Switchball is another excellent example of why services like the Xbox Live Arcade need to exist. As a standalone Xbox 360 game, Switchball would not have cut it. There just isn't enough game here and it's over too quickly, but as an inexpensive Xbox Live Arcade game Switchball is perfect. This is an addictive little puzzle game that will keep you coming back long after you've beaten the 30 levels, which is really all you should ask for in a $10 game.
In a lot of ways Switchball feels like a glorified tech demo. The whole game hinges around one specific play mechanic, which involves you rolling a shiny marble around the level looking for the exit. Of course, that's easier said than done. Along the way you'll have to put up with your usual set of crazy obstacles, as well as some interesting power-ups and ingenious level designs. Switchball may not be the deepest game of the year, but it's an enjoyable ride that will keep you using your brain from beginning to end.
What sets Switchball apart from other similar games (Marble Madness, Marble Blast Ultra) are the different power-ups that litter the mazes. By using the various stations found throughout the levels you can magically transform your marble into a brand new form. A lot of these new forms are self explanatory, for example you can turn your marble into a heavy ball (which you can use to move objects around) or a light ball (which allows you to quickly glide over weak objects). Then there are some forms that require a little more trial and error, such as the power ball, a form that allows you to jump, dash and magnetize.
As you can probably guess, these different forms are the key to solving the game's multiple puzzles. As you race through each of the different mazes you'll run into all sorts of nasty obstacles that can only be overcome by using the different power-ups. While there are a certain number of obstacles that are repeated a few too many times (rolling over a patch of cloth, magnets), the game does manage to throw a lot of new barriers in your way as you play through to the end.
Switchball is split up into five different areas, each of which offers six levels to complete. In true video game fashion, these five areas offer a different theme, including a sky world, an ice world, lava world and so on. Not only do the different themes look cool, they also influence the types of puzzles you will have to deal with. Unfortunately there are times when it feels like the developers could have gone a little further blending the puzzles with the theme, but Switchball does a good job of giving you new obstacles and pretty backgrounds to look at.
Although there are a couple of different ways to play Switchball, the most compelling is the default mode, Timed Play. Since this is a timed mode it's up to you to solve the puzzle in the fastest time possible, awards are handed out if you manage to beat various times. While this kind of mode is nothing new, it doesn't change the fact that it's the one reason you'll come back to this game after solving the puzzles. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I had more fun trying to get gold on every level than I did actually solving the puzzles. But that's just me. Thankfully you can choose to play the game this way or just go through every level trying to solve the puzzle and not worry about the timer at the top of the screen.
On top of these two single-player modes, Switchball also features some interesting multiplayer modes that you can play online using the Xbox Live service. Unfortunately the multiplayer stuff feels a little tacked on, there are only four multiplayer maps and it all gets old quickly. The game does give you the option of either an eight-player race or a two-player co-op mode. The two player stuff is actually pretty interesting; there are some well-designed challenges that will require the two people to work together. I was a little less impressed with the race mode, it's a chaotic situation where everybody is bumping into each other and nothing is getting done. Chances are no matter which mode you select you're going to get sick of it quickly, so it's worth treating the multiplayer modes has something of an afterthought.
It's worth pointing out that Switchball is one of the best looking Xbox Live Arcade games currently available. Although the concept is simple, there's a surprising amount of detail placed into every level. Best of all, the game's textures are always convincing and it's fun to see how the different power-ups affect the graphics. The game not only looks good from afar, but also up close. Since you can control the camera you can see everything from up close, and that's really where the graphics shine. And while there's no question that this game looks best on an HDTV, I was impressed at how good it looked on a regular standard definition set.
While not as shiny, the controls are also good. The problem I've had with a lot of these marble games is that they are generally difficult to control. Thankfully Switchball doesn't suffer from this problem; the game has solid controls that are generally easy to use. There are a few times when controlling the game is tricky, but it's never so bad that you want to give up all together. While Switchball isn't doing anything new (you are rolling a marble around a maze, after all), the controls perfectly suit what the developers are trying to do.
With only 30 puzzles to solve one could complain that Switchball is a little too short for its own good. While it would have been nice to get a few more levels, the 30 different puzzles will take you some time to figure out. The game starts out nice and easy, but by the end of the game you'll be using all of your skills to figure out how to find the exit. There isn't enough here to warrant a full box release, but as a small $10 download Switchball makes a lot of sense. You get a lot of content for your ten bucks and a nice challenge. It's not for everybody, but if you enjoy rolling marbles around three-dimensional mazes then Switchball is the right game for you.
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