Coloball 2002
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Enterbrain
Developer: Vanpool
Genre: Strategy RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US TBA
Japan 06/27/2002
Official Site: Japanese Site

Graphics: 100%
Sound: 100%
Gameplay: 98%
Control: 90%
Story: 70
Overall: 96%
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Just a little further to 4 Battle Land.
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Coloball 2002

OK, I'll admit it. When I was in high school, I blew every penny I had on Magic: The Gathering. I barely ever won a match, but it felt good to see all those stupendously powerful cards in my deck. I loved the concept of a strategy card game which relied just as much on careful advance planning as it did on wits. But most of all, I think I loved the fact that Magic's rules could be bent and distorted into just about anything. The text on each card took precedence over the text in the rulebook, and with each new expansion, Magic became a far more difficult game to predict. Your opponent could end up pulling moves that you'd never even considered -- everything from spitting your spells right back at you, to rendering everyone immortal until the pizza delivery man arrived.

The problem is, Magic got off on a power trip and grew into a gigantic empire. Expansion set after expansion set was released, with new cards that either matched or topped even the strongest that had come before them. Rare gems that only rich collectors and obsessed fans with no budgeting skills (like myself) owned were mass-reproduced, and the originals marked as tournament-illegal and practically valueless. The cost of keeping up with the ever-changing game had risen to astronomical proportions, until finally, one day, it reached the point where it just wasn't worth it anymore. Resolving to quit the game cold-turkey, I gave my deck to a friend's brother, and that was the last I'd ever thought about it.

Flash forward to 2002. A tiny company named Vanpool, one of three to be formed when the RPG super-developers at Love-de-Lic dissolved, released a new PS2 game in Japan with no advertising and little to no fanfare. Titled "Coloball 2002" and misleadingly touted as a "sports adventure game," it seemed destined to fail in the marketplace, and quickly vanished into obscurity. However, due to Love-de-Lic's numerous past successes (all of which fall into the category of "obscure Japanese niche pseudo-RPGs") and the bizarre box art, I bought it, not quite sure what to expect.

And once I finally learned how to play this game, I was completely hooked.

Coloball, short for "Colosseum Ball," is basically what I'd call a "board game RPG" -- a head-to-head turn-based strategy RPG light on story, but with complex and innovative gameplay featuring unique pieces (or cards, or units, or however you choose to identify them) that behave differently from one another, and often allow you to supercede the game's basic ruleset. Board-game RPGs are also typically focused on making strategic use of the battlefield or battlefields upon which the match is fought, and tend to have specific "gimmicks" associated with these battlefields, causing them to resemble the boards of an old-fashioned boxed game. Other examples of games I'd categorize in this sub-genre include "Archon," "Culdcept," Falcom's "Vantage Master" series, and to a lesser extent, the PSP titles "Metal Gear Ac!d" and "Generation of Chaos."

Coloball 2002, however, trumps them all.

As with most board-game RPGs, attempting to explain every individual aspect of the gameplay would be an utterly ridiculous endeavor, and would make this review far too bloated, and frankly, not very interesting to read. As such, I'm simply going to focus on the basics of Colosseum Ball, and explain why I believe this particular game to be the single greatest board-game RPG yet created, and why it will likely retain that title for many years to come.

For starters, this game has perhaps the most unique board of any other game in the genre, in that it would be exceedingly difficult (and probably not worth the bother) to adequately play it outside of an electronic medium. For all intents and purposes, Coloball is played on the surface of a giant soccer ball, with each hexagonal panel thereupon representing one disputed "land," and each corner of each hexagon a viable option for stationing one of your "units." The goal of each match you fight can be thought of as either domination or murder: you have to kill enough high-ranking units of your opponent's medieval-esque squadron to reach a predetermined point value, or at least have killed more than your opponent once the predetermined number of rounds have passed.

It's the simplest of game goals, and not at all unique in and of itself, but the means through which this war is fought breathes new life into this most tried and true of clichés. Borrowing heavily from Magic: The Gathering's system of mana and casting costs, units can be stationed on the corners of each hex by spending the appropriate amount of red, yellow, blue, green, white, and/or black "power" to summon them into play. The former four colors of power are typically attained by making certain you have at least one unit in play on a hexagonal panel of the same color which bears your team's logo. White and black power, then, are automatically granted to you each turn, in varying quantities based upon the time of day within the game. At the start of each match, unless you have a spell equipped which will grant you power of a certain color, you're basically limited to using the free white or black power you receive to summon a weak, mostly useless unit, for the sole purpose of giving you more power in the next round. As the game progresses, however, more and more "panel power" will be yours each turn (provided you've adequately defended your units stationed on power-giving lands), and as noon or midnight approach, so too will you receive more power from the heavens above -- and that's when you get to break out the big guns.

Or at least, that's when you hope you'll be able to break out the big guns. For you see, what Coloball has that Magic and other similar games do not is the element of chance. You may be waiting and waiting for noon to roll around so you can spend that 3 white power to summon an amazing, stupendously powerful unit, only to find that the sky has opened up and dumped rain upon you at noontime, obscuring the sun and giving neither you nor your opponent any white power at all. And even once your so-called "big guns" are in play, there's no telling what your opponent might have up his/her sleeve: you may find yourself on the receiving end of a "Burning Plus" spell (instantly dealing 3 damage to your unit, no questions asked), or perhaps you'll suddenly find that you have an enemy neighbor who's far superior to your now not-so-big guns. And even once battle has begun, those guns of yours aren't actually guaranteed to hit their mark.

It may sound frustrating, or annoying, but it's this gamble, this pervading sense of playing the odds, which sets Coloball apart from virtually every other board-game RPG ever made. Every match you play is a good 60% strategy, and 40% knowing when to take a risk, or having a backup strategy for when one of your plan A's inevitably fails the roll of the dice. And for as much as it sucks to have luck totally screw you over every now and again, it's an absolutely wonderful feeling to enter battle with a powerful ally who has only a 15% chance of hitting, and actually landing that hit -- and it's an even more wonderful feeling to have your opponent enter that battle, counting on your extremely powerful ally missing, and have luck work in your favor for a change!

And while the strategic placement of units on the Colosseum Ball itself is an interesting mechanic indeed, the battles are really where the true genius of this title can be found. Take, for example, a situation in which all six corners of a given hexagon are filled: three with your own units, and three with the opponent's. When battle is begun on this panel, both you and your opponent are given the extremely crucial decision of what order to send these units into the fray, fully aware that each match-up will be one-on-one only. Perhaps you know that one of your opponent's units is particularly vulnerable to one of yours, but that either of your other two would be quickly disposed of by it. Can you predict when your opponent will send that unit into battle, and send your far superior unit out in the same round? You'll get no visual clues from your opponent for this, as the unit order is decided solely by the direction held in on the D-pad when the O button is pressed, and never actually depicted on-screen -- so it's all a matter of trying to think like the enemy.

And once a round of battle has begun, you must make yet another choice, deciding which of your unit's moves to use in this little skirmish. This can be critical, as each unit in the game comes with anywhere between none and all of four different types of moves, each mapped to a different face button the PS2 controller. There are the short-range O attacks (processed after long-range attacks, and ineffective against flying enemies unless your unit can also fly), the long-range triangle attacks (processed first and foremost, and effective against all units unless otherwise indicated), the X-button defensive maneuvers (to decrease the damage incurred by an enemy's attack), and rarest of them all, the square-button evasion techniques (to avoid the enemy's attack altogether). As with the unit order in these melees, you can't actually see what move your opponent has chosen, and that can sometimes make a world of difference. You may want to think twice about using a long-range attack, for example, if your opponent's X-button defensive maneuver includes a stipulation that any long-range damage it blocks is reflected back against you. But maybe your opponent isn't planning on using his X-button move at all, and will instead hit you with a long-range attack of his own that's sure to be devastating -- in which case, you won't want to go down without a fight, right?

Finally, once the actual exchange of blows commences, the game of chance once again resumes. Each and every move in the game comes with a percentage chance of success, which is virtually never 100. This percentage is represented by a Wheel of Fortune-esque ring of 20 lighted squares, with a proportionate number of them shaded out (for example, if the attack has a 90% success rate, 2 of the 20 squares will be darkened). To decide whether your move is a hit or a miss, you must quickly rotate the left analog stick to spin this wheel -- and if it lands on a darkened square, I'm afraid you're out of luck. This method of determining success or failure is both simple and extremely logical, perfectly emulating the rolling of a 20-sided dice by giving you some sense of control over the outcome, however false that sense may be.

Now, unlike battles in a more traditional RPG, Coloball's do not continue until their conclusion, but instead last only for a number of rounds equivalent to the larger number of units involved on one side. In other words, the battle described above would last for three rounds total, a 4-on-2 match would last for four (with the two-unit team repeating its specified battle order twice in succession), and the unlucky schmoe of a unit that sits upon a panel with five opponents would have to survive through five rounds of brutal assault before he/she would be (temporarily) in the clear.

Should you emerge victorious from battle, the amount of points you receive for your bounty is based on the defeated unit's "rank," which is, of course, much higher for particularly useful units than it would be for simple farmers (who are worth 1 point) or the ever-lovable "Idiot" unit (who has 1 HP and no battle moves at all, but is worth 0 points when killed). Some units contain special abilities that allow them to decrease their own ranks, and my personal favorite unit, the "Guten," has a special ability that allows him to remove himself from play entirely for 2 green power -- so once he's outlived his usefulness and is getting dangerously low on health, you can simply get rid of him, depriving your opponent of a fairly sizable number of points.

Add to this mix the possibility of status-altering pentagonal panels (which affect any units bordering them), the ability to cast spells during play (which are added to your spell list when your team is assembled, and remain invisible to the opponent until cast), and the fully-intact unforgivingly-used "card text" concept from Magic: The Gathering (where any given unit could very well have a special ability that takes precedence over the actual rules of the game), and you have yourself a recipe for one hell of an exciting and unpredictable match-up. Throw in the omnipresent element of chance on top of it all, then, and you end up with a formula where good strategizing could spell ultimate victory for you, even if the opponent's team contains far superior units on the whole.

Successfully winning a one-player game of Coloball nets you one ultra-rare unit from the defeated team's collection, plus up to 8 new units chosen at random. And even losing a match gets you a couple pity units for your troubles -- Coloball isn't a vicious game, you see, so in the end, everybody's a winner! Sure, it's a bit lame, but unlike playing for ante in games like Culdcept or, indeed, even tournament Magic, you can play for the sheer sport of it in Coloball, without ever worrying about losing your prized "big guns" if you don't "got game."

And it's not like your successes go unrecognized. In keeping with the game's "storyline" (which is more akin to a career mode in any given sports title), attaining certain goals in Coloball's one-player mode, such as winning 10 matches, or beating every one of the available teams in half-games (10-round matches), will help you on your road to becoming a world-class Coloballer. As these goals are achieved, you'll be called into the manager's office, and awarded a pennant to proudly display on your team configuration screen -- or, in the case of extreme victories, an extremely rare unit, which can either be personalized with your own name, or will vary based on the unique serial number attached to the instruction manual (assuming you actually entered this serial number into the game when prompted to, anyway).

Coloball is in no way a simplistic game, and is not at all intuitive. Learning to play, in fact, is something that will actually take time and effort on your part -- especially since the game is only available in Japan, with only a Japanese tutorial to guide you. Fortunately, the fine developers at Vanpool have made the struggle to the top a wee bit easier to get into by giving it an absolutely outstanding overall presentation, the likes of which no other game in the sub-genre has even achieved.

I speak, of course, of the graphics and sound, as well as the finer details that you just plain wouldn't expect from this kind of game.

Graphically, Coloball's screen resolution is gorgeously high, and each and every one of the game's many dozens of "locations" has its own beautifully-drawn background that gracefully shows the transition from day to night and night to day, from rainy skies to clear weather, with constant multi-layered movement and a delicious palette of beautiful colors. The units themselves are all drawn in a decidedly unique and often rather comical art style, and appear almost as paper standees on the surface of the perfectly-rendered soccer ball. During battle, every one of the units' possible actions is fluidly and realistically animated in exceptional detail, from the fierce attack of ogres and goblins to the merchants and farmers quaking in fear at the thought of their own deaths. Even within one character class, each and every unit has his/her own individual facial features and body type, and is very definitely a unique person (or animal, or thing). Sansushi the Noble and Edward the Noble, for example, are very distinctly different people, even though their clothes and armaments are roughly the same. If you go into your unit library, too, you'll find that each of the game's 500+ units has his/her own unique character description and backstory, at least two paragraphs in length.

Aurally, Coloball is equally impressive, with every one of the game's units receiving their own sets of believable vocalizations for everything from attacking, to getting hit, to the sweet release of the grave. Upon being stricken by a fatal blow, for example, the Merchant will let out a scream of terror, the Goblin will let out a high-pitched wail, and the Idiot will mumble incomprehensible curses of rage. Other sound effects, while extremely abstract, seem as if no other sound could possibly take their place. From the menacing guitar riff that plays when the "Burning" spell is cast, to the odd train whistle-like sound of a panel popping into play, to the hollow "plop" sound of a unit being positioned, Coloball's sound effects have this inexplicable feeling of absolute perfection to them.

Musically, too, each and every location in the game gets its own individual background song befitting the area, with multiple battle themes that vary depending on the time of day. Even the world map (where you get to look over detailed information about each area, and decide which unlucky team you'll be challenging next) has a theme song that undergoes minor instrumental alterations for each of the game's nine regions, which seamlessly blend into one another to create a single understated (yet sophisticated) travel canon. The melodies themselves, too, are quite catchy, and will be stuck in your head for many hours after the PS2's been shut off -- especially the one that plays on the team configuration screen, with its vaguely 8-bit-like instrumentation and toe-tappin' beat. Two of the composers who comprised the ragtag band known as the "Thelonious Monkees" back in 1997 on the soundtrack to Love-de-Lic's first game, "Moon," went on to make sweet music for the Coloballers out there, and it shows, as these tracks all bear quite a stylistic resemblance to the material from disc three of the Moon OST.

And as if all this isn't enough, Vanpool decided to go one step further and give Coloball a "history," of sorts. Inexplicably, a timeline tracing Colosseum Ball back to the year 1900, as well as a photograph depicting the (non-Asian) chairman of the WCA (or "World Coloball Association"), appear in the very front of the game's instruction booklet.

Coloball is not without its downsides, however, and the biggest standout among them is perhaps its lack of streamlined menus. Since you'll likely win better units than you currently possess after every match (especially at the beginning), you'll probably want to add them to your team, right? Well, to do this, you'll need to navigate the somewhat clunky team configuration menus, spending upwards of 10 or 20 minutes shuffling around through the "add team members" and "arrange team members" submenus (which are inexplicably separated). This becomes less of a problem as you get used to it, however, and it actually begins to get kind of fun after a while, like micromanagement in a really good RPG. But at the beginning of the game, it can be a very big turn-off.

Other minor flaws can disrupt your initial enjoyment of the game as well, with perhaps the most glaring "minor issue" occurring when you and your opponent both have the same exact unit on your teams. For some bizarre reason, two of the exact same unit, bearing the same name, cannot be in play at once, even if controlled by opposite sides -- so whoever manages to place the unit first will one-up his/her opponent until such time as it's destroyed (which usually occurs when it's too late for the unit to be of any assistance anyway). This, like many other aspects of the game, does have certain strategic advantages, but the first few times you get the "same unit" message when you try summoning Edward the Noble, preventing you from receiving the extra power on subsequent turns that you'd otherwise be able to get, your blood will most assuredly boil.

Also, new players would be wise not to choose the "training mode" option from the main menu, since beginning a new 1-player game of Coloball forces you to undergo training mode anyway -- and it can't be skipped. Thorough players who choose "training mode" from the main menu will find themselves undergoing the same lengthy tutorial twice in a row, and that can get very tedious.

2-player support in Coloball is also a bit more lackluster than I'd hoped, apparently anticipating that your opponent will have his/her own PS2 memory card containing his/her own battle-hardened team. While this does indeed help to make Coloball an inexpensive alternative to Magic: The Gathering (where PS2 memory cards serve as individual decks), the likelihood of two Coloball afficianados knowing one another -- much less being in the same place at the same time, with their own memory cards -- is rather slim. An on-the-fly 2-player mode with pre-constructed teams would've been a smart addition, and even a similar 1-player mode would've been nice to have. But it would seem that the developers of Coloball don't want those with a mere passing interest to play this game, instead insisting upon a Magic-like level of devotion (without the cost). Fortunately, this game is addictive and engrossing enough that it's very likely for any player who spends more than an hour learning its intricacies to maintain quite a religious devotion to it.

Plus, if you own 2 memory cards (and what PS2 owner doesn't, at this point?), you can always copy your unit library from one to the other, and construct a complementary team to your own with slightly different units, creating a makeshift on-the-fly 2-player mode for when any open-minded guests just happen to stop by. (It's not likely, but hey, it could happen!).

Regardless of its flaws, Coloball 2002 reflects a painstaking attention to detail and an incredibly even balance that one would never expect from a game of this sort. There is certainly one major obstacle to playing Coloball, though, and that's the fact that it only exists in Japanese. Still, even if you can read no Japanese whatsoever, this game is quite easily playable due to its vast abundance of English text (despite rampant typos, such as the shudder-worthy "3th Round," or the rather amusing "Jerryfishman" unit). Limited Japanese knowledge -- specifically, knowledge of the katakana alphabet and certain important kanji such as "day" and "night" -- is recommended, but once the rules of play have been deciphered, the true language barrier has been surpassed, as most other things can be figured out through little more than patience, and a lot of trial and error. And while taking that first step is always a pain, I've been personally translating the text for each new unit I receive, and would be more than happy to send a full list to anyone at all who's interested (and explain the game's rules in more detail, to boot!). Just drop me an email, or look for a FAQ online in the future, and you'll have all the information you need to thoroughly enjoy this obscure little gem.

On the whole, Coloball 2002 is a high-quality one-on-one board-game RPG that owes much of its inspiration to Magic: The Gathering, but easily surpasses anything that came before it in virtually every way. If you're a current or former Magic player who seeks a similar experience at a measly fraction of the cost, or if you're a fan of this genre of gaming -- or even if you just like the feeling you get from successfully "playing the odds" -- Coloball could not possibly come more highly recommended. Its small handful of flaws are basically negligible, and as long as you can make it through the rather strenuous process of learning how to play, this is a truly wonderful gaming experience that deserves a place in any import gamer's library -- especially if he/she's got a competitive friend who might also be interested in playing!

Just don't make any plans for a while, as you won't be putting this game down for a very, very long time.


© 2002 Enterbrain, All Rights Reserved.

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