Smart Ball
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Platform:
    • SNES
  • Developers:
    • Game Freak
    • System Sacom
  • Publishers:
    • JP Epic/Sony Records
    • US Sony Imagesoft
  • Released:
    • JP 09/13/1991
    • US March 1992
Score: 70%

This review was published on 01/02/2016.

Smart Ball is a side-scrolling platform video game developed by Game Freak and System Sacom for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on September 13, 1991, and North America in March 1992. The game was published by Epic/Sony Records in Japan and Sony Imagesoft in North America. In Japan, the game is known as Jerry Boy or Jelly Boy, depending on how thick your Japanese accent is. The Japanese have a tendency to mix their Ls and Rs, so the original title could go either way. A sequel was going to be released for this game about three years later, but it was unfortunately canceled. However, a beta version of the sequel can be found online. If you have a keen eye, you might have noticed that Game Freak, the creators of the popular Pokemon franchise, had a hand in the making of Smart Ball. This was way before Pokemon existed, though, and back then, Game Freak was a no-name developer working on smalltime games, like this one. Similar to Kirby, Smart Ball is a game with cartoony and cutesy visuals, except it's not as good.

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Two young brothers ruled a prosperous kingdom together. Their names were Tom and Jerry, which may or may not be a reference to the cat and mouse cartoon of the same name. Jerry was engaged to a beautiful princess named Emi. However, Tom was jealous of Jerry, and he wanted to get back at him somehow. You could say that he was quite jelly. A mysterious wizard took advantage of Tom's jealousy and proposed a sinister plan. The wizard then used his dark magic to transform Jerry into one of those blue slimes from the Dragon Warrior series! With Jerry out of the picture, Tom takes Emi and the throne as his own. It's now up to Jerry to save the princess and reclaim his kingdom while dealing with the harsh realities of his altered form. The unusual thing to note here is that the story was totally omitted from the North American version of the game. Not only that, but the original Japanese version also had towns populated by many characters with extra dialogue, and this, too, is entirely absent from the North American release. That's a real shame, because the towns add atmosphere and context to the game. You could even get 1ups in the towns, so this also impacts the game play, albeit in a minor way.

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The controls for this game are pretty weird. Jerry can ooze around the ground and do a short hop, but he's capable of far more than just that; he can stick to walls and ceilings and climb them, too. Additionally, he can travel through narrow pipes, much like Mario. Due to that, Jerry is very good at getting around. The weird part is how Jerry attacks enemies. Simply jumping on them won't do, as that merely makes him stand harmlessly on top of them. Instead, you press up or down on the d-pad to make Jerry stretch upwards or flatten down onto the ground. These innocuous looking actions will, for some reason, hurt enemies. The issue is that controlling Jerry feels unnatural. Specifically, he exhibits obtuse momentum when running and jumping. Climbing stuff and attacking enemies is also awkward. Jerry is versatile once you get the controls down, though. You would think that Jerry's slime form would greatly inhibit him, what with having no arms and legs, but that's actually not the case. If anything, it almost seems like he has incredible advantages as a blue blob. Does that make him a slime ball?

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Balls play a big role in Jerry's new life as a blob. Special flowers will grow all throughout the land, and they often contain helpful items, like additional health, extra lives, and balls. Jerry can absorb the balls into his gelatinous body and later shoot them out as projectiles. This strange activity allows him to attack foes from afar, which is handy. You do have a limited supply of balls, however, so you need to refill often. There's no need to be too conservative, though, because there are plenty of balls to go around. Getting ten balls also restores some of your life, making them that much more useful. On top of regular balls, there are also a few unique ones that will give Jerry special attributes when absorbed. The first of which is a heavy iron ball that can be fired multiple times without disintegrating, but will slow down Jerry's movements. Then there's a grey colored ball that greatly increases Jerry's jumping height. Seeds can also be found and used much in the same way, except they get planted into the ground and sprout vines that can be used to reach higher places. Weird as they may be, the balls give the game a tiny bit more depth. This game's got balls.

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The stages in Smart Ball are all about getting to the goal alive, like your average platform game. Most of the stages are linear, but some have more complex layouts. Every stage is designed to take full advantage of Jerry's slimy abilities, forcing him to climb all over the darn place. This creates some interesting situations, such as being required to slither across the ceiling to avoid a bed of spikes below. There's one cool stage where you crawl around the moon as it rotates with a fancy Mode-7 effect; you even crawl around from inside it, too. Some of the stages have maze-like designs to them, though, and that can be frustrating. These confusing stages lack focus and will often leave the player wandering around aimlessly. On the bright side, the maze stages are stacked with secrets. Searching every nook and cranny can be fun if you're the explorative type, but the needlessly convoluted layouts of later stages will befuddle in a manner that's not fun. On a side note, most of the enemies are cute creatures like mice and birds, but one foe is literally a naked dude holding a torch. Stranger still, the guy's in the ice world. I'm not sure what's up with that.

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All of the stages are broken into two halves, with the second half usually containing a boss at the end of it. Bosses aren't terribly smart in Smart Ball. A lot of them have oversimplified attack patterns that are fairly easy to dodge, and they tend to die very quickly, too. You can cheese a lot of the boss fights by simply spamming your attacks. Only a few of the bosses are halfway decent; the rest come off as mere afterthoughts. Some of the bosses will periodically drop balls for Jerry to use as ammo against them, but others can be trounced via normal attacks when they're vulnerable. A couple of the bosses will have a surprise second form, but this doesn't add much to the fight. For whatever reason, many of the bosses consist of birds that spit fish at you. One of the only cool bosses is this robot with a body made up of dust clouds that fires lasers at you. Another somewhat decent boss is a living constellation that shoots fireballs. The rest aren't really worth mentioning, though.

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There is no world map to speak of, but in between stages, you'll see a filmstrip with a preview of the stage and its alphanumeric label. What you may not know is that this filmstrip actually acts like a stage select, as you're able to revisit previously cleared levels by rewinding it. There's no reason to ever do that, but the fact that you can is neat. Unfortunately, there is no save or password system, so you'll have to complete the game in one sitting. Luckily, Smart Ball is short and easy enough for that to be an extremely feasible goal. One reason for this is the checkpoint system. You can find and collect the letters in Jerry's name, kind of like the Kong letters in Donkey Kong Country, except here, they act as checkpoints in addition to giving extra lives. This means stages will have a generous amount of checkpoints, which is nice, as it cuts down on the tediousness of redoing stuff if you die. It can be argued that the game is too short and easy, but that shouldn't be a problem if it's enjoyable.

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Weirdness aside, Smart Ball is merely okay. The graphics, while a bit on the lackluster side for the Super Nintendo's standards, are charming enough to get a pass, and the music, while not particularly noteworthy, is catchy. You also get to climb on walls and ceilings as a blue blob, which should be appealing to most human beings. As far as the actual game goes, the stages tend to be pleasant romps, but they're not always designed that well, and the boss battles are quite basic. Also, the controls are hard to get a handle on, especially in regards to momentum. If you were to peel away the charm, then Smart Ball would be a pretty average game. It isn't bad, but it lacks the polish and finesse of a much better game.

Word Count: 1,552

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