Jӧrg Tittel is an interesting guy. Born in Belgium, he studied in New York, and has an indefinable mid-Atlantic accent with hints of American and German. He has written, directed, and produced video games, stage plays, movies, and graphic novels, working on everything from Activision’s Minority Report licensed game to a West End stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s only in the context of this eclectic resume that his latest project isn’t surprising: a VR reboot of a forgotten futuristic tennis game for the Sega Dreamcast.
Cosmic Smash, released in 2001, was originally a Sega arcade game that combines tennis — or, more accurately, squash — with the vintage arcade game Breakout. The player controls a wireframe athlete, knocking out blocks at the far end of a cuboid room by hitting a ball at them. A contemporary of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s classic Rez, another Sega production, Cosmic Smash has a similar vibe: cool graphic design, Tron-style neon minimalism, and a utopian, futuristic vision of life inside the machine. Like Rez, its sad fate was to only make its way onto the Dreamcast after Sega had discontinued the console and withdrawn from the hardware business. Unlike Rez, it did not also get a PlayStation 2 version to save it from obscurity. Cosmic Smash was a cool game, but few people have devoted much thought to it since.
Tittel has, though; this is a man who, according to his IMDb bio, helped pay for his studies by writing for the Official Dreamcast Magazine. On founding his new venture RapidEyeMovers, a boutique game production and publishing label, Tittel pestered Sega for the right to license this near-forgotten game. “Half” of the people he spoke to at the Japanese publisher didn’t even know what he was talking about, he tells me. But he persevered, and eventually won their agreement, before signing the English VR specialist developer Wolf & Wood to make his dream of resuscitating Cosmic Smash come true.
The result is C-Smash VRS, a PlayStation VR 2 exclusive (for now). I had the chance to try it out at a recent press demo in London, held in a brilliant white event space thumping with techno music. Tittel, wearing a branded jumpsuit that made him look like a lanky, futuristic crime scene tech, wandered around, sipping a beer and socializing with journalists and PRs. It wasn’t only the game itself that seemed like a time-warp to the early 2000s. They don’t make games like this anymore, and they don’t make PR campaigns like this anymore either.
C-Smash VRS retains Cosmic Smash’s minimalist, teal-and-orange design and abstract avatars, expanding the look a little to make it more overtly sci-fi; you can peer out of windows in your digital squash court to see starfields and curving planet surfaces. In single-player, the aim of the game remains identical; whip the ball with your racket to knock out blocks at the far end of the room. But the experience is vastly different, not so much due to the VR perspective, but due to the motion controls.
Using the PlayStation VR 2 Sense controllers, you serve by pulling a ball floating in midair toward you with your left hand, and then hitting it with your right (or vice versa for lefties). If the conditions are right, you can also hold down the trigger with your racket hand to suck the ball toward your racket and unleash a targeted power smash. You’ll need to use the control stick, too, to move your character left and right along the baseline, very much like a bat in Breakout or Pong. (An optional iris thoughtfully obscures your peripheral vision while moving, to reduce motion sickness.)
This combination of analog and digital control takes some getting used to; perhaps it’s just because I haven’t played a VR game in a while, but I had to train myself out of lunging for the ball physically. It’s fair to say that Wolf & Wood has some tuning to do. The serving action feels sticky, and I found it difficult to pull the ball toward my forehand rather than my backhand, leading to some rather tepid serves.
I initially struggled with the fairly long suite of tutorial levels, but eventually hit my stride. When it clicks, and you get a rally going, and the blocks keep winking out of existence, it’s very satisfying. (Tittel promises a full campaign mode that even has a story to follow, as well as co-op play.) Even better was the one-on-one versus mode, a kind of tennis variant in which you need to take out the blocks behind your opponent while defending your own. This had a strong just-one-more-go factor reminiscent of Wii Sports at its best; I stopped because I was working up quite a sweat inside the headset, not because I wasn’t having fun.
Tittel had proudly sourced an original Cosmic Smash arcade cabinet to stand in the corner of the event space. Playing it for a minute, I was immediately struck by the game’s crisp controls, slick speed, and dazzling wish fulfillment — none of which could really be said of my fumbling efforts inside the VR game. But the arcade game didn’t leave me grinning from the workout in the same way, either.
One question lingered, though. Why is this happening at all? No one was asking for Cosmic Smash to come back, and certainly no one was asking for it in VR. C-Smash VRS seems like a niche within a niche, and yet Tittel is spending real money on it — on this press event, on the graphic design, on hiring the likes of Ken Ishii (Rez Infinite) and Danalogue (of London jazz-funk band The Comet Is Coming) to make the music, on a collaboration with Ukrainian fashion house MDNT45 (hence the jumpsuit), and on a promised, lavish physical edition.
Tittel’s belief in the enduring power of Cosmic Smash is unshakeable. He remembers getting the Dreamcast version in its bespoke packaging — a translucent DVD case with an orange disc inside — and thinking, “Sure, maybe it’s all dead, but this thing will remain… It was iconic from the beginning. It refuses to die. [...] It felt like a really good Tron. It felt like a positive Tron, where you’re not trapped against your own will, you’re inside a pleasant, graphically reduced reality, and I wanted to live inside of that.”
Tittel doesn’t seem to care that the potential audiences for Cosmic Smash and VR are small, never mind their overlap. For him, the integrity of the game itself is everything. “I wanted to publish the game because [...] I wanted to build the marketing and the promotional narrative into it, because again, I don’t like marketing very much. I don’t like PR very much. It’s so boring, it feels disingenuous. So, if I make it part of the art, then everything will be fully integrated. [...] For me it’s theater, for me the whole thing is a performance. I want to make stuff with intent, and be original, and reduce things down to their essence.”
Tittel professes to hate licensed product and marketing, and yet he has made these things his job, because he wants games as artworks to be holistic wholes, where every extension of the brand resonates with every other. Is he an artist in salesman’s clothing, or the reverse? Honestly, I had fun talking to him, but I’m not sure. If you’re one of RapidEyeMovers’ financial backers, that might be a bit worrying. But you can’t fault Tittel’s dedication to bringing back a 2001 gaming vibe we all thought might have been lost for good.
A demo for C-Smash VRS will be released for PlayStation VR 2 on March 23.