In grade school, we played a game called "bat ball" — hit a soccer ball with a bat. At home, golf clubs and a tennis ball were a natural precursor to street hockey. There was also home run derby with a tennis racket. Who hasn’t tried that?
Sports mashups are as old as sports themselves, in other words. Still, here comes Super Slam Dunk Touchdown at GDC 2017, as refreshingly out-of-place with its genre as our attempts to make a free throw with everything in the garage.
“That’s probably the seed of all this, when you’re a kid kicking a basketball,” said the game’s creator, Rick Felice. “And the football would always get stuck in the hoop in real life.
“Any time we got in a gymnasium it’d be like, ‘Alright, let’s do silly stuff!’’ he added.
An acclaimed indie game when it launched on Steam at the end of 2015, Super Slam Dunk Touchdown is coming soon to Xbox One, Felice told me at GDC 2017, where he was showing his game at Xbox's gallery near the front of South Hall. In Super Slam Dunk Touchdown, 8-bit cartoon athletes from six different sports play with six different balls (plus a puck) to score on a combined soccer/basketball/American football goal.
With goofy throwback motifs and animations, Super Slam Dunk Touchdown is a laugh riot the first several times you play it. "I had such a good response when I showed it at PAX South [in 2015],” Felice said. "It was nuts, It was like six deep, six at a time. We had a mob at the first PAX South.”
But a subsequent Kickstarter campaign failed to meet its goal. “I feel like everybody who was interested in the game at PAX South backed it, but it was harder to get other people that excited about it.“ He attributed its expo popularity to people spying the large crowd and wondering what was going on. Out in the wildlands of crowdfunding, it was harder to get noticed.
Felice acknowledges that the game in its current form has a short appeal for the pure solo player, and there is no online multiplayer for Super Slam Dunk Touchdown (nor will there be). He’s trying to address this by adding a career mode and more unlockables to the Xbox One version. Still, Super Slam Dunk Touchdown is meant to be played with friends, and though the PC version supports gamepads, it isn't a couch platform like consoles.
Nonetheless it was chortle-inducing to see the basics of a high-low offense from — er, basketball I guess? — work in this bizarre blend of sports. In a cooperative game against the CPU, Felice took the baseball player, hanging back around center ice. I had the hockey player and drove at the goal, sucking in the defense. I kicked out to Felice, who whacked a football through the uprights. Two points!
"There’s no rules in this game, it’s just physics,” Felice said. “If you can get the ball in the goal, however it gets in the goal, it’ll count.”
A score on the soccer goal is 4 points because it is guarded by a (lacrosse) goalie. The basketball goal is 3 points either by a shot, or by the outstanding Double Dribble-style slam dunk, complete with closeup of a grayed-out athlete against the color background. A field goal is two points. Most points wins, and you can beat up anybody with impunity. If too many people get involved in a rhubarb, they get sucked into a cloud-of-dust fight and have to button-mash to emerge victorious.
"I loved local multiplayer games, played them all growing up,” Felice told me. “We had an Atari 800 with four joystick ports, so we were all playing local multiplayer games. The idea has always appealed to have more than four players, and with the Xbox One supporting eight and the PC as many as you want, you can actually do this.“
“And I always liked sports video games from the 80s and 90s because they were kind of silly and arcadey, and they weren’t focused too much on realism and the rules and all that,“ Felice said. “I feel like they were a lot more fun back then, and they weren’t trying to be sports simulations.”
Super Slam Dunk Touchdown provides a lot of gameplay variety even if it's easy to get the hang of in about 30 minutes. The balls behave according to type (trying to kick a bowling ball — oof) thanks to the 3D physics engine it uses. Among the athletes, football players are the toughest, but also the slowest and have a weak range.
Basketball players are almost a sure score once they get in range (a miss that goes long will at least score a field goal, because the hoop is on the front of the uprights) but they have no "fight," meaning they can be easily knocked down in the act of shooting. A roller derby racer provides an interesting blend of speed and toughness that, paired with a scorer like the hockey star, can make a team very tough to handle.
“Each character is so different that you can come up with a bunch of combinations,” Felice said. “You can combine a baseball player with a hockey player and a roller derby player, and have the baseball player hang back and shoot for a field goal. The basketball player can shoot for the hoop which is totally undefended.” Anyone choosing a team of all basketball players better know the basics of a ball reversal.
Whether or not it's a trend, Super Slam Dunk Touchdown is a visible example of sports video games doing the best they can to diversify in a genre dominated by high expectations, high production costs, and enormous licensing fees. I've lamented that the shrinking of sports' AAA offerings leaves the impression that the segment has little to say in the video games conversation despite the huge segment it reaches and massive sales it commands.
If we're going to have anything new to talk about other than what got the most attention in this year's iteration of FIFA/NBA 2K/MLB The Show, it's going to be on independent developers like Felice, and Scott Drader of Metalhead (Super Mega Baseball) and V7 Entertainment (the upcoming Old Time Hockey) to develop and stick with labors of love like Super Slam Dunk Touchdown.
“I’m noticing that they’re sort of making a resurgence, these types of games,” Felice said. “I don’t really get into really realistic sports games, because I don’t know the rules that well.
“I made a game I want to play, that I’d like to play with my friends.” The kind we all played when we got bored with football, baseball and basketball.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.