#IDARB — Snap Judgement #6
A retro-inspired “ball game” built “mad lib style” that’s also a forgotten multiplayer gem.
Time played: I only planned on playing for about 45 minutes, but I enjoyed it enough that I came back a couple times and ended up with a total play time of around two hours.
If you sort all the games available to you via Xbox Game Pass in alphabetical order, the very first one that appears is #IDARB. I had never heard of it, but I was intrigued when I read that this weirdly titled work was “a chaotic, 8-player, eSport jumping future arena ball game.” I thought I knew all the ball games! And now I’m learning about a new one titled “Hashtag Eye-darb?”
After playing it, I can verify that the description above is mostly accurate. This game is indeed a chaotic arena ball game that can be played with up to eight players. Is it an eSport? It could be, I suppose. Is it also “jumping future?” Sure, I guess. I would call it a very abstract, two-dimensional interpretation of sports like soccer and basketball, blended with a goofy sense of humor and a love for classic sports games of the past.
The story behind #IDARB might be even more interesting than the game itself. As Bo Moore explains in his great story for Wired, this game was born when developer Mike Mika tweeted that he was contemplating building a game “‘mad lib’ style” with suggestions from friends on Twitter and Facebook. He followed that tweet with another saying that he had started that project and, at the moment, it only did one thing: it drew a red box. From there, suggestions started rolling in, and the hashtag #IDARB was created, an acronym for the one thing the game did: “It Draws A Red Box.”
The project really took off when Brandon Sheffield of Gamasutra suggested that Mika include a ball that could be picked up and carried to a goal at either end of the screen. That one detail allowed anyone to instantly grasp the game’s mechanics, and an early version of #IDARB took Microsoft’s Indie Showcase at GDC by storm. More suggestions came in, and about a year later the game’s final version was released.
As Moore explains in the article, this development technique is reminiscent of the “Twitch Plays Pokemon” phenomenon from that era, but I think it’s better described as the design philosophy the creators of Rocket League popularized: follow the fun. Sure, Moore and his team at Other Ocean were fielding hundreds of random suggestions from social media, but they were also picking and choosing what actually worked in the game. The result is something that feels more layered than random, something that packs a lot in a tiny package.
As I mentioned, #IDARB’s closest real-world ballgame cousin is probably soccer or basketball. You control a tiny character (formerly the red box) that hops around the 2-D setting trying to grab a ball and get it into a goal, usually placed near the top of the map. You can shoot the ball at the goal using a trigger button, or you can simply walk it into the goal. Your opponents can knock the ball out of your possession if they get close enough, and if you have other people on your team (you can play one-on-one all the way up to four-on-four), you can pass to them.
It feels like basketball (the target is almost always above you, requiring you to shoot up at it), but the scoring is very different. If you walk the ball into the goal, you earn one point, but if you shoot it from close range, you get two points. From there, a series of lines encircling the goal indicate the points you’ll receive if you hit a shot from that distance. (Think of it like a repeating three-point line.) You can earn up to ten points if you hit a shot from “downtown,” and those points are multiplied each time the ball bounces on its way to the hoop. If you hit a ten-point shot that bounced three times before entering the goal, that will earn you 30 points. However, high-scoring shots like that are rare. Shooting is very difficult, so the majority of goals are the one or two point variety.
During a game, play is punctuated by an intense chiptune soundtrack and constant retro sound effects. After every score, a giant “GOAL!” appears on the screen and an announcer shouts a random, unrelated pop culture quote, like “you’re bringing on the heartache!” or “we’re gonna need a bigger boat!” This all gives the game the feel of an exaggerated sports title like NBA Jam or NFL Blitz, but, counterintuitively, it also makes it feel more serious. All these elements are silly and tongue in cheek, but hearing “Ma! Meatloaf!” after you hit a distant shot doesn’t make it feel any less epic.
There are really only two major drawbacks for #IDARB. The first is the shooting mechanic. There are no assists that help you aim toward the goal, so every shot feels like a hail mary. Many shots that are well aimed miss the goal by inches, and, after a while, I found myself wishing they had made the playing field a little more forgiving.
The second drawback is that no one seems to know about #IDARB. Although there is a story mode with AI opponents you can play against, this is a game that’s meant to be played with other people, ideally on the same couch. There’s an online mode, and I was able to find someone to play against, but I got the vibe that we were both newbies who were just experimenting.
If you have seven other friends who are looking for a new sports themed multiplayer game, #IDARB might become a legendary experience. But, unfortunately, multiplayer games are always subject to an ongoing popularity contest. Everyone wants to play what everyone else is playing, and if no one is playing a game — like #IDARB — it’s hard to get the momentum going needed to establish a player base. However, there’s a chance #IDARB 2 might be coming in Fall 2020. And if that gets some social media buzz, I’d start practicing…