For many, a day dodging at the gym was a nightmare or a chance to unwind from the anxiety of an angry teen. I really enjoyed it, one-sided as it often was, usually because it was the most honest opportunity I ever had to take on bullies and throw them in the face. Fast forward to 2021, and I’m about 30 years old and enjoy many anime shows, so the Dodgeball Academia cartoon sports action was clearly designed in a lab for loved ones like me. It’s a creative action RPG with just enough charisma to stand by the football Captain Tsubasa or NBA Jam.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: You are a young boy with big dreams of becoming the best dribbling player in the world, and the only way to do that is to attend a giant school where that seems to be the only curriculum. Along the way, you’ll meet extraordinary faculty, form friendships and rivalries with fellow students, and discover campus mysteries. The only thing missing is a catalog of creatures to pick up, unless this elusive has some extra functionality that I don’t know about. Dodgeball Academia explicitly recalls the influences of Pokémon, the sports anime series, and Steven Universe.
I start working my way through the ranks of the Dodgeball Academia, getting up every morning in the dorm I share with Ballooney, a literal balloon-headed boy. I’m free to roam the moderately sized campus as I see fit, spend money in the equipment store, challenge classmates to fights in the stadiums, or go to class in the main building. On my way to class, I was interrupted by several students in duels, and they quickly learned to bite my dribbling ball. In RPG style, defeated opponents give some cash and experience points. The 3D school environment is nice enough, but all the amazing 2D character art and animation is what makes me feel like I’m suddenly stepping into an episode of Gumball or some other Cartoon Network classic.
Dodgeball Academia fights are very similar to a dodge ball. I race to catch one of three balls sitting on the center court divider, take a few steps back to safety, and while just throwing the ball is an option, I quickly learn to charge my shot and set the ball on fire. Well, that last part is nothing like a regular dribbling ball. My bullet hit the schoolyard thug and his silly dull hair, washing him in flames that continue to hurt him.
The camaraderie with my teammates won’t save me though when our opponents throw different types of shots at once. One replaces his dribbling ball into a rubber boulder, while another tosses it in a slow arc through the air. I’m a ninja barely rolling away through both and getting ready to grab the third.
Suddenly, the next ball disappears into the air, and I let nothing go. Suddenly he materializes to my side, as if he’s not saying “nothing personal, boy,” and crashes into my intuition.
My reluctant teammate Mina, a reckless frog-faced girl, may not have picked me first from the lineup, but we all have it for now. I flag it because my health is deteriorating, and I control it while Otto takes over the back line. Our enemies team seems unsure of themselves, and since at least one ball is in their court, Mina can charge her final move in Super Saiyan style, emit flashes of light and scream in her heart. There is no saving for our enemies now, as Mina unleashes three piercing arcs of lightning from the sky, blasting two enemies into the air and destroying them for good.
Dribbling, ducking, diving, diving, and dribbling
The Dodgeball Academia’s quick-stacking roster of mechanics is clearly designed to encourage aggression. Throwing, charging, rolling, tackling or catching balls are just as effective when you have one dribbling or when you have three. I love it when my team is in possession of all three dribbles because it feels just like those moments in high school, where a brief lull reigns, before an entire class rains down the violence of a dribbling ball on the other. When my opponents bite the dust, they are also sent to my own back line to pounce on our feet with foul shots while I deal with the rest.
At first, I was worried that the Dodgeball Academia was just a picnic, but this increased pressure to get the dodgeball out of your hands kept surprising me, reminding me that victory was by no means certain. In the same way that NBA Jam only had a few mechanics but managed to feel like a deeper game that required a certain level of skill, Dodgeball Academia feels like something I’d need a few more hours to really master. Not that I have a problem with it when it’s that much fun.
The whole time, our third colleague, Balloni, was sitting frightened on the sidelines. In the story mode of the Dodgeball Academia, battles are sometimes interrupted by comic book boycotts. The kind you see in any anime when a character somehow magically finds a way to have an entire conversation within three seconds. Our team’s current contender, a snotty-nosed boy named Kubo (who’s got this, has a cube for his head) sneaks up on a devastating attack while turning his back on the manager, draining my health bar to one point.
Like Phoenix Wright shouting “Opposition!” , Balloni starts shouting “I will help FRRIIIIIEEEEEEEEENDS”, and revives the whole team with the effect of a giant tidal wave.
The fighting spirit of this “power of friendship” seeps from every corner of the small but lively campus. When I’m not busy throwing shuffle balls, I visit the student store to try out new accessories to boost my Yakuza-style stats, or meet a vampire girl who loves to stock up on coins from the fountain. I visit the infirmary in between rounds to heal Becca – I mean my teammates. I also visit the cafeteria run by a capitalist-obsessed Dodge Boomer who will sell me healing lollipops and chips. If you want to take shonen combat into the real world, the local versus mode allows you to beat it with a friend and customize your team. Unfortunately, you cannot play against AI enemies outside of the campaign.
The school grounds are attractive with their warm and colorful style, but the real show thief here is a huge group of enthusiastic students, professors and faculty. My partner and I spent 20 minutes discussing which technique took the most: OK KO’s childish antics, Steven Universe’s diverse body types, or My Hero Academia’s dedication to instantly recognizable faces and characters. Whatever the contents of the mixture, it works. You know right away who is an asshole, who is a doer of good, and who is a strange cat-shaped abomination against God and science that will inevitably end up being your favourite.
Dodgeball Academia sticks to a lot of shonen’s familiar animation, but it’s comfortable to mock at the same time. It is a world where conflicts of all sizes are resolved with diplomacy in the form of a dribbling ball. Dodgeball Academia is available on Xbox Game Pass for PC, or for $25 on Steam. It’s been about three hours into the campaign, which has eight “episodes” each about an hour or two long and helps break things down into digestible parts.