Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: October 16, 2007
The term Ping-Pong is now a Parker Brothers trademark — fun fact: the formal Chinese name for the sport is derived in part from the trademark — for a leisure game dating back to the late 19th century. Table tennis, on the other hand, is the real deal: a sport requiring sharp wits, keen eyes, athleticism, agility, strength and physical stamina. Ping-Pong is played after Christmas dinner, in the garage with a couple of space-heaters turned up full blast. Table tennis is a cutthroat competition hosted in packed-house Beijing auditoriums. Ping-Pong is a household item for which you eventually lose all the parts, save the table and perhaps the net. Table tennis is an Olympic sport — a medal sport, no less. Rockstar Games' video game contribution to this popular sport or mere cult phenomenon, this determination depending mostly on your nationality, is very definitely table tennis, not Ping-Pong. They call it Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, and Rockstar Games does indeed present table tennis.
Rockstar's Table Tennis was originally a high-definition title for the powerful Xbox 360 console, an entirely oddball answer to the common question, What will those crazy guys at Rockstar do next? At first and even second glance, Rockstar's Wii version of Table Tennis is Xbox 360's Table Tennis, minus high-quality character models, fluid animations, good-looking venues presented in gorgeous HD, Dolby Digital sound and online multiplayer. For a brief period, I was a rabid Xbox 360 Table Tennis enthusiast, mostly in Xbox Live competitive online play, as, at higher skill levels in tournament matches against CPU-controlled opponents like the Swede Jesper — "Jesper" must be a Swedish word for "cannon" — winning strategy development was often an exercise in frustration. If you weren't dedicated to unlocking various equipment items, new characters and unique venues, it was hardly worth it. But the online play was fun and reasonably fair, match outcomes dependent more on the skill of your human opponents rather than the predetermined power, spin, serve, etc., skills of the characters they chose. (You just have to love Xbox Live: Some Table Tennis players intentionally set traps of matches with so many rounds that, even should you be terrible and your opponent be stellar, would take at least a full hour to finish; you were as likely to quit as not, awarding your online opponent a ranked win by default.)
Without online multiplay or gee-whiz graphics, the only point in bringing Table Tennis to Wii, other than generating extra sales from an existing property, is adding Wii control mechanics to the game. I have to give Rockstar Games the benefit of the doubt here and assume this was the developer's more or less pure-hearted goal. (Did I just use "Rockstar Games" and "pure-hearted" in the same sentence? Impossible, must have been my imagination.) After all, they haven't released Table Tennis for PlayStation 2 or 3, PSP or Windows PC.
This looks everything like a pick-up-and-play title, so that's almost surely what you'll do with it. When you first slide Table Tennis into the widely worshipped little white box, you'll immediately discover the wreckage that is the new control scheme. For example, serving perversely requires a double swing — one to start the power meter, one to set power and deliver the serve. I've dabbled in various racquet sports and I played competitive tennis in my youth, so I've seen my fair share of outlandish service techniques, but I have never ever in the real world seen a double-swing serve. I'm not even sure it can be done.
Once you've served the ball — it's not difficult, really, just weird as hell — you'll find that using the Wiimote to swing your paddle yields the most unpredictable results. Forget using the d-pad arrows to put appropriate spin on the ball; you'll be lucky to figure out if a precise forward stroke will wind up a backhand or forehand shot. Where the ball lands on the opposite side of the table is anyone's guess. Within half an hour, you'll start wondering exactly what complaint strategy you can use with a store manager to return the game for a refund, even though you've already opened it. Excessive mature content? No, that won't work. Graphic violence, blood and gore? Sorry. Profane in-game dialogue? Unfortunately for you, although the character's brief exclamations are a touch whiny, they'll annoy but never offend.
Given you'll finally accept you're stuck with this clunker, you may read the manual or shuffle through the configuration menus in the game. Here you'll find, besides the Wiimote-only controls, a couple of specialty schemes requiring the Nunchuck controller peripheral — for my part, the "Sharpshooter" setting is the best. The Nunchuck-based controls are a bit complicated, not so much you can't learn them in a short time, but involved enough that you must actually learn them. Dealing with the Nunchuck thumbstick shot-aiming mechanism and buttons for triggering "focus shots" and "focus mode," you'll forget all about swinging the Wiimote like a table tennis paddle. You'll probably just shake it around in a vertical position, like a stick, and shortly thereafter, you'll discover the best sports control scheme for Wii — perhaps one of the best Wii control schemes of any game genre — I've yet encountered.
I blame Nintendo, specifically the pack-in Wii Sports disc. Today, when pack-in titles have for years been a thing of pure nostalgia, it's hard to blame a console manufacturer for including a pack-in title with their new console all the way back to launch day. But blame them I do. The problem is, Wii Sports is a simple title with simple controls, really just a demo of Wiimote functions, and being so intentionally simple and easy to learn, the Wiimote use in Wii Sports is purely literal. You swing everything: baseball bat, golf club, tennis racquet and your virtual fist in a boxing match. Yet as Wii games become more complex and developers experiment with more robust Wii control schemes, real-world motion mimicry is not the only way to go and certainly not always the best approach.
Once you've learned how to use Table Tennis's Wii control scheme — the double-swing serve remains odd, but forgivable — it's a superior gameplay experience to the same time title for Xbox 360. Rather than muddle through CPU-controlled matches, possibly cashing it in as the difficulty increases, you quickly learn, via these exceptionally accurate Wii controls, to use your opponents' ostensible strengths against them. With the 360 game, the Swedish Cannon will beat you down with inelegant but effective power shots; in a long, escalating volley, you eventually can't even return these rockets. In the Wii version, Jesper is readily dispatched by dropping shots with spin in odd places, shots that, caught off guard, he will overpower back, completely missing your side of the table.
The games' graphics are my only real complaint with Table Tennis in its Wii incarnation. Wii is, of course, standard definition as opposed to HD, and the raw processing power in both the CPU and graphics processing component can't possibly measure up to Xbox 360. I don't expect graphical parity. But in preparing the graphics for the Wii version, it certainly looks as if Rockstar merely recycled existing models for Wii output resolution. You can often get some nice-looking, even near-astounding, results in upscaling and anti-aliasing for higher resolutions, but the same cannot be said for the reverse process. The developers should have spent more time reworking the graphics for the Wii's more limited capability. In audio, Dolby ProLogic II is quite sufficient for this type of title. Online multiplay is sorely missed, but Nintendo hasn't yet established any standards, infrastructure or support for third-party Wii multiplay; therefore, I can't mark down Rockstar on a missing feature due to lack of platform support.
Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is a difficult game to score. The graphics demanded more attention, but this is a gameplay title, not a graphics showcase. Ultimately, it's a good version of a good game that originated on a very different platform — an even better game, really, just as Resident Evil 4 for Wii is the definitive version of an already excellent title. Perhaps Rockstar should have called this one Table Tennis Pro. Rockstar Games deserves extra credit as a rare third party having done as well as Nintendo in implementing the unique Wii controls' strengths. Table Tennis for Wii makes the same game for Xbox 360 look like ... well, Ping-Pong.