Surprise, shock, delight and queasy nostalgia hit me all at once when I loaded up Steam a couple of days back and was greeted with an ad for Mad Balls In Babo:Invasion. Wait. Mad Balls? That's a name I haven't heard in a good 20 years. What trickery is this? None at all, it transpires - just an apparently rather delightful electric videogame starring a retro toy...
I hadn't realised Mad Balls were back. They were one of my many fleeting toy-obsessions in the early/mid 1980s: nothing more than really ugly balls. They disturbed mothers and you could throw them at stuff - it's hard to think of a more perfect boy's toy, really. My own time with them came to strange close while the fad was in full swing. I was sickly with some youthful disease (it might have been chicken pox, now I think of it. THE POX OF THE CHICKENS), and bedridden for days. All I wanted to take my mind off how crappy I felt was my beloved Mad Ball - Oculus Orbus, the one that looked like a giant, vein-covered eyeball. Like this, in fact:
My mum kindly brought it over, and placed it in my thin, shivering, outstretched hand. I took one look at it and threw up.
I can remember repeatedly reaching for Oculus over the next few days, hoping it was just a strange and messy coincidence, but something about its rubbery feel and synthetic smell made me feel instantly nauseous. I still have no idea what was going on there. Eventually, I could pick Oculus up without disaster, but by that point I was done with Mad Balls. No kid wants a toy that makes him projectile vomit. Actually, maybe some do. But I didn't.
When I loaded up the Mad Balls In Babo:Invasion demo, guess which character pops up first, and then proceeds to be the star of the show? Yep, Oculus Orbus himself. (Whose recently re-designed and re-released toy looks like this. Ew.) Some broken little switch at the back of my brain instantly sent a signal that I should turn away from the screen, for fear of vomit.
No nausea came, mercifully. I peered back at the game, trepidatiously. I reached cautiously for WASD and began slowly steering this new Oculus through Babo:Invasion's pretty, angular tutorial map. Hallelujah! I'm cured! Though I did briefly feel a different kind of nauseousness when thinking about how unhygienic and dangerous the idea of rolling an exposed eyeball's veins and nerves all over a rocky floor was. Best not to apply any logic to Mad Balls, I suspect. But I'm probably going to have to go buy an Oculus from eBay now.
And you, if you've somehow laboured through this strange and pointless tale of a unhealthy British kid's childhood, are going to read about Mad Balls In Babo: Invasion. It's a strange but oddly familiar halfway house between Marble Madness and Smash TV - maze-based ball physics meets top-down carnage. The Mad Balls element is ridiculously laboured, layering on some crazy story about well-intentioned, space-travelling ball creatures fighting carnivorous alien ball creatures, but to its credit it's absolutely up-front about its absurdity. It's a remarkably well-written game, flippant and funny and characterful and, well, far better than I'd ever have expected from a £6 game based on an ugly ball toy from the 1980s.
The demo, which is all I've tried of it so far, only seems to be the half of it, as I heard word the deathmatch multiplayer is picking up quite a following. The two-and-a-bit level demo is singleplayer stuff only, but it gives a good and massively enticing sense of how the whole thing works. You're this ball, right. And you're in a sort of maze, right. And you have a honking great gun strapped to the side of you.
And that's the wonder of it. I'd honestly never have believed that a videogame including guns would be a surprise, but this was. It's a game about a giant eyeball with a gun strapped to the side of it. I really wasn't expecting that. Really, the guns are what Mad Balls is about - there does seem to be some fairly straightforward ball-physics/rolling-related puzzling, but mostly it's about messily clearing rooms filled with dozens of, as one in-game diary puts it, "adorable fanged orifices." Turned out they weren't so adorable, so you have to kill 'em all.
There's a vaguely Ikaruga-esque system to this, different enemies being susceptible to different weapons - for instance, the Shottie (as it's cutely named) switches between Fire and Ice modes. If your enemy is a frosty blue hue, you'll need to switch to Fire to take him out. There's also some delirously destructive grenades and molotovs to play with. It's really simple in practice, and feels really nice, really responsive, in that hard-to-define control feedback loop kinda way.
It's simple, silly fun - a ball with a gun shooting 'orrible orifices at high speed. Nothing at all to do with Mad Balls bar skinning the characters as such, but I presume that's where the developers got hold of the cash necessary to make this as good-looking and polished as it is. Seems they'd already played with this concept with their freeware multiplayer game BaboViolent2 (still available), so I guess the recent Mad Balls re-release/remake was splendid timing. I'm not complaining - frankly, the fact one of its main characters is a scarred, oozing giant eyeball with cute facial expressions does add oddles of surreal charm.
I'm definitely going to pick up the full game at some point, as this degree of absurdity and accessibility in multiplayer is enormously appealing. For all I know it gets tedious after a couple of hours, but I doubt it - the demo really is strong stuff. Here demo here. Try not to throw up, won't you?