As cliché as it is to lionize the early 3D era in video games, it's hard not to appreciate that era's creative output. Looking back on it, that experimental atmosphere the mid to late 90s are known for feels like the perfect meeting of all the right conditions. There was uncertainty in the air; developers and players alike thought that bringing games into the third dimension would irrevocably rewrite the rules, meaning no idea was to be left off the table. What's more, many of the industry's giants were still small enough that they didn't have to play it as safe with their flagship titles, but still big enough to fully develop less conventional ideas and give them the exposure they needed. So you saw major publishers like Sega and Sony cultivating titles like Rez, iS: Internal Section, and Lattice: 200EC7; high minded, artistic titles which use an abstract technological aesthetic to discuss contemporary culture or explore the human condition.
Standing alongside those titles is Cosmic Smash, the futuristic Sega sports game that was released first in Japanese and European arcades and later as a Japan-exclusive port to the Dreamcast. First impressions would lead you to believe that the game draws a lot from Rez, and although the two games were developed by completely separate teams, you wouldn’t be wrong for making that comparison. Both of these idealistic games express some interest in how mankind can use technology to realize its fullest potential. Yet the more you play Cosmic Smash, the more you learn that its idealism is an idealism in design, not an idealism for the people it's ostensibly built for. In other words, no matter how genuine the game’s optimism may be (and there's no reason to believe it isn't), it's still left with an odd tension because it lacks a human dimension.
Admittedly, that sounds like a lot to make out of a game that's consistently described as "squash meets Breakout." While that description is by no means inaccurate (more on that in a bit), the first thing you're likely to notice isn't the gameplay, but rather, the game’s striking minimalist art style. Each level of gameplay sees you in a pristine environment whose every object is rendered with flat colors. It's a world free from any distractions. The only objects allowed into it are those that are absolutely essential to the game: a player, a ball to hit, some panels to aim at, surfaces to bounce the ball off, and a red/white timer to tell you how much time you have left. That said, it wouldn't be completely accurate to call Cosmic Smash a minimalist game, because that would imply that minimalism is an artistic end in itself for the game. To that end, it evacuates any and all potential distractions, leaving you only with what the game wants you to appreciate.
All this becomes easier to understand when you look at what the game doesn't cut out: the sounds of rubber sneakers squeaking against the floor; the rhythmic, snakelike movements panels make in certain levels; the exhausted pants of an athlete who's played a strong game; and the animations of a muscular male figure, his inner workings laid out for you to see. Besides lending the game a more aesthetic quality, these features draw attention to the game's form, and in doing so, evoke the kind of finesse and technique that makes the game so appealing in the first place. They're especially notable in light of how you play the game: while your avatar presumably feels worn down after playing these levels one after another, you, the person holding the controller, are much less likely to succumb to his fate. So you get all the aesthetic enjoyment of his performance without any of the downsides that would usually follow from performing it yourself.
Even the rules of playing Cosmic Smash follow this pattern. Looking at the game in action, you get the feeling that it idolizes efficient play and ideal game design: it tries to achieve balanced design wherever it can, hoping to hit every item on its checklist of what makes a game perfect. The first such balance is one between simplicity and complexity. The game starts with a basic set of rules: in each level of Cosmic Smash, you're given a set amount of time in which to break a certain number of panels, which you accomplish by continually bouncing a ball off the walls. As accessible as those rules may be, though, they quickly give way to a multitude of unique situations. This isn't even getting into all the little intricacies thrown on top of everything, like trick shots, curve shots, various rules for scoring, etc.
Yet for all that complexity, not once does it feel alienating. Instead, these rules and extra features add a level of depth to a game that you can already understand after playing it for a few seconds. So in that regard, Cosmic Smash nails the ideal of "easy to learn but difficult to master." The game hits a similarly satisfying balance when it comes to intelligence and skill. Speed and reaction time may be important, but so are precision and the ability to formulate strategies on the fly. In fact, some of the game's most satisfying moments come after you've played a level enough times that you’ve figured out how to clear it with a single well placed shot.
Unfortunately, that hints towards one of the game's biggest setbacks: it lacks a human dimension. Despite offering a variety of situations for you to navigate, the game can't match that variety when it comes to ways to navigate those situations. Doing so would run counter to its own philosophy: there can only be one form of true perfection. It's your job to find that form and deliver on it without flaw. So rather than exhibit man at the peak of his perfection like it wants to, the gameplay instead gives Cosmic Smash a cold, indifferent atmosphere, as though it wasn't designed with you in mind; as though you're a robot that can easily be replaced if it were to stop following orders.
And once you notice it there, you start to notice the mood everywhere else. The pure black and white environments start to feel sterile and just a bit eerie, their immaculate surfaces telling you that your presence would be enough to mar their beauty. Maybe that's why the only flesh and blood people in the game (as opposed to the ghostly avatar you control) wear bulky hazmat suits: so they won't defile these spaces by dirtying them up. However, it's hard to deny the alien feeling they lend the world when they're the only ones permitted to move about it. It's all enough to leave you wondering who exactly this future world was made for if not the people living in it.
However, it's clear that Cosmic Smash never wished for a world that bleak. It wants to be more optimistic than that. It has high hopes for what the future holds for us, and it puts a lot of faith in the role technology can play in helping us to bringing about that future. In that light, the darker implications from before reveal to us a game that can't get its motifs to do quite what it wants them to do. Consider the recurring subway/bus metaphor, for example. Your brief time in between levels is spent navigating underground tunnels, your destination foreshadowed on a map that could have been lifted from your average city's subway system. The idea behind this set-up is that you can choose any path you want in life: you pick different levels by following whatever forks you encounter, and each road you follow forms its own unique journey. That much is reflected in the many possible endings you can get, one of which involves a one-on-one competition between you and a computer opponent. But given the bland way the voiceover announces the next stop you'll be arriving at, you could also say the game has created a world where leisure time and work time have collapsed into a single space.
It's hard imagining any of this posing a real problem to casual players. If you're looking for a fun game to pop in for a few quick rounds, then Cosmic Smash can definitely fill that need. But it's clear that the game doesn’t want to limit itself to that. It wants to be much more. That sort of ambition is commendable, yet the game doesn't live up to the potential it sets for itself. Which isn't to say you should write it off as a failure; the game’s developers clearly have the talent they need to see their project through, and they come tantalizingly close to doing just that. In the end, though, they can't get a firm enough grip on what they've tried so hard to reach.