As far as strange bars go, you'll be hard-pressed to find something weirder than Shufflepuck Café. Staffed by a robot, and replete with several dysfunctional regulars, its main attraction is an air hockey table. This standoffish group, composed of nine individuals (including the robot waiter), has just one interest: destroying you in a game of virtual air hockey.
You can challenge these regulars to one-off matches or enter a tournament. In a tournament, you work your way up from the weakest to the strongest opponent -- at least, you try to. This begins with the feeble novice Skip Feeney, who'll compliment you on your fine skills, then steps up to a midget alien, a seasoned veteran shufflepuck player, an increasingly inebriated champagne-loving serpent, and onwards, eventually reaching the street-tough Biff, who is the reigning champion.
In one-off matches you can customise the playing conditions -- increasing the size or power of your paddle, adding a weighted block to the centre of the table for a little unpredictability, or, if competing against the robot, modifying the attributes of your opponent. Think twice before making your own paddle ridiculously wide -- it may make defence easier, but your ability to send a crazy, unstoppable shot scooting towards your opponent will be severely hampered.
Each opponent has his/her/its own patterns and idiosyncrasies -- many comedic, such as the serpent Lexan who sips champagne, hiccups, and eventually passes out, or the mysteriously calm alien Nerual, who periodically opens his (her?) robe to reveal a smirking face at around chest level. These character quirks extend to the gameplay, with some of them even doubling as tells for what your opponent will do next.
It is a far inferior game with the audio turned off. Every sound and animation is satisfying and lends a tangibility to the experience; the donks and thwacks of the puck bouncing around the table, the sneers, taunts, or grunts of your opponent, and the smashing of glass all resonate sharply, giving a sense of being there.
Shufflepuck Café is not easy. If anything, it can be punishingly difficult. Get careless while trying to do a wicked bounce shot and you'll end up bumping the puck into the wrong end of the table. Try to overpower your opponent and you're just as likely to overpower yourself. The respective play-style of each of your opponents may eventually become obvious to you, but until that moment you can get stuck in seemingly endless back-and-forth rallies -- neither you nor your opponent willing to give even a hair-widths advantage.
For fans of the NES, it may seem reminiscent of Punch Out! -- and in many ways it is. Each character has their own patterns and tells, and mastering them all is a simple game of patience. But it also offers a greater depth than the likes of Punch Out!, for there is an unpredictability to the puck's motion that stems from the broad range of actions and outcomes at your disposal.
The game benefits from the march of technology, with the mouse controls feeling far more comfortable using the optical mice of today than the roller ball mice of yesteryear. Smoothly gliding your mouse across the surface beautifully reproduces the feel of gliding an actual paddle across the thin layer of compressed air of an air hockey table. And you no longer have to worry about the mouse getting stuck at the most inopportune moment.
I have only ever played Shufflepuck Café on a Mac, the platform on which it was initially released back in 1988, but there are also versions for the Amiga, DOS, NES, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, NEC PC-9801, and Apple IIGS (this last one was leaked but never officially released). These ports all replace the aesthetically pleasing -- and thematically consistent -- black and white MacPaint visuals with often-garish colour schemes that struggle to reinforce the dank and murky atmosphere of an underground café filled with dodgy-looking air hockey enthusiasts. But, of these, the Amiga port seems fairly robust, and is your best bet if you can't play the Mac original.
Did you ever play Shufflepuck Café? Share your memories of the game in the comments below.
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