Jӧrg Tittel is an interesting guy. Born in Belgium, he studied in New York, and has an indefinable mid-Atlantic accent with hints of American and German. He has written, directed, and produced video games, plays, films, and graphic novels, and worked on everything from Activision’s Minority Report licensed game to a West End stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The sun also rises. Only in the context of this eclectic resume is his latest project unsurprising: a VR reboot of a forgotten futuristic tennis game for the Sega Dreamcast.
Cosmic collisionreleased in 2001, was originally a Sega arcade game that combines tennis – or rather squash – with the classic arcade game Break out. The player controls a wireframe athlete and knocks out blocks at the far end of a cubical room by hitting a ball at them. A contemporary of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s classic Rezanother Sega production, Cosmic collision has a similar vibe: cool graphic design, Tronneon minimalism in style and a utopian, futuristic vision of life in the machine. Like it Rez, its sad fate was to only find its way into the Dreamcast after Sega discontinued the console and pulled out of the hardware business. unlike Rezdidn’t it also get a PlayStation 2 version to save it from oblivion. Cosmic collision was a cool game, but few people have paid much attention to it since then.
However, Tittle has; this is a man who according to his IMDb biography, helped pay for college by writing for the Official Dreamcast Magazine. In founding his new venture RapidEyeMovers, a boutique game production and publishing label, Tittel sued Sega for the right to license this nearly forgotten game. “Half” of the people he spoke to at the Japanese publisher didn’t even know what he was talking about, he tells me. But he persevered and eventually won their deal, before contracting UK VR specialist Wolf & Wood to make his dream of CPR come true. Cosmic collision become truth.
The result is C-Smash VRS, exclusive to PlayStation VR 2 (for now). I got a chance to try it out at a recent press demo in London, held in a dazzling white event space buzzing with techno music. Dressed in a branded jumpsuit that made him look like a lanky, futuristic crime-scene tech, Tittel wandered around, sipping a beer and socializing with journalists and PRs. It wasn’t just the game itself that seemed like a time warp to the early 2000s. They don’t make games like that anymore, and they don’t make PR campaigns anymore either.
C-Smash VRS retains Cosmic collision‘s minimalist, teal-and-orange design and abstract avatars, expanding the look a bit to make it more overtly sci-fi; you can look out the windows of your digital squash court to see starfields and curved planet surfaces. In single player, the aim of the game remains the same; whip the ball with your racket to knock out blocks across the room. But the experience is vastly different, not so much because of the VR perspective, but because of the motion controls.
With the PlayStation VR 2 Sense controllers, you serve by pulling a ball towards you in the air with your left hand and then hitting it with your right hand (or vice versa for left-handers). If the conditions are right, you can also hold the trigger with your racquet hand to suck the ball towards your racquet and unleash a targeted power smash. You must also use the control stick to move your character left and right along the baseline, much like a bat in Break out or Pong. (An optional iris carefully darkens your peripheral vision as you move, to reduce motion sickness.)
This combination of analog and digital control takes some getting used to; maybe it’s just because I haven’t played a VR game in a while, but I had to train myself not to physically go to the ball. It’s fair to say that Wolf & Wood has some tuning to do. The serve action feels sticky and I found it difficult to pull the ball to my forehand instead of my backhand, leading to rather lukewarm serve.
I initially struggled with the fairly long range of tutorial levels, but eventually got my stride. When it clicks, and you start a rally, and the blocks keep flashing, it’s very satisfying. (Title promises a full campaign mode that even has a story to follow, as well as co-op play.) Even better was the one-on-one versus mode, a kind of tennis variation where you have to knock out the blocks behind your opponent while defending your own. This had a strong just-one-more-go factor reminiscent of Wii Sports at its best; I stopped because I was working up quite a sweat in the headset, not because I wasn’t having fun.
Tittel was proud to have found an original Cosmic collision arcade cabinet to stand in the corner of the event space. Playing it for a minute, I was immediately struck by the game’s sharp controls, smooth speed, and dizzying wish-fulfillment – which couldn’t really be said of my fumbled efforts in the VR game. But the arcade game also didn’t leave me grinning from the workout in the same way.
However, one question lingered. Why is this happening at all? Nobody asked for it Cosmic collision to come back, and certainly nobody asked for it in VR. C-Smash VRS seems like a niche within a niche, and yet Tittel is actually spending money on it – on this press event, on the graphic design, on hiring the likes of Ken Ishii (Rez infinite) and Danalogue (of London jazz-funk band The Comet Is Coming) to create the music, on a collaboration with Ukrainian fashion house MDNT45 (hence the jumpsuit), and on a promised, lavish physical edition.
Tittles belief in the staying power of Cosmic collision is immovable. He remembers getting the Dreamcast version in its custom packaging — a translucent DVD case with an orange disc inside — and thinking, “Sure, maybe it’s all dead, but this thing will stay… It was iconic from the start. It refuses to die. (…) It felt like a really good one Tron. It felt like something positive Tronwhere you’re not stuck against your own will, you’re in a pleasant, graphically reduced reality, and that’s what I wanted to live in.
Tittel doesn’t seem to care that the potential audience is there Cosmic collision and VR are small, let alone overlap. For him, the integrity of the game itself is everything. “I wanted to publish the game because (…) I wanted to build the marketing and promotional story into it, because again, I’m not much into marketing. I don’t really like PR. It’s so boring, it feels unfair. So if I make it part of the art, then everything will be fully integrated. (…) For me it is theatre, for me the whole is a performance. I want to make things on purpose, be original and reduce things to their essence.”
Tittel claims to hate licensed products and marketing, yet he’s made these things his job because he wants games to be holistic wholes as works of art, with each extension of the brand resonating with each other. Is he an artist in salesmen’s clothes or vice versa? Honestly, I enjoyed talking to him, but I’m not sure. If you’re one of RapidEyeMovers’ lenders, that can be a bit concerning. But you can’t fault Tittel’s dedication to bringing back a 2001 gaming vibe that we all thought was lost forever.
A demo for C-Smash VRS will be released on March 23 for PlayStation VR 2.