It’s not that Rank17’s Super Pixel Smash is bad. Truth be told, their virtual reality title is far from it, demonstrating a simple design built around a mixture of racket ball and Tron to create something that is incredibly easy to pick up. There are times, though, when a title hits the basics really well but just can’t expand on the concept in any meaningful or interesting way, rendering the experience toothless. Herein lies the issue with Super Pixel Smash.
The mechanics are really easy to pick up. The player is in a dark room with a grid-filled wall on the other end. Using a paddle in the right hand, the player hits the ball at the wall to break the blue tiles, while aiming for explosive power ups, score multipliers, and multiball tiles, while avoiding hitting skulls and bounce pads. Every few levels, a bonus round activates where the walls to the left and right, as well as the ceiling, also feature score pads. The entire game is time based, with the clock being refilled by clearing levels via hitting enough score tiles. The only real challenge lies in racking up the score, something that can be impeded by hitting the skulls. All in all, this isn’t a terrible concept for a budget title. The problem is, that’s about it. There are no challenging bosses to play against, no meaningful difficulty increases, no added concepts. Even the heavily advertised gravity gun acts does nothing more than reset the ball if it gets lost in the field. It gets old all too quickly. Maybe the fault lies with expecting more from the game, and there is some frustration that it simply couldn’t be found. Multiple attempts were made to delve deep into the game, hoping to find something that changes up the mechanics in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, all this did was leave me sweaty and with a sore arm but without any of the afterglow that could come from other activities that could potentially cause the same physiological results.
One could also point at the presentation. Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going simple, even in VR. Bold, clean lines can be extremely effective at creating an interesting aesthetic while keeping the hardware (or artistic) requirements low. It’s actually something I really like, and would point to “Super Duper” Garrett Cooper’s Black Ice as an example of it done really, really well. Here, it feels a bit overly minimalist. When donning the Vive to play this title, there is no feeling of entering another world, something that even the most abstract titles with worse gameplay can pull off in VR. It just feels like the lights were turned off in a room with a giant screen and a Wii.
Part of the lack of the immersion comes from the lack of feedback in the controllers. Anyone with a Vive can attest that it’s easy to know when a wand is on based on the virtue of the brief, light rumble. Landing a successful hit to the ball with a paddle doesn’t seem to have even that level of feedback. It is possible that the act of swinging my arm took attention away from what the controller was doing, but other titles have had me do this and I have felt the proper feedback. So, this could be an opportunity for improvement.
Even with all of these criticisms, Super Pixel Smash still manages to be entertaining. There is a satisfaction with hitting a well aimed shot and seeing it land precisely on target. The ball physics work really well, with a grazing or weak shot showing a lackadaisical journey across the room, and mighty swings showing a great sense of speed. There is also the Steam leaderboard that shows up after each game. Seeing it in comparison to the performance that was just posted does provide enough reason to try again. With a game as simple as this, one always feels that they can do a bit better.
If Super Pixel Smash was one part of a larger collection of mini-games, it would be a standout. Things can get a bit hectic and there is some skill required, but it doesn’t manage to extend past feeling like a mini-game. A steady increase of difficulty or possibly a wall with conclave and concave pieces to mess with the return bounce would have added some variety. Heck, a “Challenge Shot” mode that encourages the player to clear certain titles in one shot with an expertly aimed swing would have added a bit of longevity to the game. As it stands, it’s bare bones and a becomes dull after a five minute session. It’s great as a quick palette cleanser or physical warm up for a deeper, more demanding experience. Taken in small chunks, it does what it wants to do. If something is needed to fill that slot in a library, this isn’t a terrible choice. One just can’t help but regret the potential squandered.