I’ve spent a bunch of money on board games recently, and I’m not entirely sure why. It seems like a natural progression of my nerdiness, and it’s certainly representing of my more completionist compulsive tendencies, but they also offer the opportunity to have four of my friends sit around a table and participate on an even social playing field. When you’re playing a board game, you’re never staring at your phone when the conversation turns away from you.
That’s the primary philosophy behind Sportsfriends, a quartet of independent games all focused on the type of local, living-room multiplayer that’s made a surprisingly potent comeback in recent months. Subsisting on goodwill and Kickstarter money, Sportsfriends arrives with a whole lot of heart. It’s a grassroots party game, with designs so simple and efficient they could’ve been Mario Party obstacles. Its charm will overwhelm you, but sometimes a back-to-basics approach can inadvertently turn up the barrier of entry.
Out of the four games included, the fan favorite will probably be BaraBariBall. A stripped-down, revved-up take on perennial dorm-room icon Super Smash Brothers, the mechanics are brutally simple. You need to get the ball in your opponent’s goal, but both of you are equipped with enough double-jumps to take you to the moon. This means you’ll routinely find yourself casting off the edge of the arena in faint hopes of retrieving the ball from the maw of defeat. It’s a game that revels in these stunts, it wants the drama to be consistently achievable. Much like other recent four-player couch games (Samurai Gunn, Towerfall,) it gives you a few simple mechanics that are polished to a mirror shine. Such a thing as high-level BaraBariBall play exists, which is pretty impressive for a game that uses about two buttons.
BaraBariBall also works because it’s the only game in the package that works well with two players. The silly, but flimsy Super Pole Riders can also be played with two, but it truly comes into its own with a quartet, and even that mostly thrives on the elastic chaos of imprecise controls. Hokra is an ultra-minimal combination of rugby, king of the hill, and pong that requires exactly four players, and then there’s the highly touted Johann Sebastian Joust, the graphic-less motion game that might be the first and only relevant moment the Playstation Move may ever have.
It’s no wonder Sportsfriends showcased well. On a greasy floor with four friends in the middle of the general tradeshow euphoria is the exact sort of excitement needed to make a lasting statement. But that, sadly, isn’t real life. Allow me to make some assumptions. If you’re reading this review, there’s a good chance you might be the only member of your circle to own a PS4, and if that’s the case, you probably only own one PS4 controller (Editor’s Note: Sportsfriends is also available on the PS3, on Macs, and on PCs that run Windows or Linux). You’ve seen how Sportsfriends reflects some of the purest multiplayer fun in recent memory, but that’s going to require three people in your bedroom and a nearly $200 investment in new controllers. There is an option that lets you “share” a controller with somebody else, but, you know, let’s be real. That doesn’t even factor in the investment in Move wands and the requisite space in your house to let your friends chase each other around in a circle. All for a multiplayer-only game that won’t let you play anything online. It’s not intentional, but for a casual downloadable game Sportsfriends can get very expensive very quickly.
But you know? I’m really glad I have Sportsfriends on my system. Because in about two years, when my parents own a PS4, Sportsfriends will be a go-to classic. I can probably scrounge up about seven 360 controllers through random drawers and creases, and eventually the PS4 will earn the same treatment. But for right now it feels like a great game that will have a hard time finding an audience.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. He always bought Mad Catz controllers because he didn’t know any better. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.