Reviews | Lindbergh

Power Smash 3

By Alex Kierkegaard / November 10, 2006

Wow, what a game. The most spectacular tennis matches are taking place across Japan's arcades at the moment, in what is surely the best versus title to come out in years. Ostensibly just a sports game, but with all the immediacy, depth and excitement of a fighter, Sega's latest Power Smash marks the series' triumphant return.

It's been five years since Power Smash 2 was released, and you have to hand it to them for not going down the yearly update route. Of course they could not have produced yearly updates for the arcades -- the operators would have simply laughed in their faces -- but they could have moved the series to the PlayStation 2, and we would have had eight Power Smash games by now.

The reason they didn't do this, apart from the fact that tennis is not popular enough a sport to sustain sales of one franchise year after year, is that these games are not really tennis simulators -- they are not about big-name players and statistics, though they do have enough of both. What they are is pure arcade video games, born in the harsh enviroment of Japan's game centers, where superficial rehashes are not tolerated and where a game will die a quick death if it fails to instantly entertain. That's why they have such tight controls and simple pick-up-and-play mechanics, whereas all their console competitors feel slow and cumbersome in comparison.

Consider the recent Xbox 360 title Top Spin 2, for instance. Whereas that game uses four buttons and comes with several different modes, Power Smash 3 retains the two-button setup of its predecessors and features only two modes. The mimimalist control system is the main reason for its accessibility; the dearth of modes, as well as the relative shallowness of the two that are there, is a signpost to its true nature. Because you see, in the arcades, only beginners use the single-player modes, or those killing time waiting for an opponent to show up. The whole point of it is in the versus matches.

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It's much the same situation with most arcade games nowadays -- hell, with most games, period. You can only play against the machine for so long, before you start craving the stimulating competition that only another human being can provide. And especially with one-on-one games, such as fighters and individual sports games, refined multiplayer is the only way forward.

So Power Smash 3 is all about competition. The most important improvement therefore that it boasts over its predecessors is the addition of the networked ranking system, which gives you a reason to keep playing. You purchase an IC card from a vending machine next to the cabinets, and choose one of the game's twelve real-life pro players, taking into account each one's unique strengths and weaknesses. You then further customize your player's abilities by distributing points between four basic skills, pick the color of his clothes, and enter the name by which you wish to be known in the Sega Professional Tennis World Tour. The whole thing takes only a minute of navigating some sleek high-res menus, and then you are off to make your mark in the digital tennis world.

Apart from all this, Power Smash 3 improves on the previous games with Lindbergh-powered 720p graphics, smoother animation, and tighter, more refined controls. The last two are related, actually. The game controls and feels smoother partly because there is now a higher range of transitional (i.e. from one move to another) animations. Now this "tightening" of the controls should not be underestimated, because it's what allows this to become a more serious competitive platform. In a game where victory and defeat are decided within tenths of a second, every little improvement in responsiveness makes a great difference, and enables highly-skilled players to stand out from the crowd all the more dramatically. (So if you suck and don't plan on improving you better stick to the previous games.)

Overall, Power Smash 3 passes my sequel quality test with flying colors. This is a rather simple test which provides a surefire way to tell whether a sequel is better than its predecessor in every respect. The whole thing hinges on the answer to a single question: "Can I ever go back to playing the previous game after this?" The answer is: Hell no. (And for the record, I never stopped playing the Dreamcast version of Power Smash 2 all these years. It was especially popular whenever I had friends around the house.)

So what about those two single-player modes then? Tournament mode is a series of matches taking place in various courts around the world (as with the previous games the venues are not licensed, so you play in the "England Tennis Classic" instead of Wimbledon, and the "French Cup" instead of Roland-Garros). It's a seriously tough challenge for beginners, and there's no way anyone will get past the first couple of matches just by randomly pressing buttons -- but it's preferable to getting slaughtered by some other player in under two minutes flat.

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By the way, the other players, at least in Japan, are vicious. They'll just drop a coin, take your name and kick your ass, regardless of whether you are in the middle of trying to improve your pitiful skills. This is normal for fighting games, but I wasn't expecting it in a tennis title. In fact, I started going to the arcade early in the morning or very late at night, when the place is almost empty, to be able to practice in peace. Starting out on the tour can get depressing real quick if you don't know what you are doing.

So yeah, and then there's the wonderful Challenge mode, where you become accustomed to specific moves and techniques, and get an opportunity to hone your skills further. There are tons of challenges to take on, all of which require you to perform very specific tasks, under real in-game conditions (so you face an actual cpu-controlled opponent who is determined to beat your ass, while you frantically try to accomplish the tasks within the strict time limits). For example one challenge may be to hit five forehand strokes in a row; another one to hit three serves at full power, etc. etc. It's all been very well thought-out and executed. There's absolutely zero fat in this game.

Now I have to say something about the wondeful Lindbergh system. Power Smash 3 is the second Lindbergh game to be released, after the largely excellent House of the Dead 4, and the first one to use the dedicated cabinet. And let me tell you something about that cabinet: it is a modern wonder of the (arcade) world. The difference between this and every other cab out there is of a similar nature to driving an American car all your life and suddenly getting behind the wheel of a 100,000-dollar Porsche. Words fail me to describe the feeling you get from playing on this cab (look for an article soon where I solve this problem by resorting to many pictures instead).

One last thing I'll say is that for those who want to get into the extremely competitive enviroment of a Japanese arcade, without having to spend months learning the rather more complex systems of the 2D and 3D fighters, this is the game to go for. Its learning curve is far less steep, and it has a very wide appeal that has nothing to do with whether you are interested in the sport of tennis or not. Because Power Smash 3 is far more than the best tennis game yet. It's one of the best arcade games ever.