Mark Cerny should be flattered. Hazard Ball is not necessarily a conscious imitator of what Mark came up with in the mid-80’s for his 2-D hit, Marble Madness, but the similarities in play style, environmental challenges, and addictive fun are unmistakable. What Chris Eastwood has accomplished in Hazard Ball as an independent developer is certainly an achievement in its own right, not to mention that in doing so, he’s harnessed the same magic that creates a phenomenal game within no clear game style constructs.
I guess it shouldn’t be said that Hazard Ball can’t fit into a niche, because everything needs a category these days. Call it a puzzler, call it a wacky platform mixer, call it whatever you want; there’s an undeniable appeal here. This isn’t your big-buck production, mind you, but a very competent time-killer that demands some skill. Hazard ball will take you through 20 different levels over the course of five distinct environments (desert, forest, winter, mountain, volcanic), utilizing elemental challenges in each. If you want some public cred for rolling your ball, there’s even a two-player mode, so you can embarrass your neighbor’s kid when he gets too cocky about that fighting game of his.
Much of what makes Hazard Ball more than just a lip service spin-off is its smooth control, which is noticeably solid using either the mouse or the keyboard (a joystick control is also optional, but I wasn’t able to test that, for lack of a joystick). Emulating the movement of a rolling ball is, I’m sure, an absolute nightmare when it comes to fine-tuning, but it’s so spot-on in Hazard Ball, I found myself wishing that Chris would take a crack at the Marble Madness code, to ease up the frustrating inaccuracy a bit. The only unpleasantness I encountered with control was a little inconsistency using the mouse, as running at a good clip was frequently slowed by a recalibration of the mouse to an earlier state of velocity. I missed many a jump due to this, and repeated near-hits like this can stunt playtime easily. Rest easy, though – as long as the player keeps their wits, there’s almost no reason any mistake should be made twice.
The player’s perspective is pervasively top-down, but depth and elevation are easily discernable, thanks to some clever shading and shape distortion. I always knew exactly what the grade was going to be, and what its duration was. It’s a plain level practice, but it makes designing levels with any kind of diversity and style much easier for the start-up programmer/designer, so in this sense it’s very prudent and functional.
Gameplay also benefits from the setup simplicity. As always, getting from the starting point to the exit point is the overall goal, and there is always a reasonable time limit going on. Dallying is not in the cards for this game. The boards are created over empty space, so holes or weak floor panels are easily identifiable. Lots of other play enhancers are scattered across the levels and increase the thought that needs to be put into traversing the various obstacles and routes. Water, ice, lava, and mud are some substantial impediments, but if you look hard enough, there are immunity icons that, if rolled over, transform your ball into an impervious entity to its assigned element. To tantalize you into death-defying corners, gems of various colors and values, much like the high-point targets on a pinball machine, are placed in hard-to-reach nooks, tempting you beyond your better judgment. Electrical, explosive, and crushing barriers fluctuate between lethal and non-lethal, presenting timing challenges in certain corridors, some very sketchy to navigate. These are just a few of the main barriers to success. The number of elements trying to belay or aid you would take up another page or two of explanation – not to mention how they affect play styles. Just know that spikes, construction plates and balls, switches, and even bombs are a part of what makes Hazard Ball so interesting.
Hell, there’s even a map editor in Hazard Ball. Whip up a schematically ridiculous roller-fest for you or your friends to either enjoy or simply laugh at. Given that kind of flexibility, a game that started off as a distraction from that spreadsheet or term paper can suddenly develop into a clubhouse filled with creative ideas and near-limitless replay.
The graphics get the job done – very little else needs to be said about that. They’re not spectacularly rendered or light-mapped for maximum Ball ambience, but it’s easy to tell where the ball is, where it needs to go, and it’s about to hit that you don’t want it to. I never needed to second guess a barrier or slope, and in a timed game, that’s a blessing. The background music, as unfortunately inconsequential as it is, mixed soothing techno undertones with a beat that infused productivity. It made me want to move that ball. But after rolling around for a bit, I didn’t even notice the music, which doesn’t affect the game either way.
Hazard Ball knows its strengths, and doesn’t pander to many other things. There’s no goofy, strangely adapted storyline or epic scope to live up to. It’s just a simple, fun game with some very addictive elements and rudimentary design challenges. Hazard Ball was, after all, designed by someone who thought of a fun idea and executed it with a mastery that few could handle, given the movement physics of a heavy rolling sphere.
For about $15 US ($8 EU), you can pick up a game that goes way beyond the functional entertainment boundaries of Solitaire or your basic Windows brand of Hearts, but still hangs in that category of pick-up-and-play amusements worth a protracted roll. If nothing else, you’d be supporting an independent (one-man) developer and his entertaining little creation. In a world of sequel-laden corporate powerhouse publishers, I’m always in favor of propping the little guy.