They're sleek. They're sexy. They're Sega's Beach Spikers, and they're currently serving up a smashing game of volleyball action exclusively on the GameCube. A full review!
Summer is winding down and, sadly, so is the beach season for a lot of us in the U.S. While it'd be great to keep the season going strong all year for those of us who have to endure a cold, snowy winter, Sega's eagerly-awaited Beach Spikers should provide a warm tonic as we head deep into the darkest, chilliest months of the year.
Beach Spikers' subtitle is Virtua Beach Volleyball, and that should tell you something immediately about this colorful, simple, yet addictive title. Sega and developer AM-2 have created a game that's high on eye candy, quick on action, and absolutely ideal for multi-player fun. And, like so many of Sega's pick-up-and-play sports games, Beach Spikers is the kind of title you can get into immediately and have a hard time turning off.
First thing's first: Beach Spikers is pure, unadulterated, two-on-two female volleyball fun. You select from one international team out of a bevy of beautiful ladies – all scantily clad in colorful bikinis (often representing the flags of their respective countries) with some attired in hats, sunglasses, etc. The player models are fairly well detailed and the girls just curvy enough so that the young male audience Beach Spikers is after will not be disappointed, even if the ladies won't be quite as busty as those seen in the upcoming Xbox title Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. (The animated celebrations of the girls hugging each other and seeing your partner…um…"adjust" her bikini bottom before you serve are pretty much evidence of the demographic Sega is going after here).
Controls are simple but can take a while to completely get comfortable with, especially in terms of perfecting one's timing. In the Arcade mode, you serve with A, pressing the button in coordination with a power meter that determines its force. Receiving is easy (provided you're in the right spot, of course!): you press either A or B for a normal or low dig, or A + B together to set up a two-attack spike. Tossing works much the same way: A gives you a normal toss, B does it more quickly, while A + B returns the ball immediately to your opponent's side.
The last part of the three-step return process is easily the most fun: the attack. A will set you up with a spike meter whose power is determined by how successfully you've set up the return and toss. B creates a feint shot that works great in situations where your opponent believes a powerful return is coming, while A + B creates a spike aimed right at the blocker's hands.
Making a successful return and spike is all about timing in this game. If you're too slow to react to your opponent's attack, you may find yourself, for example, making a weak return that could set up the opposition perfectly, or – what's worse – failing to even keep the ball in the air altogether. A successful return is all about timing and, in some cases, just pure luck, as guessing where your opponent is going to be depositing the ball is a key element in the game.
That brings us to your defense in Beach Spikers, and once again, blocking is all about timing too. In fact, it may be the most difficult element to accomplish in the game (I'm still learning to make an effective block on the harder difficulty levels, even after hours of playtime). Pressing A while your opponent begins to spike can often be a frustrating proposition in the game mainly due to the swerving camera; sometimes it may be in the right spot to set you up for a block, but more often your position may not be accurately visible until it's too late. (You can try positioning your player by looking at the radar at the bottom of the screen, but that doesn't always work effectively.)
The gameplay may be simple, but it's an awful lot of fun. I've played for hours on end just trying to improve my one-player score in the main Arcade mode, but Sega has included all kinds of mini-games to stretch the concept out beyond the simple volley-and-serve play of the sport itself.
Two sets of "rules" are available: in addition to Arcade there's an Original setting, which factors in individual skills for the various teams, as well as slightly more elaborate controls (in Original, you can choose between Overhand, Underhand, and Jump serves).
The Arcade mode is a simple conversion of the arcade game where you're dropped into the middle of an eight-team tournament (this mode can be accessed by single or multiple players). As you progress through the tournament, you accumulate/lose total points based on the scoring of each individual play, and if you knock off the last group of gals (the AM2 team or whichever individual team last cleared the mode), you'll find your own squad reigning as the new champions.
Naturally, there's also a full-fledged Tutorial mode with specific tasks to clear. It's a perfect primer for practicing and learning about the timing of the game.
Vs. Mode includes customized game rules and a bevy of mini-games, which are pretty straightforward but nevertheless diverting. Beach Flags is like a Track & Field competition where you run down the beach by pressing A, jump at a designated spot by pressing B and capture a flag from your opponent. Beach P.K. is a great way to practice your return abilities, as you camp out returning the attack of your opponent, who's set up by her partner at the front of the net.
While multi-player is where Beach Spikers truly shines, the single player experience isn't half-bad. The core of this mode is clearly the World Tour, where you create a team of your own – right down to the facial characteristics, hairstyles, and attire of your gals – and guide them through a handful of tournaments. Some of the outfits and accessories are available for the taking right at the start, while others become unlocked after clearing various modes. There are also hidden characters from various Sega franchises like Phantasy Star that are unlocked by entering passwords.
The World Tour is unique in that your partner is controlled by the CPU and begins by playing like someone who has never seen a volleyball before. Trust me, you will cringe in frustration (or blurt out quick blasts of profanity) as you'll set up your partner for a lob, only to see the ball hit her smack-dab in the head. As frustrating as this may be, it's best to be patient: as you head through a match, you'll have the opportunity to critique your partner's performance directly to her face. Depending on what you say (either praise, reprimand, encouragement, or nothing at all), your overall teamwork rating will rise/fall, impacting the on-court effectiveness of your partner.
As you progress through the tournaments your overall ranking appears, and the amount of points you gain for your partner can be used to enhance her specific skills. So, as bad as she may be at the start, she'll eventually learn the ropes and prove to be a worthy counterpart to your own bikini babe. (You can also use your created team in the Arcade and Vs. modes, saving up to three original squads on each memory card).
While the sound isn't anything special (the announcer is especially annoying), from a graphical standpoint, Beach Spikers is sweet. In addition to the fully articulated ladies, the game's warm, primary colors are easy on the eyes and the crowds and stadiums come nicely rendered. Speaking of the stadiums, a handful are available at the start and others are unlocked as you progress through the different modes. Each venue has its own characteristics (the Coca-Cola Stadium includes a huge Coke can and a night-time setting, for example), though the camera angle remains the same in all of them: beginning behind the server's back, then swerving around the two teams constantly as play progresses.
It can be a little frustrating at times to determine where your players are positioned when the camera isn't on them, particularly since the CPU tends to automatically re-position the players back into the center of the court (this often happens if you don't move your player back into the playing field). Looking at the radar, fortunately, helps a bit in this instance.
As far as the camera's movement goes, once you've played for a while you get used to the camera's rhythm and will likely know where to better position yourself for a return. It will take a while to get fully used to it, but eventually you should find a way to successfully overcome the small deficiencies in the camera.
That brings us, lastly, to where Beach Spikers comes most highly recommended: multi-player. This is, without a doubt, one of the GameCube's top party games.
While Vs. Mode can be fun for two people competing against one another, playing two strong against the CPU or having a 4-on-4 brawl is definitely the best. Working with a partner can be both frustrating (I've had heated arguments about where my partner should be setting up for a return!) and massive amounts of fun, since you have to strategically work with one another to devise a successful offensive and defensive attack.
As an opponent, the CPU is definitely no slouch. Beach Spikers can be a tough game to crack, since even the Normal difficulty setting proves to be somewhat of a challenge once you hit the champions in Arcade mode. With Hard and Very Hard difficulty levels also available, it's hard to figure that anyone is going to be "breezing" through Beach Spikers quickly after playing it.
Overall, Beach Spikers is a wicked amount of fun and highly recommended for its outstanding multi-player play. As a single player game, it's decent and provides quick arcade thrills (with the replay value of a good arcade game), but if you're considering a purchase, I'd say it's best to have more than one player ready to play with on a regular basis. If you do, you're unlikely to find more satisfying games on the GameCube than this one.