Earlier this month, developer Frozen Codebase launched a revolutionary new title on Nintendo’s WiiWare, Jam City Rollergirls, the first console-based roller derby game. In the roller derby community it became nearly legendary before it even had a release date. But will it satisfy roller derby aficionados, or will they hip-check it into oblivion? Well, not only am I an avid games enthusiast, I’m also a two-year roller derby veteran, and I’m here to tell you if they got this game right.
To make it perfectly clear, this game is not a sports sim like Madden or NBA 2K11. It’s more of a cross between Mario Kart and an arcade game. While the core of the game is based in the sport of roller derby, it deviates in many ways that make it very different from anything you would ever see on the track.
Gameplay and Derby Rules
The gameplay is based off of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules. In this game, you always play as the jammer, the scoring position in roller derby. The first whistle blow starts the pack of blockers skating, and the second starts the jammers. The aim of the game is to beat the opposing jammer out of the pack. The first jammer out is the “lead jammer”, and has the ability to call off the jam early. Your second pass through the pack is when you score points by passing opposing blockers. You have two minutes maximum for each jam and, in the game, only ten minutes in each bout.
A few roller derby moves have also been included. You’re able to block to your left and right using the B and Z buttons and you’re able to take a whip from one of your blockers by shaking the Wiimote. Now, blocking is an essential part of roller derby, but in reality, jammers don’t block much. They should focus on skating fast and avoiding blocks. The game might have been served better by making the B and Z buttons “juke” buttons instead of “block” buttons as a way to get around opposing players quickly.
Powerups, Speedups, and Stars
This is where most of the similarities end. Instead of accruing penalties, there are various powerups that you and your opponent can use to advance your position on the track. They range from a simple water balloon that will knock you off your feet, to the Pink Reaper, who will knock you down for a longer amount of time and steal some of your points to give to the other team. You also collect stars located around the track to increase your speed and resiliency over the course of a jam. When an opposing blocker hits you, you’ll lose stars, and once you’re out of stars, they’ll knock you down.
Along with powerups and stars, there are speedup platforms in the track that will boost your speed for a short amount of time. One of the best strategies is to make sure to hit all of the speedup platforms before your opponent does, because once they’re used, they become inactive for a time, speeding you ahead with no way for them to catch up.
Difficulty and Strategy
Interestingly enough, the tutorial is one of the best parts of the game, giving you a comprehensive overview of the controls and rules. It’s short and to the point, and will have you playing like a pro in no time. Once you learn the controls, you have the ability to play at different difficulties, but it seems that the only real difference in difficulty is the speed of the opposing jammer. A veteran rollergirl should have no trouble beating the game on the hardest difficulty. In fact, anyone with a general working knowledge of roller derby strategy should be able to win each bout easily. The secret is simple: get through the pack first, get lead jammer, score at least one point, and then call off the jam before your opponent gets to the pack. If you can do that every time, victory will be yours.
Inclusion of WFTDA Leagues
This game gets major style points for using real WFTDA leagues and players. When it was in its early stages of development, one of the rumors going around was that the developers were looking to put most of the well-known leagues and most famous players into the game. Sadly, due to file size limitations, they were only able to use five teams. The Texecutioners, Rat City Rollergirls, and Brewcity Bruisers each bring a roster of six all-star players, and the Mad Rollin’ Dairyland Dolls and Gotham Girls Roller Derby bring five.
While it’s great that you can play as one of your favorite rollergirls, the fact that you only can play the position of jammer restricts the players that you would want to use. For example, I was excited to be able to play as Beyonslay, one of the most well-known players in modern roller derby. However, she has a high strength rating but low acceleration and speed, making her unsuitable to play the jammer position. If I could play her as a blocker, this would solve my problem, but for now I have to be content having her as one of the computer-controlled blockers in the pack, and not playing her myself.
Design and Graphics
Frozen Codebase should also be given a lot of credit for great track designs. They range from relatively simple ovals to complex Mario Kart-esque tracks. One track even features a “secret” tunnel that you have to access by jumping a ramp equipped with a speedup platform. However, you’re still restricted to five tracks and their mirror images, and once you get the hang of how to skate them, they’re very easy to navigate.
The graphics are good for a WiiWare downloadable title. The tracks are well-themed to each team. The characters are, for the most part, interchangeable, but since you normally only see their backsides during the course of a bout, I don’t really fault the developers for not wanting to use the extra file space to make the characters more individual. I do enjoy being able to purchase upgrades for my skater in Season mode, but wish there were more upgrades and more features to customize.
The sound isn’t the best, and is probably the biggest casualty of WiiWare’s 40mb file limit. There’s only one song that plays during the game on a continual loop, and the repetition gets annoying quickly. However, one reason to give the audio track a chance is the addition of Dumptruck, a well-known announcer from the Denver Roller Dolls and DNN’s 2010 Announcer of the Year, who provides minimal audio commentary during each jam.
As far as replay value goes, this game gets repetitive quickly, and I usually only play a bout or two before switching to another game. This could be due to having that “roller derby mentality” and being very conscious of good strategy, which tends to lead to blowout games against the AI jammer. Since this game is mainly targeted to people who are closely involved with roller derby, and therefore aware of good strategy, I can see how they could be let down by the ease at which they’re able to win. Multiplayer mode fixes this by letting you play against another person, but, unfortunately, there is no online multiplayer.
Hopefully, this is the jumping-off point for bigger and better roller derby games. Jam City Rollergirls does the best it can with the constraints it was given, and does so in a creative way by adding more “video game” elements and stripping the sport to its bare essentials. A Madden-style version of a roller derby game should be possible as the sport continues to grow in popularity. This game, not being a simulator, is likely to disappoint many derby fans, but it also has a special charm that could make it a cult classic to a dedicated audience.
Normally, I would suggest renting a game like this, but since this is a downloadable title (1000 Wii points or $10), you can’t rent the game to try it out, so here’s what I suggest: go make friends with a local rollergirl. Chances are you already know one who keeps her “secret identity” hidden. If she owns a Wii, chances are she’ll have the game, and would love to kick your virtual butt for a few hours. While you’re at it, buy some tickets to her next bout. She’ll appreciate it.