The Dreamcast was a special machine. Sure, it was the last gasp of Sega’s ambitions as a console manufacturer, but it was a pioneering console in many ways, and played host to an eclectic megamix of gaming creativity and as an outlet for a smattering of arcade games.
It’s here that Cosmic Smash first appeared, but you’d be forgiven for not having heard of the game. While it made its way to arcades in Japan and Europe, its Dreamcast release only came out in Japan and half a year after the console was discontinued.
A strange game, then, to decide to revive for PlayStation VR 2 – subtly rebranded as C-Smash VRS.
The simplest way to describe C-Smash VRS is as a futuristic blend of squash and seminal block-breaking game Breakout. Instead of a 2D plane, you’re at one end of a long room with an array of blocks at the other, the ball that you bat back and forth moving in full 3D, bouncing off walls, ceiling, and floor on the way to destroying the sheet-like blocks.
It’s simple and intuitive to learn, though will certainly be a game that takes a while to master, just like playing a real sport like squash or tennis. There’s something about it that just works and makes sense when taking that original concept into VR.
The driving force behind this project is Jörg Tittel of publisher RapidEyeMovers, whose passion for this game eventually won over Sega to let him reinterpret this archival IP for a new era.
“The original Cosmic Smash, to me, was an icon. Yeah, the Dreamcast might have been dead, but that thing came out of nowhere and it was iconic. The packaging design blew my mind – that DVD box case with its orange disc shining through the transparent front – it was just gorgeous. So yeah, maybe the Dreamcast was dead, but this thing would live on. And it did! That and Rez.
“They were contemporaries made by friends who had previously made games like Sega Rally together – Sega Rally is still my favourite racing game of all time. So yeah, to me I wanted to, literally since 2001, play that in VR.”
But what about developer Wolf & Wood? How was founder Ryan Bousfield drawn into this project? Had he too been obsessed with the Dreamcast and arcade original?
“No, no.” Ryan laughed. “We were working together on other projects, and [Jörg] was like, ‘Oh, I’m interested in doing this, would you like to get involved?’ And I was, like, ‘No, not really…'”
“The enthusiasm was incredible,” Jörg quips.
Yet, in some ways, RapidEyeMovers and Wolf & Wood are just two parts of a dream team of talent from around the world that has been drawn together for C-Smash VRS.
“It requires real masters of their craft to be able to distil everything to their essence. You have to be able to throw so much stuff against the screen in order to be able to take it away again, and Ryan has done so much in just a few short years and he’s rocked it with every single title. It’s the same as well with Cory Schmitz and Arkotype [for design and UI] and Ken Ishii and Danalogue [for the soundtrack]. Everyone is just incredible.”
It all comes together wonderfully as C-Smash VRS transports you to these minimalist environments for some block-smashing fun. It takes a little while to grasp the best way to play. After my first few whiffed shots, I thought more of a tennis-like stance might help, but then my over-eager swings seemed to move too fast for the tracking. Gradually, after trying a few different styles, I settled on some more pedestrian blocking and bat angling.
There’s a bunch of different block properties to learn, with some having white borders, others with just corners, or a cross in the middle, each giving them particular properties with whether they bounce the ball back, pass it through, and more. There’s also often clear walls that you have to avoid or they bounce the ball straight back for no effect. Thankfully you have an extra trick up your sleeve, a power shot that draws the ball back toward you – useful if it’s sailing right over your head – and propels it faster to break through more blocks.
Each level cleared is followed by another, with a different array of blocks to beat, more permutations, more high scores to chase. More stuff, more ideas, more things to learn, right? Maybe not.
“There’s a journey mode in the game,” Jörg told us, “but where a lot of games give you more and more layers and more action, but we might go in the opposite direction. Let everyone else get more and more loud towards the end, but we’ll take you on a journey where we’ve built up this communication with the player where reduction is key.
“I don’t think you’ll have ever felt more thrilled to be in a reduced environment than in our game.”
I can absolutely see this game reaching for some of the zen-state vibes of Tetris Effect: Connected, though there is another side of the original game that C-Smash VRS will explore and expand upon, with a space station to explore.
Jörg explained, “The original game had this concept of a cosmic bus, where you’re travelling from one level to another, and they didn’t do much with it. If you finished the game, you also met these cosmonaut characters, and they were kind of quite goofy. They were carrying things around, one of them had a wheelbarrow, and they were constructing this world around you. That was a whole side to this world that you just bring out at the end?”
“In the credits!” Ryan adds. “They take down the arena around you and dismantle it!”
Jörg continued, “And I loved that. I remember when I worked with Rob the art director on the cosmonaut character, and I remember [Ryan’s] reaction was like, “It’s a bit goofy?” It’s a weird disconnect with the weird, stylised, androgynous player characters and this dude in a jump suit, and I loved that!”
Ryan said, “There were ideas floating around about this being some dystopia – which there always is – but we went utopia. Everybody working around is just plodding along, whistling, enjoying their time. We just want everyone to have good vibes.”
Look out the window of the space station and you might spot some cosmonauts on a see-saw, just having a whale of a time in the vacuum.
You could put some of those good vibes to the side if you’re playing C-Smash VRS competitively, though. Indeed, some of my learned cautious playstyle went right out the window when trying out the online PvP. Now there’s another person down the other end of the hall, aiming to bat the ball back your way and skirt past your defences to chip away at the blocks behind you. There’s a neat little floor display to show what’s behind you, so you can keep track of where you want to be defending, but where I was taking my time in single player, now I was rushing, putting more effort into my swings again, and really getting into the action.
The default head-to-head mode has you simply clearing walls to try and get the best score, but that’s just the first of a bunch of modes. The game also features co-op, and I’m keen to see how it works.
Plenty of this will be on show when the C-Smash VRS demo releases later this month on 23rd March, to give eager PSVR 2 early adopters a chance to check it out and potentially provide valuable feedback. There’s still some areas that the team are looking at improving, but this looks to be an early VR sports highlight for the new era of PlayStation virtual reality.