If you remember the days when Pong was state of the art video game technology, Magic Ball will seem very familiar. This same style of gameplay was updated in a fan-favorite Atari 2600 game: Breakout. Breaking all those bricks... it was so addicting. Arkanoid hit the arcades in the late 80s when the 2600 was but a fond memory. Arkanoid's retained the classic gameplay elements of Breakout, yet it felt new again with the addition of power ups and weapons. Magic Ball is the latest in this progression, adding high def graphics and 3d objects to the formula. The end result is a simple, but quite enjoyable experience.
The most noticeable part, and indeed, probably the highlight of the game, is the fantastic, creative level design. You aren't just destroying blocks here; the maps are highly detailed, intricate, and basically fun to look at. When the Magic Ball hits an object on the map, it begins to break it down. Some items take more than one hit to destroy; others crumble at the first bounce. There are visual cues that let you know when stuff is about to break, usually a change in color.
But Magic Ball goes a step further than just replacing blocks with pretty 3D objects. Many of the items on the playing field interact with your ball, in various ways. One of the earliest examples are the cannons in the pirate levels. When a cannon is hit by the Magic Ball, it fires a cannonball across the field, and more environment destroying fun ensues. A few of the levels feature a chain of cannons. One cannon fires, hitting another, and so on, which is quite impressive. In fact, you'll often find yourself watching the interactions at the top of the screen and the Magic Ball will slip right past you.
The various power-ups are pretty much what you would expect. Your paddle can shrink or grow, multi-ball, big ball, etc. A timer for each power up appears at the corner of the screen, and they do stack, which makes for some interesting combos. Weapon power ups, like a machine gun, laser, or cannon, have a limited amount of ammo, tracked just as the timers are for other power ups. There are weather power ups, as well, and these are quite fun. Meteors, lightning storms, and intense winds all destroy the game field. A few power ups appear to have no purpose other than aesthetics. One changes the board from day to night, for example.
On to the co-op, then. Co-op is one multiplayer option, and as far as I could tell, uses the same maps as single player. When you unlock a level in co-op, it's available for single player, and vice versa. Two players can play at the same time, each in control of his or her own paddle, differentiated by color. Players share a pool of lives, represented by hearts on the top of the screen. When the last ball in play makes it past either player, both players die, and one life is lost. Each player has a ball to launch when the level begins, or when they respawn after dying, too. All in all, it sure feels like co-op when you have a buddy playing with you.
The bad news is, each player is limited to only half of the playing field. You can only scroll your paddle to the center of the screen. This is a minor detail, but to me, it really took away from the co-op experience. When you have multiple balls in play, and they all land on your partner's side, you are powerless to help them. I'd like to have seen the option to move across the screen all the way; perhaps in playtesting it was too easy or not cooperative enough with full paddle movement. In any event, it was somewhat frustrating, but not enough to ruin the game for us.
All together, Magic Ball is a good package, especially when you consider the relatively low cost. It isn't a full featured game you'll play for hours, but it is a fun diversion when you and a buddy want a quick co-op session. It's the equivalent of a well constructed mini-golf course: really fun every once in a while, but not a full fledged sport of its own. The level design is bright, colorful, and creative, and the admittedly old school gameplay holds its own quite well. The game is quite kid friendly, too; my youngest son cackled in glee at the sight of each new level. You could find a whole lot worse ways to spend your co-op gaming dollars than Magic Ball.