Hands on with C-Smash VRS

You may recall a recent post here at the Junkyard in which I was somewhat apathetic towards Cosmic Smash, the painfully stylish retro-futuristic squash-cum-Breakout NAOMI port that graced the Dreamcast during its final days as a living, breathing platform. The point of that post wasn't to bash Cosmic Smash though; it was to point out that a reimagining of Sega Rosso's quirky, super-niche bat-and-ball 'em up was being worked on for the impending Sony PlayStation VR2. Since then I have been lucky enough to be invited to sample this title - C-Smash VRS - for myself. 

While my lukewarm opinion of the inspiration for C-Smash VRS hasn't really changed (indeed even contemporary reviews - of which there are precious few - weren't overly gushing), I would now like to explain why this pseudo sequel to Cosmic Smash is probably about as close to a next-gen Dreamcast game as we're likely to see for some time.

The fridge had backup.

In order to sample C-Smash VRS, I travelled to the fair city of London and to a rather nice venue called Icetank in the trendy Covent Garden district. In retrospect, the venue couldn't have been more appropriate, with its minimalist whitewashed rooms and open spaces plastered with the familiar lurid orange concentric 'C' motif. 

If a venue was ever going to be perfect for showing off a game like C-Smash VRS, Icetank is surely it. Well, unless there's a retro-futuristic space station available for hire somewhere. The open plan nature of the venue lent itself well the multiple PS VR2 systems set up; I can only imagine the carnage which could have ensued if there had been tables full of drinks and food dotted about the place as idiots like me jumped and waved their arms and hands around while wearing a VR headset. 

Her Converse are better than mine.

Fittingly, an original Cosmic Smash arcade cabinet was positioned out of harm's way in a corner - a cabinet I naturally had to play on and which belongs to C-Smash VRS game director Jörg Tittel. I understand this particular cabinet was originally housed at Sega World in London's long lost Trocadero entertainment centre, and the story goes that if you listen closely to the speaker grill at night you can still hear the frantic pulse rifle fire and screams of the colonial marines from Alien War, trapped forever like tormented, ethereal echos of the past. Actually, I just made that up. Hudson, run a bypass. What? Where am I?

A Cosmic Smash arcade cabinet sat quietly in the corner, minding its own business...
So I played on it. Note my inferior Converse.

Props must go the PR agency 4media group for their running of the C-Smash VRS preview event, and also to Lost in Cult for their production of the rather nice Cosmic Smash themed press kits that were handed to attendees. Full disclosure here though - I was invited to the event by my Dreamcast Junkyard colleague Andrew Dickinson, who also heads up the gaming periodical [Lock-On]...which is produced by Lost in Cult. So yeah, now that little disclaimer is out of the way, let's get down to business: C-Smash VRS is a fucking disaster of a game. What were they thinking?! Of course, I jest.

I can't believe Edge is £6.50 now. It was 75p last time I bought it. Inflation in action, folks.

No, from the small snippet I played of RapidEyeMovers and Wolf & Wood's reimagining of Toshiaki Miida et al's original vision, I can honestly say I was left thoroughly impressed by the experience. This is in no small part due to the fact that the Sony PlayStation VR2 is undoubtedly one of the most impressive pieces of consumer hardware I've ever had the pleasure of sampling; but then that's probably to be expected considering the price of the thing. I've already moaned about that though, so I'll spare you the sob story again here.

Why won't they...play with me?

As this was a preview event, only two modes (three if you count the two player versus mode) were available from the C-Smash VRS main menu - a tutorial and a practice mode. Both in theory make sense in the modern era, especially since VR controls do take a bit of getting used to if you're unfamiliar with how they generally work. After a fairly intuitive calibration (where you're invited to reach out and grasp a small cuboid doodad), you get into the game. 

The tutorial does exactly as you'd expect and it's here that the idiosyncracies of the gameplay are relayed. You play as the anonymous translucent cyborg-thing, and must battle through stages of squash-like gameplay. To get the 'match' underway, simply reach out and pull the orange ball toward you with one hand in order to 'serve' (unlike in Cosmic Smash where the ball sort of bounces vertically betwixt floor and ceiling), and then smash the ever-loving crap out of the ball with the right hand controller in a tennis/squash raquet fashion. A long press of the right trigger allows the bat to charge so you can unleash a more powerful return, while left and right movement of your character along the baseline is placed on the left thumb stick. Simple.

Here's Andrew Dickinson mid-volley. He doesn't know I took this.

Naturally, C-Smash VRS differs from Cosmic Smash in that you play the game from a first person perspective, but generally the concept largely remains the same. The ball is hit back and forth against the far wall of the court (or another player who acts as a sort of goalie in the versus mode), blocks must be hit in order to make them vanish, and other indestuctible moving walls sometimes get in the way to hinder progress. Because this was purely a preview, the full single player experience wasn't available, but there were hints as to what lays in wait for those who purchase C-Smash VRS when it is released later in 2023 (a free demo is coming in March 2023).

The world seems to have been expanded on quite a lot, with multiple areas of some vast space station environment shown during the intro sections to the practice mode. There's also the first - to my knowledge at least - physical manifestation of the fabled Cosmic Bus. Sadly, it doesn't look like a knackered old Routemaster with cigarette burns and chewing gum all over the seats; but this version of the future (I think?) at least seems to have some civic standards and pride. Otherwise, this minimalist retro-futurist vision of Cosmic Smash's universe looks just about as faithful as you could hope, and (whisper it) even reawakens some long buried memories of Space Channel 5

The venue really was superb. Here's the two player mode setup.

It's odd to me that the designers thought to set C-Smash VRS aboard a space station, but then when you think about it, the game is/was actually called Cosmic Smash. For some reason, I always imagined that The Passageway (the map in the original game) was subterranean and that the Cosmic Bus was more of a tube train or something. Weird how different people interpret things, and interpret RapidEyeMovers and Wolf & Wood have certainly done; with lots of attention to detail and splashes of humour dotted around the small area of the orbital facility I was privy to.

While the magic of the PS VR2 allows the bat to be angled for slice shots and curling returns, one thing I did note as odd was the lack of a jump function. This may be because it was a preview, but jumping around the court like a translucent cyborg-thing possessed is a fundamental part of Cosmic Smash. The PS VR2 does appear to allow for such actions, so maybe you are meant to physically jump about in order to perform acrobatics...although how practical that will be in your own home with such trivialities as furniture, children or pets cluttering up the place remains to be seen.

Just on the topic of the PS VR2 for a moment, what impressed me was how much more responsive it feels over the original PS VR. Like, it seems to be way more sensitive to minor movements, and the 'inside out' tracking totally does away with the need for a camera perched on top of the TV (held in place with a big blob of Blu Tack, in my case). I guess the most noticeable improvement though, is the fidelity of the screens which are located mere centimetres from your retinas. The quality of the image truly is a generational leap above the original PS VR and I really doubt C-Smash VRS would have been as impressive on the previous iteration of the hardware. Even with that in mind though, I'd be interested to see a non-VR release of this game in the future.

Jörg delivering his opening gambit.

A word with Jörg Tittel

But enough from me for now. Previously mentioned game director Jörg Tittel was on hand at the preview event to introduce C-Smash VRS (clad in appropriate attire) to assembled attendees before we were allowed to sample the game for ourselves (also, check out our DreamPod interview with Jörg here - he has quite the history with the Dreamcast). I managed to collar Jörg briefly to chat all things C-Smash VRS, Cosmic Smash and Dreamcast era Sega...

DCJY: Hi Jörg, thanks for speaking to us (again!). I suppose the first and most obvious question is where did the inspiration for a Cosmic Smash reimagining come from?

Jörg Tittel: The inspiration came from Cosmic Smash. No, I've always wanted to make a Sega game. That's because I've been...not really a fanboy...but I've just been a Sega boy, a Sega guy all my life. Ever since I sat down at an Outrun arcade cabinet at a funfair in Brussels in 1986. 

So Sega was my sort of education into the world of entertainment the way I wanted it to be. It's always been a big dream for me to travel into their worlds. That idea of the 'Sega blue sky' is something that's really been a massive force. I can actually really pinpoint some of the happiest memories of my life too, not just when I was playing games, but also whatever I was experiencing at the time, the happiest moments, I have a Sega game that would coincide with that. So it's been a massive part of my life, and  Sega, to me has always been very much ahead of its time. As far as I am concerned Sega invented VR, the way I like to think of it as a place where you travel to, and feel good inside of it feel like you're experiencing something positive.

And so, Outrun to me is a VR experience, where you're sitting physically in a cabinet, and it's moving with what's happening on screen. And, you know, in that sense the arcades essentially invented VR. Sega has always been ahead of their time, the Dreamcast console was ahead its time because it invented independent games, as far as I'm concerned, the way we think of them today. So the 'AA' concept, I suppose the 'AAA game' bullshit - the terms are nonsensical - but Sega allowed and actually inspired the creation of individual teams within Sega, and outside of Sega, because teams like Sega Rosso, United Game Artists, and No Cliché and others who just created these incredibly unique experiences - if they had been led from above, from some sort of corporate structure based on what sells, they would have never been made.

So, Cosmic Smash to me was the culmination of that kind of thinking, where it was a game that came out five months after the Dreamcast was officially discontinued. But it made its mark, like when that DVD case came out and had that orange disc shining through the translucent box. I thought: it's a design icon, I need that and I want that. And also, I knew that out of all of the previously very successful games - and some less so - this is one of the games that will last stand the test of time as an icon. And I believe that VR is an icon, too. 

The Atari Jaguar VR unit.

Now that VR technology works, there's enough of a player base out there, and people have accepted it as a thing that is fun, that is good, that can be physical and all that jazz. I think it's now that I want to be one of the people who created something that everyone associates with VR, not because I'm some crass capitalist; but because I want VR to take you to places and make you feel good. I haven't had that feeling yet except perhaps with Rez Infinite and Tetris Effect. So I think C-Smash VRS is going to take that feeling to a new place that you're fully physically inside of. A soulful experience that can be an emotional experience. Fully inside of it - we're not just floating here, it's your whole body.

Speaking of the VR aspect then, do you think the simplistic concept and gameplay of Cosmic Smash lends itself especially well to VR games?

But it's not simplistic. It is reduced and simplified, but it is complex. I think that, to me, the best graphic design feels simple. But in order to reduce something to its essence is the hardest work that's sculpting. That's why I admire graphic designers. If everyone could do minimalism, they would do it. Because technically, it uses the least sort of processing power. But in order to render the characters the way that we do, we have to build shaders and lots of other crazy shit in order to make it look as simple as it does.

A screen from Cosmic Smash I took with a cheapo capture dongle in 2015.

To me, the best designers in the world get to reduce everything to down to a simple idea. The best writers tend to be people who can say things simply not because they're condescending, quite the opposite. I think it's the people that use high falutin words and like, big vocab and stuff, they're the ones who are who are actually insecure, and feel that they have something to teach. To me, the smartest person is the person who can actually boil everything down to its essence. And so I want this game to be smart, but I don't want it to lecture. I want people to say "I feel good." Have a good time. Which I think is the fucking best feeling. And ultimately, the most profound lesson to learn from life is to enjoy.

That's an interesting way of looking at the concept, the design language of Cosmic Smash as a whole. Thinking back to the Dreamcast game, we obviously don't give away too many spoilers, but are we likely to see any of the special secret characters from the Dreamcast game in C-Smash VRS?

There will be secrets. I am saying no more!

That's fair enough. Keep people guessing! So again thinking about the Dreamcast or NAOMI versions of Cosmic Smash, do you feel that the relative obscurity of the IP outside of the Dreamcast community has been a good tool to pique interest?

Sure, I mean, I personally don't care about IP, because it's what I do in the toilet. I pee. In the toilet. Sorry. But what I care about is making something original that stands out. And I believe that this game, originally, it was not allowed to do that enough. There's a few select people, including [graphic designer] Cory Schmitz, for instance, or Jeff Gerstmann who is now talking about C-Smash VRS on his podcast. Already, like some people have just been marked for life by this original game. 

The two player mode where you must protect your squares.

But it has pure unrealized potential. I didn't go after this license because it's lucrative or because these people fucking know about it. I don't care. Because ultimately, to go after the familiar, it goes against what art is for me and what entertainment is. The thing that makes something entertaining is something that has an element of surprise. When you're making something based on a brand that you already know, you're killing surprise, and we're all living in a world where we're actually not getting surprised anymore. We're just getting marketed to. I don't want to market to people. I'm going to surprise people. This comes out of nowhere. I want to give you something fresh and beautiful.

It's certainly beautiful from what I've seen! Now Jörg, you have a long history with the Dreamcast. If you could bring three Dreamcast games back as VR titles, which three would they be?

If I told you that, it would probably mean that someone else would do them before me...so I'm going to keep people guessing.

Ha! That makes sense. So, the Cosmic Bus. This is the first time I've seen a physical representation of the enigmatic form of public transport. If you could catch it, what's your destination?

The edge of space and time, of course!


I did also manage to catch up with Dan Clarke, aka ARKOTYPE who worked with lead designer Cory Schmitz and was responsible for much of the UI and icon design in C-Smash VRS. Dan told me that he was influenced by the timeless work of Otl Aicher, the man behind the familiar sporting icons which were first introduced for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Initially I thought the icons in use in C-Smash VRS might well be nods to the diminutive VMU display, but Dan said otherwise, instead taking inspiration from the most recognisable semiotic icons and signage from the last century.

An example of ARKOTYPE's UI design.

From the ARKOTYPE website: 

The interface evokes the minimalist style of the original game, with a functional and simplistic aesthetic inspired by the Dieter Rams era of Braun product design, and Otl Aicher's 1972 Olympic design programme.

The project spanned all aspects of the interface design, from information architecture, user journeys and wireframing, through to prototyping and interface - culminating in a comprehenisive design system which allows functionality, clarity, flexibility and expression. 

Additionally, ARKOTYPE provided design direction for the C-Smash VRS project for various project assets including styling, typography, documentation, presentations, website design and promotional materials.

Icons inspired by the Munich 1972 Olympics.

In summary

Overall I was impressed with what I saw in C-Smash VRS. It's a pretty cool demonstrator for the potential of the new PS VR2 hardware, and naturally having some link to the Dreamcast is always welcome. Maybe the level of hype being generated around C-Smash VRS is part of the cultural phenomenon we now live with in the current era, where nostalgia for things we never experienced first time round is commonplace, and clever promotion and stylish visuals can really help to leverage market penetration. That C-Smash VRS has the pedigree of Cosmic Smash's somewhat obscure mythology backing up the awesome retro-futuristic visual design is a bonus here, what with the current trend for all things 2000s being especially en vogue.

That said, you can't take away from the passion on display from the developers and designers involved in this project. As a standalone product I think it has the chops to succeed and RapidEyeMovers and Wolf & Wood should be incredibly proud of what they have done in expanding the somewhat limited fictional universe of the original Cosmic Smash. Oh, and it plays really well too...so there's that.

I still think the original game is a perfect example of style over substance and is a title most people are unlikely to enjoy for longer than 20 minutes...but that's just me. C-Smash VRS is well worth checking out if - unlike me - you can afford to purchase a PS VR2. I'll be spending that particular wad of cash on heating a single room in my house for around 45 minutes next November. Sigh.

Once again, do follow C-Smash VRS updates on Twitter and on the dedicated website. Thanks to Jörg, Andrew, Benjamin, Jon, Poorvi, Lost in Cult, everyone who chatted to me and who I didn't get the name of at the event, Danny Russell from Sega, and Pcwzrd for pre-empting my article on the inevitable u-turn in opinion.

It's me again. But animated.


As a sort of footnote (or, um, postscript) to this article, I do have something of a mini announcement to make. This report will most likely be my last post here at the Junkyard for a while/ever. That’s because after much deliberation and an aborted attempt to 'retire' back in 2018 (and almost 20 years running this blog), I have decided that the time has come to hand over the day-to-day running of this most sacred of junkyards to one of my learned and esteemed colleagues. His name is Lewis Cox, and I have every confidence that he will continue to populate this place with the usual high quality long form investigations, news snippets and podcasts that many of you have come to expect. 

Remember this header? Memories...

Supported by the rest of the super-talented and ever-humble crew of reprobates who still hang around this little corner of the internet, I’m sure the transition of 'power' will hardly be noticed. So it is, with some fondness and more than my fair share of sleepless nights, laughs and behind the scenes dramas, that I sign off from my tenure as 'Stig of the Junkyard' and allow Lewis to shape this place in whatever way he sees fit. If you want to follow my adventures with old motorbikes you can find my zero production value YouTube channel here (no obligation...in fact it's probably best if you don't).

But for now it's adios amigos, and thanks for all the fish...I'm off to catch a Cosmic Bus.


DepecheSA said...

Great article Tom. As someone who has been a long time reader of The Dreamcast Junkyard I'm sad to see you go but appreciate all the hard work that you've put into making this website one of my favorites to visit. Best of luck for the future.

pcwzrd13 said...

I knew it! My prediction was right! I'm like a modern-day Nostradamus! :-P Very much looking forward to trying it myself, especially now that it has the Tom Charnock stamp of approval. lol

Also, I don't believe you for one second that this is your last article. You can't leave the Junkyard, Tom. Plot twist: You ARE the Junkyard! *maniacal laughter off in the distance*

Laurence Goodchild said...

Did you really have to bow out with such an exquisite piece of writing Tom? You've set the bar too high! TOO. DAMN. HIGH.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks Lozz. The time has come to just stop, it's been a long time coming! Thanks DepecheSA and PC - I'll probably end up starting some new venture in the future when I can find somebody in the same timezone to work with on my plans...

Pizza Hotline said...

The press event looked rad. I love how fast this article was turned around, I just bagged my copy of Edge to carry on the read! Tom, this is definatley your best writing I've sampled to date. Thanks for pouring so much of your free time into this incredible blog over the years. Long may it continue 🌀!

DCGX said...

I'm very interested to try this in VR. The original Cosmic Smash can be very zen at times, and that's on a flat screen, so I can only imagine how lost in trance VR is.

Tom no, say it ain't so! I've always enjoyed your writing and inspired articles. Hopefully you'll still pop up in the comments from time to time. All the best to you.

Lewis Cox said...

What an article to sign off with, truly excellent, Tom.

Your legacy with The Dreamcast Junkyard is not one to be scoffed at, so it’s sad to see you stepping down. But I’m not letting you go for good! Feel free to come back and put up articles whenever you like!