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Table Tennis
Publisher: Take2/Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego

When you talk about it with the folks that have seen the exhibition, everyone agreed the recent Whitney Biennial kind of sucked. I mean, what was with those dull, deli canopies from the Reena Spaulings gallery? But two things didn't suck, and the reasons for their unsuckiness had to do with a good idea conceived and executed simply. Tony Conrad's pickled raw film stock in canning jars says a lot about the idea of preserving film if you look at the things with a Monty Python-esque nudge-nudge wink-wink. And the documentary about the anti-St. Nicholas craziness in Austria called "Kranky Klaus," with its coal-in-the-stocking meets-bullying-frat-boys-for-a-night-of-mischief is just a lone video camera or two following the herd of mythical, antlered Krampuses as they harass the local villagers. Both are simple. But both are so effective, they're ingrained within the consciousness of $15-paying museum-goers forever.

Dead Man's Chest's punky pirates
photo: Buena Vista Games
Dead Man's Chest's punky pirates

Details

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    When Rockstar, the pseudo-controversial video game company that created the violent Grand Theft Auto franchise, sent over a game called TABLE TENNIS, I almost thought it was a joke. I laughed, Maybe this is some early public relations idea to promote Grand Theft Auto 4. I mean, where's the complexity for the next generation system? It's too damn simple.

    But, yes, it's a ping pong game. Now, ping pong games in video gaming are nothing new. Everyone knows that 1972's Pong, the original video game, was a version of table tennis. Since then, there have been dozens of such offerings for everything from your Palm (Table Tennis 3D) to your mobile phone (3D Slam Ping-Pong). But none has had the panache and the attention to detail of Rockstar's Table Tennis.

    First, the graphics are pretty darn mind-boggling. You might think, who cares—it's just a table with clunky paddles and a hollow, celluloid ball.  But what's stunning is the way the life-like characters react to winning and losing. Not only do they look human, they act human. They get angry; they sweat; they talk to themselves, either to calm down or to pep up. They have egos and they live for applause from the crowd.

    I seriously expected to play this game for a few minutes and then get on to the next thing. But with my first point, I was excited. By the end of my first match, I was hooked. That's because the simplicity of the game is deceiving.  You don't have to move your character from side to side: the game does it for you. All you have to concentrate upon initially is moving the right thumb stick forward and releasing it when you want to hit the plastic ball. It's so much fun that I looked into the history of ping pong. It's a game that began in the late 1800s as a form of indoor tennis played by well-to-do Victorians who were addicted to tennis. But they couldn't play outside in the nasty English winters. Supposedly, they initially used a rounded Champagne cork as a ball and a stack of books as a net.

    Fast forward to 2006. With the Table Tennis video game, there is such a subtlety in the way you hit the ball that it's almost poetic. Not only can you add topspin and backspin, you can add left sidespin and right sidespin. By pressing the right trigger on your controller, you activate something called Full Focus. With three levels of focus, your game play gets better and you're truly in the zone. When you get a little better, you'll be able to tell what kind of spin is coming at you, and you'll be able to counter that spin.

    There are no real ping pong champs in the game. But the ones that have been imagined not only have their own playing styles (anything from fleet feet to killer defense). They also have personality. You'll meet a variety of players as you move from the various tennis circuits, some of which are seedy and some of which are so full of people, you'll get nervous.

    But the real magic and wonder of Table Tennis comes with Xbox Online play. You can volley with up to eight players in a tournament online. When you have a rally against someone from, say, Olympia that goes over 100 hits of the ball, your heart starts pounding and you wear the look of grim determination.  You'll probably hear a lot of bragging through your headset. But you can turn that off. 

    The upshot? Because Table Tennis is so easy to pick up, it will probably introduce a lot of casual gamers to the Xbox Online experience. That means a more mature crowd, and a more civilized game with fewer moments of Madden-like trash talking. But Rockstar's ping pong game will have some competition soon: Nintendo is creating a table tennis game for its Wii system to be released in the fall. If it works as well as Table Tennis, they should subtitle it "Kranky, Pickled Mario Pong."

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