Some video games are ‘day one’ releases. Monuments of swirling hype that urge the player to go out and purchase their copy on the first day of sale, sometimes queuing outside for special midnight openings.
Then there are games you don’t play for a decade. Games like Rockstar Table Tennis.
I’d never had a chance to play the GTA studio’s oft-forgotten sports sim until a few weeks ago. My housemate dredged up a copy from his collection and proceeded to challenge me to a beery round of virtual ping pong. Needless to say, I wasn’t very good.
But the game hooked me in a strange way. The simplicity of knocking a small plastic ball from one end of a tiny green table to the other carried with it enough nuanced charm for me to demand ‘one more go’. It was one of those gaming epiphanies nine years too late. And the real joy of being nearly a decade late to the party? You can pick it up for about a quid on Amazon!
And so I did, waiting with a surprising level of anticipation for it to tumble through my letter box – any slight noise at the door made me sprint downstairs like a dog eager to see off an intruder.
Then it arrived, and I immediately fired it up. I played for a good couple of hours, putting off much more important university work in favour of one more round of whiff-whaff. I quickly fell for the game, and now find myself rewarding even the smallest of achievements with a ten-minute blast. Here is my love letter to the relatively obscure gem.
1. It (still) looks great
Two things to bear in mind when addressing the game’s presentation. One: Table Tennis was developed by Rockstar San Diego, the company behind one of the most graphically pleasing titles of ‘last-gen’ in Grand Theft Auto V. And two: this game is essentially a playable tech demo, one of myriad launch titles for the Xbox 360 designed to show off the new HD hardware’s capabilities.
For a game that’s nine years old, it still looks great. Granted, bringing Table Tennis to the virtual world doesn’t necessitate the bells and whistles of what current gaming technology can offer – you’re essentially rendering two character models, a table, a modest arena, and a little white circle – but its simplistic, clean cut design is where it flourishes. I remember demos of Table Tennis being set in every video game store in town, eager to show off the shiny new graphics that the then fledgling Xbox 360 could produce.
The game actually runs on Rockstar’s ‘Rockstar Advanced Game Engine’ (RAGE), the same engine that would go on to power games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, which means… real time sweat!
If there’s one thing Table Tennis sells other than the sport itself, it’s the kind of silky T-shirts all of the characters seem to be sporting. Seriously, Rockstar went all out on the fabric physics in this game, and while it all looks impressively realistic, we’d kill for a shirt that light and floaty during particularly heat intensive summers.
2. It sounds good too
As well as a visual fidelity that stands up to this day, the audio of Table Tennis is also worth a mention. The small crowd of fans that watch over your every match react accordingly to each game. Come back from being nine points down and they practically reach fever pitch, chanting your name during every serve in a way that would surely be frowned upon by umpires of the real game. If an opponent does the same? They’ll bark words of encouragement and go wild every time you smash the ball over the back wall.
The ambient techno soundtrack is a major selling point as well.
3. The animation is on point
The animation, while not mo-capped, is surprisingly fluid. Even when examined under the slow-motion replays that accompany any half decent rally, transitions from one stock animation to the other are only ever faintly noticeable. The ball always connects with the players’ bats, and isn’t just sort of in the vicinity of where it should be (here’s looking at you, FIFA from a few years ago). The slow motion even shows off the facial expressions of the players as they grunt into the next forearm smash.
If there is one downside to the game it is that these replays quickly become skippable, and it’s obvious they were only included to show off the level of detail Rockstar had piled into the game.
4. It’s easy to learn, hard to master
But then the best games are, aren’t they? Sure, you can coast through the entry level regional tournaments with nothing but some nicely timed button presses, but by the time you hit the game’s final, national level competitions, you’re going to need every trick in the book.
5. It’s ‘Twitch’ gameplay at its finest
Twitch gameplay is that unnerving kind of play that has you on tenterhooks at all times. It’s most commonly used these days to describe the kind of multiplayer the Call of Duty games like to deliver, in which no area of the map is safe, an enemy could be around any corner at any time, and you need to be on your guard 100%.
Table Tennis takes the well worn formula of games like Virtua Tennis and ratchets up the speed. Where Sega’s tennis classic gives you a big court to float balls across, Table Tennis’ reduced playing surface means your controller is going to get a real bashing, and your reactions will be tested to breaking point.
6. It’s surprisingly full of character
For an unlicensed sports game, Table Tennis brings a surprising amount of character to you and your opponents throughout. Each opponent you take on has a slightly different approach to their game. Early adversary (and he really is an adversary) Jesper likes to spin his shots all over the place, and the otherwise restrained Hayley carries a dark secret in her backhand slice. Beware.
7. It’s emotionally
In the age of the YouTube Let’s Play, gaming ‘reactions’ have never had so much light shed on them. Often I sit at my console, wondering why I’m not shouting with horror at the screen, or quipping puerile remarks out loud about lewd sexual acts the main character may or may not partake in in their spare time (this describes the humourous maturity with with YouTube gamers conduct themselves quite accurately). Is it that the game isn’t very good? Or more likely that I don’t have thousands of loyal subscribers to entertain daily? Probably the latter.
But Table Tennis elicits those reactions. A particularly frustrating tournament round against Luc – a French head-band enthusiast with a ponytail down to his waist and an unnerving knack for topspin – had me in fits of fury. Every time the smarmy bugger caused me to stumble by floating the ball just over the net, he’d parade around like a proud peacock, oozing arrogance and causing my levels of hatred to swell. I found myself becoming mildly xenophobic in my matches against him, reduced to petty insults about nationality because my ping-pong just wasn’t cutting it. The power of video games, eh? My housemates even had to ask if I was OK.
But when I finally overcame the odds with Lui Ping (who carries himself with a grace and warmth that immediately stands him out as the struggling underdog… despite having some of the best stats in the game), I felt a wave of relief wash over me like I’d just conquered K2.
8. There’s not a motion control in sight
Most developers today would almost be required to force motion controls into a Table Tennis simulator. Thankfully, Rockstar’s Table Tennis predates the Nintendo Wii by a year or so and the Kinect by a country mile, so we’re stuck with the traditional controller experience. It’s all the better for it too, with tight and precise controls allowing a skilled player to place a ball anywhere they want and with the desired amount of power too.
For those who prefer wildly inaccurate control schemes, a Wii version of Table Tennis was released for the console in 2007.
9. It’s Pong for the 21st century
Pong is basically the thing that started it all. From kids sitting around a monochrome television set to paddle a squared circle across a screen came the Triple-A blockbusters that have us scaling historic landmarks in lifelike detail and shooting the heads off aliens on far-distant planets. It can all be traced back.
Table Tennis takes Pong and updates it for today’s audience (or, at least the audience of the mid-00s), introducing slow-motion replays, nuanced gameplay techniques, and plonking a character behind the bat. Frankly, I can’t wait to see what the result of a Table Tennis update for 2015’s audience would involve. I imagine playing the game in the middle of an erupting Mount Etna, as lava melts away at the legs of the table, forcing players to adapt their playing styles to the organically changing game space.
Oh, and it’d have paid DLC for different coloured bats and balls. Obviously.