Clusterpuck 99 describes itself as a mix of soccer, hockey, and pinball, but comes off as a poor man’s NES Ice Hockey with sluggish controls and awful AI. A local multiplayer game at heart, Clusterpuck 99 is drab on its own, and only offers the occasional flash of real, chaotic fun when there are more players.
The hockey inspiration is easy to see, with the game’s skatey controls, small teams, puck, and goals. Pinball, meanwhile, contributes the myriad stage hazards – such as bumpers, gaps, and spikes – which serve to keep matches dangerous. I have no idea why soccer is credited as an inspiration for Clusterpuck 99 as there is no notable hint of the sport.
Presentation is fairly awful. Stages have monochromatic backgrounds and incredibly limited color palettes. While promotional art for the game shows human characters, actual in-game characters are just colored-in circles. The few remaining assets, such as bumpers and spikes, have nothing special about them whatsoever. While high-class graphics and art are not required for a local multiplayer game to be successful, the incredibly dull visuals in Clusterpuck 99 are off-putting to a point where the game suffers because of it.
Clusterpuck 99 is fairly easy to get the hang of, but not because of any accessible pick-up-and-play design. Instead, it is more a result of half of the gameplay options being so useless that they are better off ignored. You move your boring circle avatar with the control stick, pick up the puck by simply running into it, and you pass and shoot with a single button. You can dash, but your character’s speed will drop immensely after doing so, to a point where dashing is actually slower in the long run. Passing is not really reliable either, especially if any AI teammates are present. Gameplay moves at a snail’s pace; movement would have to be twice as fast for it to feel fluid. Between detrimental control options, awful AI, and a weak pace, there is really only one legitimate gameplay strategy: get the puck, weave through defenders, and try to score.
The game is very clearly intended to be enjoyed with friends, and it isn’t really possible to enjoy it on your own. If you are not able to get a group of at least three or four players together, there is not much for you here. The single player consists of ten bare-bones challenges ranging across shootouts, short matches, and obstacle courses. There is a well-executed stage creator, but it would have been more appreciated if the game had a shelf-life longer than two hours. Also included is the ability to play against up to seven AI players, which, once again, may as well have not even been implemented. The AI is so awful and formulaic that it is a liability to play with anything but human players. Instead of utilizing any strategy, AI players move and act like a thoughtless horde, trying to grab the puck and push through the other team’s equally headstrong defenders. One particularly annoying situation occurs when the puck is lodged into a corner; AI players will crowd around it, sit still for a few seconds, and then all peel off at the same time. This can happen multiple times in a two-minute match. The herd-mentality resembles a scrum more than anything else; the developers could have been more honest by advertising Clusterpuck 99 as part rugby instead of part soccer.
Negatives aside, Clusterpuck 99 is much less insufferable when experienced with a few friends, if only because any human who has ever touched a controller can play with more intelligence than the AI. There is some satisfaction to be had when you are able to escape with the puck and pull off an unlikely shot. Unfortunately, human partners cannot overcome the game’s meandering speed, limited controls, and boring presentation. Clusterpuck 99’s bottom line is a sluggish, disappointing game. At its finest, Clusterpuck 99 is fun for a little bit, but your friends will be begging to play something, anything else long before you exhaust the game’s available stages and features.