Back when the Kinect was a new thing and Microsoft still cared about making a footprint in the Japanese market that wasn’t as tiny as flea circus the company decided to go all out in a surprising way. So in an attempt to capitalize on the buzz of the Kinect, entice gamers within the much lauded core group, and make the Xbox 360 user base in Japan larger than the population of an Amish village, Microsoft went ahead and entailed the services of several major Japanese publishers and developers.
Announced at TGS 2010, Microsoft unveiled three exclusive projects for the Kinect which were big enough to get a thread on NeoGAF that wasn’t filled with complete disdain or pure trepidation with subtle hints of hatred. Of the three revealed Japanese Kinect games, one went on to become a massive critical and commercial dud since it was unmanageable to play (Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor), while the other was Crimson Dragon – a game whose June 2012 release date was suddenly pulled at the last minute and hasn't been heard of since then.
Amongst those two games which almost represent a yin-yang in the quality department, there was another Kinect exclusive which rose to the occasion, perhaps because the expectations for it were so low to begin with. That game is Diabolical Pitch, the Grasshopper Manufacture produced Kinect action title which put a spin on baseball by making it an arcade action experience with the bizarre tone that’s to be expected from the studio.
So for the third installment of Six Months Later I thought it would be worth wild to look at Diabolical Pitch and see if it’s truly one of the better games not only released for the Kinect but created by the world renowned team at Grasshopper Manufacture.
From The Twisted and Punk Filled Minds of the Grasshopper Manufacture Team…
It’s kind of unexpected to truly know what’s coming out of a Grasshopper Manufacture project as we’re talking about the same company that created a game about assassin’s with deep narrative strands delving into politics, another game about assassins that revolved around individuality and what life means, and most recently a zombie game which in some cases eschewed the genre and then embraced it with such love that it managed to be more than another groan worthy genre game featuring the undead. So with the basic theme of baseball + last chance at stardom + weird shit to the max we get the result that is Diabolical Pitch – a game which is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Diabolical Pitch is an interesting game to look at since as tradition has it the game doesn’t follow an established formula yet it even has a flavor that seems fresh for Grasshopper Manufacture. The usual element of weirdness is present if ever constant in Diabolical Pitch but whereas it’s not on the same grindhouse level as Shadows of the Damned or the anime/manga feeling of No More Heroes, the game instead feels like it’s a David Lynch or David Cronenberg movie; at least if such a thing involved robotic pandas shooting missiles out of their heads.
There may not be any weird dwarfs, long unresolved murder mysteries, or strange cowboys citing what sound like riddles, but Diabolical Pitch has a narrative which is one of the more intriguing offerings made by GhM despite it not exactly being at the forefront. With the only story cutscenes appearing before the start of a new world, the game somehow manages to create a sense of mystery since the main character, a once famous baseball pitcher attempting at another shot at glory, has somehow been transported to this seemingly morbid amusement park that can make any wish become a reality. Is this place purgatory or is it real? And who the hell is this talking cow chap anyway?
Those are only some of the questions presented in Diabolical Pitch and despite however sparse the narrative may be the game manages to provide something that is ultimately perfect for its arcade basis without betraying what Grasshopper Manufacture loves to do: be weird, original, and flat out entertaining.
Is This What Baseball Is Like In Japan?
It may seem odd that Diabolical Pitch is a Kinect game with a basis in baseball since such a combo may seem like an unholy mix that would result in a complete car wreck. Even as a fan of the studio I was a bit hesitant as to whether Grasshopper would be able to pull off a game that would simply be okay. Even more I was almost pessimistic that the game would either be good or mark a continued rise in improvement as has been the case in the last few GhM games.
Of course I was surprised, in a good way mind you, that Diabolical Pitch somehow made me enjoy turning on my Xbox, saying a few voice commands, and then throwing pitches like wild to destroy dolls intent on killing me. My sentiments about the game aren’t steeped in my fandom of all things GhM as I do love Suda 51 and Akira Yamaoka, but instead I looked upon Diabolical Pitch as a regular gamer would and not a mega fanboy of the company.
Diabolical Pitch’s basis as a baseball game does make it a rail shooter in some ways as the player has no control over character movement, but the game isn’t some sort of ill-conceived action title that could’ve been done without the Kinect in a perfectly fine fashion. Groundbreaking Kinect enhanced features are devoid in Diabolical Pitch, though the game excels since there’s an immense amount of character is created thanks to the baseball theme as it ultimately drives every facet of the game instead of merely being a small facade to push the gameplay element of gamers making pantomime throwing motions.
The amusement park world of the game has shades of what we may come to see from an old-school attraction if Walt Disney went on an acid trip or hired Tim Burton to be his head Imagineer. Going for a slightly darker and more subdued art style compared to the highly stylized anime inspired art we sometimes see from Grasshopper, the style in Diabolical Pitch is incredibly interesting. Each world in the game has a distinct theme that plays up certain design motifs such as a horror stage with spooky lighting or a space stage with an almost classic 1950s/1960s Lost in Space design, and for that the game manages to become captivating – even if the main mechanic consists of throwing flaming baseballs at robotic enemies modeled after various animals.
The overall context of Diabolical Pitch is definitely odd, but as has always been the case with Grasshopper games the presentation is one of the true highlights of the game. Never pushed in an annoying way such as having a sports commentator, the theme of baseball ends up gelling perfectly with the rest of the game in such a way that isn't over-the-top as some Japanese developed games tend to be; at least those that involve talking robots and possibly demonic fantasy worlds.
Kinect Arcade Action At Its Finest…
Based on what we’ve received so far it takes a special mix of skills and design ingenuity to create a Kinect game that doesn’t totally suck. It doesn’t matter how much the budget or what the team size is as we’ve seen that even Kinect games with a purported triple-A moniker and development cycle can be a complete wreck (see Star Wars Kinect as an example of such a thing). Besides a few run of the mill Kinect games that really don’t have gamers do anything other than move their torso left or right to avoid obstacles, there have been few gamers which have perfectly encapsulated arcade gameplay within a Kinect powered experience – that is until Diabolical Pitch came out.
I’m not a wholly lazy gamer that abhors physical exertion but I haven’t really been thrilled by the Kinect games I’ve played so far. Where Diabolical Pitch succeeds in what other games have failed to do is that it creates an easy level of entry yet it slowly ramps everything up, just as any classic arcade game should do. The notion of constantly throwing pitches to destroy enemies may sound like it would become tiresome extremely fast, but aside from the occasional ache that may be had from throwing an average pitch speed of 96mph, the game doesn’t fall victim to becoming repetitive due to having nothing else to back the experience.
The depth of Diabolical Pitch comes not only from trying to throw good pitches, which can be done somewhat easily thanks to some rather good motion tracking tech, but trying to rack up combos, high scores, and ultimately complete each level with ease and style is where the true enjoyment comes from. The most grounded GhM game as far as the mechanics are concerned, Diabolical Pitch ups the ante by having each stage be the most intense shooting gallery you’ll ever play. Ever creepy dolls may slowly plod towards you in each of the stages, but the excitement comes from having to deal with these enemies quickly, hope your robotic pitching arm doesn’t suffer from fatigue due to rapid pitches, and that you can unlock a charged pitch to unleash a grand anime inspired move that deals massive damage to the enemy.
On top of that, the game has some rather clever secondary abilities which involving kneeling or jumping to dodge oncoming attacks. Outside of being slightly afraid I would suddenly slip or bump my head due to playing in a basement with a linoleum floor, those features are still fun despite being rooted in design ideology that pushes basic movements to the forefront instead of doing something previously unseen.
My arm did become tired once in a while due to throwing charged pitches in one stage so the game can indeed be a bit physically taxing here and there. With that said, I can’t express how satisfying it is to go through a stage unscathed and destroy multiple enemies due to my character's arm transforming into a cannon or an all powerful baseball bat & ball being spawned to deliver some true home run style kills.
The nature of the combat may not allow it the same moment to moment flair that may be had in No More Heroes or even Lollipop Chainsaw, but the simplicity of the game combined with how the stages ramp up the difficulty hugely results in some rather addicting gameplay that is perfect for short bursts or returning play sessions to beat previously established scores.
The Latest Great, But Forgotten, Game From Grasshopper Manufacture...
Released this past April, Diabolical Pitch somewhat came and went without making much of an impact. Perhaps such a thing could be attributed to the natural nicheness that encompasses most Grasshopper Manufacture games, though it could be because of the whole Kinect only non-sense that most gamers balk at no matter what the property is. Or perhaps it’s possible Diabolical Pitch didn’t fair better because it didn’t have an advertising campaign partly fueled and built around an attractive blonde lady cosplaying as the main character.
Delving deep into why Diabolical Pitch wasn’t more of a commercial hit may be pointless since Grasshopper games rarely are commercial hits, but the more important question is why the game was buried so fast. It’s possible the game may have just been too weird for some people since a Kinect game created by a Japanese company involving a baseball player killing evil lion and elephant things with a flaming baseball of doom may have been tough to swallow as opposed to a standard fantasy tale that could’ve been marketed easily to the trucker hat wearing crowd.
Diabolical Pitch may not be one of the best games created by Grasshopper Manufacture as it’s longstanding significance and impact won’t be remembered in the same way as Killer 7 or even No More Heroes, but the game still marks a continued improvement for the studio that still to this day has yet to totally sell out by playing it safe or deciding what it’ll offer gamers after intense rounds of focus testing.
For what the perceptions of it may have been, Diabolical Pitch is one of the better, if the best, Kinect game released this year, and is one of the few games released for Microsoft’s peripheral that isn’t embarrassing. Playing the game in front of people who aren’t inebriated may still result in a level of embarrassment since you won’t look like a skilled warrior, but at the end of the day who cares? What matters the most is that the game is fun to play and controls well. Outside of having a secondary target mechanic utilizing your non-throwing arm feeling a bit floaty, Diabolical Pitch excels when it comes to user control since it’s built around simplicity that nonetheless makes for an empowering experience.