Volleyball is one of the worst possible sports you can turn into a video game. That’s probably why there are so few of them; to the best of my reckoning, this is the only one that ever appeared on the original Game Boy.
As a sport, volleyball comes in a few different forms: Either the standard Olympic version with six members per team, or beach volleyball with two. In its Olympic form, volleyball has the same field presence as basketball or soccer, but the action is contained in a much smaller space. The confined court leaves little room or time for maneuvering, and the action largely consists of the ball being passed around. Unlike soccer or basketball, volleyball doesn’t allow for possession in any sense, so there’s no dribbling.
In terms of expressing this as a video game, volleyball basically amounts to bouncing a ball around and trying to set up a quick attack at the net. There’s not really a lot you can do with this in a video game without diluting the quick, reflexive nature of volleyball. And yet the late ’80s saw a huge number of volleyball-based games hit the market in rapid succession, which probably had everything to do with the shirtless beach volleyball scene in Top Gun.
Beach volleyball at least offers a fighting chance at a decent video game. By reducing the number of team members to two, it allows for more active zone defense, which translates to the player having more opportunity to do something besides ping-pong the ball around. This, then, is the direction Malibu Beach Volleyball takes. It’s not a great adaptation, but god bless ’em, at least developer TOSE gave it the old college try.
Malibu Beach lets you play as one of four different two-person national teams as either men or women. In case you weren’t clear that this is a game of Japanese origins despite bearing the Activision label, the anime-style women on the title screen and calling matches should clue you in. Also, the male character sprites look completely goofy.
The rules are fairly simple, much like beach volleyball. Your team can bump and set the ball twice before returning it to the other side. If the serving team misses the ball, possession changes to the other team; if the receiving team misses, the servers get a point.
Unlike many volleyball games, Malibu Beach goes with a Tennis-like behind-the-court perspective. Between that and the limited resolution of the Game Boy screen, your perspective on the ball can be rather crippled. In order to make play easier, Malibu Beach denotes the ball’s trajectory by marking its landing point with a flashing X. Keeping the ball in play is as simple as standing in front of the X and pressing A. You don’t even have to be particularly precise; Malibu Beach incorporates a rather impressive contextual element to play that will cause your players to respond appropriately to the current situation. The second hit in a volley will always be a set, and you’ll frequently dive to reach across a distance or save in the wake of a spike by the opposing team. The A button allows you to perform a hit, while the B button causes you to leap. Leaping is great for defending at the front lines, and theoretically is used for spiking on the other team as well.
Unfortunately, the game can be pretty persnickety in how this plays out. While returning and setting the ball is usually fairly forgiving, occasionally the game will simply not register your actions, or will cause the ball to pass over you if you’re standing even a pixel or two forward of the center of the X. This becomes especially true against more advanced teams.
Even more frustrating is the seeming impossibility of performing a spike from your own team member’s set. It’s pretty easy to leap up and knock down an incoming ball on a shallow trajectory, but good luck actually performing a spike of your own. While preparing for this retrospective, I tried for an hour to perform a spike to no avail.
The computer, of course, has no such trouble. This is really unfortunate, since it means that unless you can crack the inexplicable timing of spikes, the game consists of you sending over easy lobs every third hit while defending against the mysteriously capable CPU. Against the lower-tier teams, Japan and Italy, this is no problem. But god help you against Brazil and the USA.
You don’t really have any direct influence over the movement of the ball, either. You can hit it and theoretically slam it in an opponent’s face, but the trajectory of a serve and a hit alike is determined entirely by where you’re standing when you hit it. So you’ll see the same hits and arcs from match to match. It’s oddly repetitive.
The single-player mode is thus maddeningly divided between matches against the low-skill teams, where you can perform the same few actions and completely shut out the other team, and the powerful teams, where you basically have to play tight defense and wait for the AI to decide it’s going to flub one of your returns.
It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, either. The speed of the action and the tendency of the ball to travel off the screen work against he game, though; the original Game Boy’s laggy screen makes it difficult to parse the action, and the game can be deeply frustrating if not played on a later hardware revision (or, ahem, a Super Game Boy).
Activision published Malibu Beach Volleyball in the U.S. and Tonkin House in Japan. In the U.S., a development credit appears for Tokyo Shoseki, which was a division of Tonkin House that had primarily produced educational titles for Famicom. Tonkin House reportedly absorbed Tokyo Shoseki shortly afterwards. The only game that appears under their credits after Malibu Beach Volleyball — called Seaside Volley in Japan — is a single PC Engine title.
As I mentioned before, many listings credit ghost house TOSE with the development of Malibu Beach Volleyball. Although the company takes no direct credit for the game, the claim is best borne out by the fact that Seaside Volley was included in a 1996 compilation of Tonkin House sports games called Sports Collection, an omnibus that was indeed put together by TOSE. Not that it really matters to anyone but a dedicated video game archivist. Malibu Beach Volleyball is one of the countless forgotten Game Boy titles. Decent but not great; a decent distraction, but nothing you’d actively seek out.
Like many Game Boy releases, Malibu Beach Volleyball was good enough to exist in 1989 but offers no reason to revisit it today aside from the novelty of a Game Boy rendition of one of gaming’s less common sports. And also, that sweet super-’90s American box art. I want to put that on a Trapper Keeper.
Japanese title: Seaside Volley • シーサイドバレー
Developer: TOSE/Tokyo Shoseki
Publisher: Tonkin House [JP] Activision [US]
Release date: 10.31.1989 [JP] | 3.1990 [US]
Genre: Sports (beach volleyball)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: Dig & Spike Volleyball [Super Famicom, 11.27.1992]
Similar titles: Power Spike Pro Beach Volleyball [Spark/Infogrames, 2000]
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, isometric view
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging and contents
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, box front
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, box back
Malibu Beach Volleyball, cartridge
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, instruction manua
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, Nintendo Power insert
Malibu Beach Volleyball, packaging, Activision fold-out poster ad