By Jeremy Parish

With a title like Pig Eat Ball, you might expect the latest release from Shoot 1UP creator Mommy’s Best Games would tend toward the strange, even inexplicable. Those instincts would be on-point. Pig Eat Ball is a difficult game to describe: A top-down arcade-style action adventure in which a princess (who is also space pig) attempts to make her way in the universe by becoming the champion of a sport that, like many sports, involves making goals with an array of balls. Except the goal is the princess’ stomach, and she eats the balls, which cause her to bloat, which means that sometimes she needs to messily vomit the balls and consume them again.

In other words, Pig Eat Ball is kind of weird. But it comes by its bizarre tone honestly: It reflects designer Nathan Fouts’s own sense of humor—as do his musings on how the game came to be in the first place.

“I worked hard to infuse Pig Eat Ball with as much arcade sensibilities as possible,” Fouts says. “Using a sous vide technique I learned abroad, I submerged the entire game design document in PCB sauce to ensure satisfying and rewarding gameplay. Every world has at least two, and sometimes three, hammy homages to classic arcade games. Sharp players will notice nods to Q*bert, Burger Time, and even Tapper!”

Jokes aside, the arcade heritage of Pig Eat Ball shines through its surreal façade. In addition to the game’s obvious, direct references to classic coin-op works, it feels like an arcade game. The action maintains a frantic pace throughout, with timed elements frequently coming into the picture, especially once players trigger the vomit mechanic (which activates a timer that ticks down to an even severe case of additional barfing). The specific themes and mechanics of individual stages change as you advance with a degree of variety that would make your better flavor of Mario game proud. And just as Nintendo’s Mario games are rarely pure action extravaganzas, Fouts says he aspired to create something deeper with Pig Eat Ball—an effort that made development considerably more challenging than for previous Mommy’s Best Games releases. Or, as he puts it, “trickier to pin down than a greased hog.”

“I finally landed on ‘Arcade-Adventure’, attempting to coin a new sub-genre,” he says. “I think of it as an ‘arcade game, that you can take your time to explore.’ It’s not just a ‘five minutes and you’re done’ sort of experience.” He compares the game’s content to tiny appetizer hamburgers: “It’s many bite-sized arcade-sliders, served on a giant, wacky platter, sprinkled with bits of exploration.”

Because Pig Eat Ball embraces so many distinct concepts, Fouts says, his creative process involved plenty of experimentation and iteration. “My previous games all started with a clear genre, and then added a tasty twist, like ‘play all your ships at the same time’ for Shoot 1UP,” he says. “Pig Eat Ball was a long, iterative process as it started very broadly, and wasn’t in a clear genre. ‘Top-down, racing-based, action-puzzle story-driven arcade game’—[that] requires a lot of simmering to get the right flavor.”

Along the way, he recalls, the entire focus and nature of the game mutated several times as he homed in on the optimal expression of Pig Eat Ball’s underlying concepts. “The original prototype was a four-player couch-co-op party game, back in 2013,” Fouts says. “An enhanced version of this became the Party mode that ships with the game! It’s extremely fun, but [also] a short, multiplayer experience. I knew I also wanted a single-player version, which took lots of experimentation to find.

“Early on, I even had a prototype in which the hub-world was grid-based, and each grid-tile played a musical note as you moved! All the overworld enemies were a combination of music and food, and it was extremely weird... but only kinda fun. That lasted about four months before I switched to the overworlds we have now. The change was an improvement, as the overworlds now support more exploration, secrets, and crazy set pieces like a ‘pillbug sushi restaurant’ and a bowling alley!”

Interestingly, Fouts says the emphasis on vomiting wasn’t initially part of the game design plan, despite the significant role that mechanic plays in the finished product. “Barf didn’t enter the picture seriously until later in 2014,” he notes. “I have an inspirational note that read, Must weaponize barf, and things sort of snowballed from there.”

Fittingly, the vomit mechanics here were inspired by classic games, too, much like the rest of the game. Well… for a certain definition of “classic”.

“There was no recipe to follow here, but I definitely gave Boogerman some careful consideration,” says Fouts. “I’m old enough that I owned it when it came out, and can remember the marketing. Early on, I leaned hard on the barfing themes, but later pulled back and put the gameplay-adventure more front and center.”

“I tried to think of it like, ‘What would I want to play?’ I wouldn’t want to play a barfing game, but I would want to play a wacky action-adventure that opened the door to lots of crazy gameplay (and happened to involve barfing).”

Fouts also realizes that if he’s not particularly interested in a game specifically focused on puking, many gamers would want to avoid it altogether. There’s a tricky line to be walked between “amusingly gross” and “unplayably repulsive”, and a great deal of refinement and user feedback went into fine-tuning Pig Eat Ball to be gleefully grody without repelling potential players who would otherwise enjoy the addictive, fast-paced action beneath the rolling chunder.

“I showed the game at many conventions, getting opinions on the particle effects, sounds, and game feel,” Fouts recalls. “I made sure early on to tone down the actual barfing and burping sounds to make them cartoony but still recognizable. I also added lots of accessibility options such as separate barf volume, particle effects controls, and separate barfing particle effects controls. I want to welcome as many people to table as possible.”

Despite the enormous volume of content crammed into Pig Eat Ball, the years of effort and refinement that went into its design, and the varied challenges it contains, Fouts still feels the final product doesn’t quite realize the full potential of the concept. However, he thinks it’s enough for now and has his eyes and design talents focused elsewhere.

“Back in 2017 I made the decision to cut a sixth area, a racing world!” he says. “Ahh... it would have been glorious to have all-new racing puzzles and gameplay to explore. 

“It’s quite a filling game for an arcade-inspired adventure (a good six-to-10 hours for sure). And I’m proud of its reception, especially since we received quotes like this one from HardCore Gamer’s review: ‘Pig Eat Ball is a crazed monster of action and creativity.’ After everyone gobbles up the action I’m serving in Pig Eat Ball, I’ll be happy to offer my next, new gameplay course!”

Pig Eat Ball for PlayStation 4 is now sold out on the Limited Run Games website.

May 06, 2020