Dodge Club Pocket Review: A Throwdown in the Retro Underground
Dodge Club Pocket on the 3DS is a game with a surprising bit of history behind it. It's technically the third installment in a series of games developed by James Montagna, a lone indie game developer and director who has spent a fair bit of time at WayForward, and who has, among other things, worked in some way on every Shantae title, Cat Girl Without Salad, and all of WayForward's Adventure Time games.
The original Dodge Club game was a highly simplistic game that was shown off at night clubs and festivals as it was toured across North America, and it tasked players with controlling a single giant pixel as it dodged around a fireball in an arena.The general gaming public wouldn't get a taste of what Dodge Club had to offer until a multiplayer-focused sequel titled Dodge Club Party was released for the Wii U.
Montagna continued to experiment with the series' formula of dodging hazards in a square arena, and eventually made a mobile Dodge Club game called Dodge Club Pocket, which he later tweaked and gussied up a bit before re-releasing it in its enhanced state on the 3DS eShop. It has been over two months since the game was released, and barely anyone seemed to notice or acknowledge the game's existence much at all, if the two individual user ratings for it on the eShop (at time of writing) are any indication.
Even after releasing to no major fanfare, and in the face of everything else coming out on the Nintendo Switch recently, is it worth busting out your 3DS and putting down $5 on this scrappy little underground fighter?
Let me tell you the story of the most popular underground sport of 20XX.
It's Time to Square Off -- Literally
Dodge Club Pocket is an extremely simple game to understand and play. You control a big, bulky square that represents one of the many inspired young women trying to make it to the top of the Dodge Club Leagues, and you must beat each level by knowing when to duck, dodge, hold still, speed up, and so on. The game has 64 levels, all of which have different conditions you must satisfy in order to complete them. The levels get progressively harder as you go on, though any level but the last one can be selected at any time. You can also play the original Dodge Club mode, but it's really just a tacked-on little bonus.
Most levels' objective will just be a standard variation of dodging the fireball that spawns in the center of the arena and the spark that hugs the walls, but soon after you grasp the basics, the game starts to get more and more creative with its win conditions. Some levels require you to take a certain number of "steps" before the timer runs out (while still dodging obstacles), some levels pay homage to other classic games like Pac-Man, and some multiply the number of obstacles on screen as time passes.
The game always has you guessing and rethinking your strategy, and should you ever get really frustrated with a particular level, then you can just select another one and come back to it later. It also helps that you can control the game using either the touch screen, D-pad, or control stick, so there's minor variations on the controls available for any occasion and any player.
This right here? This is gameplay. It might not look like much, but when it gets going, this game can be genuinely intense.
It's a game that I found myself oddly invested in, and I kept finding myself coming back to it when I wanted something simple and fun to play that wasn't on my phone. With the challenges rarely ever taking longer than three minutes, the one-hit deaths, and the easy-to-understand objectives and controls, Dodge Club Pocket kept me effectively hooked with its simple gameplay.
It definitely helps that the presentation is very chipper and cute, due largely to the character art and illustrations provided by artist linzbot, which gives the game a very upbeat, laid-back attitude. Playing through the main game will also unlock things like new songs for the catchy soundtrack, new characters to play as (palette swaps for your square), little bits of real-life Dodge Club history, and even comics and bios detailing the backstory and plot of the Dodge Club world and its characters. James and linz really didn't need to add this level of personality to the game to make it work, but they did anyway, and it is all the more charming for it.
If this bio for Speck doesn't make you smile, then I don't think you're playing the right game. Or that we can be friends.
It's Not All Cute Girls and Atari Graphics
I do have some issues with the game, and while they are mainly just nitpicks, in a game this small, a nitpick is something that could sever a limb from its fragile little body. First off, while the number of challenges is perfectly sizable and they don't repeat themselves too often to be samey, there really isn't much incentive to play the game again once you've completed it. Once you've seen everything the game has to offer and unlocked all the little songs, comics, and concept art, then you've got no real surprises or secrets to uncover; the game has been thoroughly beaten.
On top of that, the graphics are fine, and the art is very cute and stylish, as I mentioned, but the visuals lack a bit of flare. Porting the game from mobile might have been a good opportunity to make the visuals look a little more flashy in the menu and level select screens in order to possibly attract a new audience, but for the most part, the game looks about the same as it did before. It is nice that the bottom screen reminds you what the objective is and how to pause and exit, but that bit of design is about the biggest visual difference between the two versions of the game.
The biggest issue I have with the game is its lack of a basic pause or quick-restart option. In order to pause the game, you have to hit the 3DS' home button, which works, but it's still a slower way to pause and un-pause than just pressing the start button like in most games. Instead, here the pause button allows you to exit to menu, and only if you hold it down for a second or two. I understand that holding down the button was likely a precaution made to stop people from quitting out of a level on accident, but it's basically faster to just fail on purpose and get kicked back to the menu that way.
Every time you die, you're forced to watch a little animation and hear a little failure jingle before you can start again. With no way to skip it, no way to restart a challenge quickly, and frequent deaths as the difficulty mounts up, it can be very annoying after a while. These minor nitpicks are really my only major issues with the game worth mentioning, and for a game this small and simple, it really nails the rest of the basics, which is all you can ask for, I guess.
I'd Say It's Worth Skipping Lunch One Day to Buy This
The obvious question now is why should you buy Dodge Club Pocket on the 3DS for actual money when the mobile version is free. It's a pretty simple answer really: The 3DS version is mostly the same but has slight advantages that make it better. The presentation has been smoothed out and expanded just a bit, there's a bit more content, and the controls employing both the touch screen and buttons are much better than the mobile version, with the added bonus of your finger not blocking your view of the screen.
Not to mention, at an asking price of $5 for several hours of fun and challenging gameplay, it doesn't seem like too difficult a thing to skip your caramel latte for the day and spend that money on supporting an aspiring indie game developer instead. So maybe try out the mobile version first if you'd like to get the general idea of what the game is like, and then go all-in on the 3DS version if you don't mind paying a bit for a better version of more or less the same game.
Overall, I enjoyed the couple of hours I managed to squeeze out of Dodge Club Pocket. Sure, it isn't revolutionary or terribly big, but that's really not what it's meant to be. It's a fun little game that you whip out to play for maybe five minutes to try and complete a challenge, only to look up soon after to realize you've been playing for half an hour.
It's a humble game with no pretense behind it that just seeks to challenge and entertain its audience, and I would say it succeeds. It's fun, challenging, charming, and easy to pick up and play no matter who you are.
Dodge Club Pocket is available now for $5 on 3DS and for free on mobile devices, though the 3DS version is just that little bit better.
(Assorted press images provided by James Montagna)