Anyone who ever got into a fight in high school remembers how consuming the feeling could be. It doesn’t matter if somebody is picking a fight with you, you’re picking a fight with someone else, or two people just decided they don’t like each other that particular day — the feeling is intense. Most people, if they’re lucky, can move on from the raging hormones and constant drama.
But the heat of the moment stayed with Yoshihisa Kishimoto, the director of the 1987 mega-hit Double Dragon.
"There were family reasons as well, but there was a girl and she dumped me, which pulled the trigger," Kishimoto told Polygon in 2012. Years later, he would translate that anger into and frustration into the 1986 game Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun, which roughly translates into “Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio,” and in America was sold as Renegade. Then came Double Dragon, which took key elements of the Kunio game and shook up the gaming world.
Kishimoto had a hit concept on his hands, and his employer, Technos, demanded more. For the first official follow-up in the Kunio world, developed Nekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu, a 1987 dodgeball game for arcades. A couple years later in 1989, Technos would remake the game for the NES and rename it for American consumers as Super Dodge Ball. It’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
A word of frustration with Nintnedo’s porting process: in 1989, Super Dodge Ball came packaged with an instruction manual that explained, among other things, the game’s controls. Players were expected to at least skim through the manual to understand how the game worked, if not to read about the game’s various teams, ranging from “extremely quick” Team India to the “truly awesome” Team USSR.
Those controls are nowhere to be found on Switch Online, and the game itself offers no explanation of its rules. While the manual can be found online, old games have a hard enough time standing out in the modern ecosystem. Why further hobble them by making it harder to play?
Once a player understands the controls for jumping, catching, and throwing, Super Dodge Ball emerges as a hidden gem. If you never had to play in gym class, there are teams of six on a court. Three players patrol their own side, and three others stalk the sidelines of the other team’s area. The goal is to eventually knock out the three players patrolling their own side.
Unlike middle-school dodgeball, this isn’t a one-hit-and-done affair. Each player has a health meter, meaning you’ll need multiple knocks to get them. They scurry back and forth, running towards the player’s team (always Team USA) when they have the ball and running away when they don’t.
While the game isn’t complex, real moments of tension can and do emerge. As Team USA goes from country to country, often playing in front of scenic backgrounds like the Taj Mahal or Mount Fuji, their opponents get better. They start to pass amongst themselves on the sidelines, as well as shooting special balls that go extra fast or swerve around in weird ways. Team USA starts to get repeatedly knocked upside the head, with players needing a second to catch to stabilize themselves after a vicious hit.
There’s no clock. Games take as long as they take, but with only three players to knock out it’s never too long. Tension rises and falls with each hit or catch, frustration mounts as one player just refuses to go down. In a back-and-forth with India, my Team USA started off strong by knocking out a player early with a super hit, but struggled to capitalize as the quick-moving Indian team effectively passed around us and methodically wore us down.
Super Dodge Ball is a simple game, but one that has decided its simplicity is its strength. Unlike other sports games of the era, there’s not a feeling of trying to push a game into pixels before the graphics could really support it. It’s just dodgeball, after all, which makes it wonderful.