang out a run of the game – all five worlds – in less than a half hour, earning you fame, fortune and freedom in under thirty minutes.
Yes, the curse of the arcade era does rear its ugly head with the realization of the full-time investment of Nitro Ball. The original concept, surely, was meant to mimic the hardest of the topdown shooters available at the time, calling up titles like Metal Gear, Heavy Barrel, and Contra, while still make it friendly enough for little Johnny Latchkey to call over his friend, Mickey Quarters, to dump his change into the machine. The problem is that a lot of great companies have helped to make modern players more reflexive and instinctively distrustful when it comes to the top down shooter approach, and you’ll find yourself almost moving in a hyperalert, tightly wound fashion that keeps the danger at bay. We’ve all gotten used to dodging bullets flying from all sides, shots that don’t obey gravity or physics, or even just weaving between curtains of bullets to stay alive another day. In comparison, the massive nine shots at a time that some bosses unleash is borderline laughable. Considering how many of today’s gamers bemoan the difficulty curve and unforgiving nature of throwback platformers, they might find Nitro Ball to be a breath of incredibly fresh, canned air in comparison.
But again, that doesn’t dismiss the fun that comes with the game inherently. Even in a single player mode, it’s a havoc-based joy to blow up huge bumpers, spiked dervishes and armed guards while the crowd cheers you on, and the occasional dead body inexplicably drops a big screen TV. When a group of cheerleaders rushed the field to cheer me on as I detonated everything in sight, it was a level of surreal that I could barely comprehend was actually happening. Then to turn into a massive pinball at several points, bowling over everything in my path and becoming a sphere of massive damage, was just absurd enough to work. Saving up those powerful shots for when you have a timed event (Destroy Everything In 10 Seconds!) and then sweeping it all to get massive prizes…it’s a simple but cathartic release. Add in the possibility of having two other people on-screen to help keep the party going and you’ve got yourself a proper throwback experience.
Lastly, Nitro Ball does have a lot (and I mean a LOT) of humor in presentation and elemental design. Each world has its own spark, making nods to some really big names of the 80s and 90s, including Ghostbusters, Terminator and Aliens. The fact that a blue variant of Slimer attacks you in one area isn’t lost on anyone, and the end boss of that level looks suspiciously like the NES version of Dracula from Castlevania. Each stage concludes with a semi-serious pinball high score screen, and your quest for survival is less vital than making sure you get the maximum number of points. Also, I think that, when you win, you become president of the United States? Is that just what happened when you used to beat video games back in the 90s? Or was that the hope and dream of parent and child alike: Johnny will get so good at Mario that he’ll lead the free world? I don’t know, but I played the hell out of my NES and never even considered the political path, so something must have gone wrong there.
Nitro Ball would probably fair quite poorly in today’s market against the giants of twinstick shooting and even rank low in a “retro inspired” sort of way. However, as a legitimate old school arcade shooter, it’s got plenty of teeth, lots of quirk and some interesting takes on the genre and on arcade games in general. I appreciate what Johnny Turbo and Flying Tiger continue to do, and I’m glad that I get a chance to see more and more of these titles that escaped my vantage previously, when I was young and poor. If you’ve got fond memories or just a rampant curiosity, it might be worth entering the arena of Nitro Ball for at least one quick, pyrotechnic spin.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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