Often, the very simplest ideas make for the most enduring videogames. Take the likes of Tetris or Peggle; supremely simplistic concepts executed to near-perfection that have effortlessly stood the test of time in the years after their release. Another such example might be Atari’s quiet classic Breakout, which first appeared in the ’70s, but the concept has been reworked time and time again over the years. And that’s what Magic Ball is, in a nutshell; Breakout for the 21st century, replete with HD visuals and a suitably impressive Havok physics engine.
There are two main scenarios; pirates and knights. In each there are 24 levels of largely ascending difficulty and you will have to use your ‘paddle’ (it’s actually some kind of spaceship – not sure of the reasoning behind that) to bounce the ball up the screen to destroy everything in order to progress to the next level. Areas are filled with appropriately thematic and often slightly (knowingly) absurd obstacles, such as sharks and squids in the pirates episode and dragons and castles in the knights’. Your ball destroys objects, but the ease of this depends on what the item in question is; it can take down, say, a wooden crate in one hit, but something like a stone wall will take a few hits to destroy, and pit it against a metal gate and there is no hope – you’ll have to find another means to destroy this.
Mild strategies are introduced in the form of collectible items that fall down the screen, which you can pick up. These range from beneficial (multiple balls, rocket launcher, extra lives), through unhelpful (weaker balls, unpredictable movement, instant death) to bonus points and suchlike. There are times when things get especially hectic and avoiding or claiming collectibles becomes almost as important as rebounding your ball – do you go for the iron ball token with the potential to speed your way through the level, or do you play it safe, remain beneath your ball and spend a bit longer beating the level?
Physics play a huge part – in levels where there are crates stacked high or huge stone castles, knocking them down can completely change the layout and require a total re-think of your approach. The physics are very nicely implemented and everything has an appropriately weighty feel, from the slabs of rock right down to the lighter-than-air card towers. It is helped by the graphics, which are nice and chunky and have some very slick special effects (day turning to night looks particularly attractive). It is delivered in 1080p and visually it’s one of the best looking smaller PSN games I’ve come across.
The game potentially has legs in the shape of co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes. These allow you to play the levels either helping one another out or competing for points. It’s a fun addition and definitely adds longevity, and you are able to create or join games which allows you to leave it open for a random player, or send/accept invites from friends. The couple of plays online were fun, but more often than not joining a game yields no success as there doesn’t appear to be many others playing as yet – something like the system in GTI Club + where you can view the games ready to go or in progress would be ideal. Perhaps in the coming weeks and months the number will increase, but for the moment if you want to play online you’d best try to co-incide it with a friend so you can hopefully meet up.
Magic Ball is a fun game. It takes a simple but successful concept, puts a modern-day twist on things and arguably improves on the formula. Levels feel a bit restrictive and repetitive after a while – a bit of variety is introduced later in the knights episode, but until then it’s generally very similar ideas with slightly different layouts. However, a lack of variety is something which is true of most downloadable PSN games, so it seems a little unfair to single Magic Ball out for this. The lack of companions in the multiplayer modes is potentially more worrying, and without this aspect the game seems a little expensive at £8 (or $10), but time will tell if things change in this regard. However, for the moment this is a fun, simple and at times compulsive game which is worth a look if you’re a fan of the classic Breakout.