Sunday, December 5, 2021

Rise of the Wool Ball (ROTWB.WAD)

It took awhile to get there but the modding capabilities of (G)ZDoom have led to a growing number of people making new games based on Doom's framework. Some of these are commercial prospects, the fact of which is great, but others like MSPaintR0cks's Wool Ball series continue the grand tradition of TCs (Total Conversions) in offering novel AND free experiences. Shadow of the Wool Ball, released in 2016, was a snazzy Wolfenstein 3D clone with some interesting environmental hazards. When I wrote my review I was positively anticipating a future iteration that ditched the Wolf3D flat plane of action for something with more vertical depth. Lo and behold, 2017 brought - among other great mods - Rise of the Wool Ball. Prepare to shoot, kick, and now BOUNCE your way through another 18 maps of catastrophic carnage.

Shadow ended on a high note, with hedgehog Scott rescuing his girlfriend Rebecca from the claws of the Furr-er, the leader of a race of extraterrestrial cats. They travelled around in a giant, pulsing wool ball and were poised to farm the planet of its sentient creatures. The killer kitties returned, however, and kidnapped Scott in a multi-stage plan to inflict vengeance that also involves blowing apart the planet, harvesting it of its other resources, and polluting the environment. Rebecca, who was saved from certain death by a mysterious power, must now pursue her own quest in order to not only save her boyfriend but also prevent the total destruction of their home planet.

So - Rise of the Wool Ball is a retro-styled first person shooter whose environments are patterned after the similarly-named Rise of the Triad. Shadow of the Wool Ball, owing to its Wolf3D trappings, had uniform floor and ceiling height and square tile-based floor plans. Here, MSPaintR0cks raised the height of the levels in order to accurately depict the scale of the adventure - the same move that Rise of the Triad made back in 1994. RotT used "gravitational anomaly discs" to create varied height planes. You could navigate them by their stair-like placement, elevator-like movement patterns, and bounce pads that sent you flying into the air. It's no surprise that Rise of the Wool Ball emulates these quirks in a similar fashion. The first time you see the game's second tier it's logically as bamboo grate platforms but you'll later encounter precisely placed balloon / propeller platforms. You often access the upper floor by way of mushrooms that bounce you into the air or scratching posts that you simply climb.

I like seeing Rise with what is effectively a second tier of action but this also makes level navigation exponentially more interesting. As a Wolf3D clone, Shadow's only way of sawtoothing progression involved fans that blew you down corridors as some sort of race track / obstacle course hybrid. RotWB still does this but also features a variety of situations that "lock" you into an area, forcing you to find an alternate exit. This may be as mundane as dropping off a platform or bouncing over a fence. More exotic sawtooths include litter collection rooms that force you to run through a dumping ground lest ye be crushed. The overall "feel" of Rise's level design uses these progression pitfalls to create looping tracks that feed back into the main part of the layout. The later entries exaggerate this design, such that you may find yourself hopping back and forth between circuits as you try to figure out the path forward.

RotWB's hedgehog / kart racer hybrid dictates the flow of its layouts but it is still very much descended from its partial namesake, Rise of the Triad. RotT had oodles of environmental hazards for players to navigate, many of which Wool Ball includes in one way or another. Some of them had their debut in Shadow, like the spike floors and chomping doors. Other dangers include spinning, spiked yarn balls reminiscent of RotT's blade pillars; rhythmically-firing cannons; and enormous, industrial pistons. Some of the more unique gimmicks from SotWB cameo in here, particularly the sneaky "don't get caught in the light" bit from its E2M4 ("Watch Out For the Watcher").

MSPR has done a great job of incorporating the second field of action into gameplay. Rise is super bouncy and while Rebecca has no inherent jumping ability the overall experience still feels very much like a fast, three-dimensional platformer. Albeit one that's spiritually descended from racing games, of course, as is appropriate for a game that features hedgehogs. I'm especially happy with the development of the boss fights. The first battle, Meowzeki, is mostly notable for introducing a distinguishable attack pattern and a pseudo-platforming "floor is lava" gimmick, otherwise ignoring verticality. The second, however, uses a skateboard power-up to deliver a battle on wheels that involves deftly maneuvering between the upper and lower tiers in order to land hits.

The final battle incorporates both the boss patterns and verticality to create a wicked cool fight. You're under assault from a giant mech and need to use a mushroom located in the back to bounce over two of its attack patterns. This is complicated by an intermediate, sweeping damage hose that drives you toward a suboptimal position before the next major strike. The hiccup isn't difficult to learn to compensate for but the price for failure can be pretty steep, so the emphasis is on the excellence of execution. The setup feels like the sort of clever twist that authors come up with when they bend the ruleset of the game they're modding for... even if the boss itself is tailor-made to the fight.

The rest of the game's combat barely leverages vertical space but you do get some new enemies to complement the returning gang from Shadow of the Wool Ball. Mutant fish populate the waterways and are whack-a-mole monsters a la Hexen's stalkers. There's a cat with a helicopter backpack that shoots cannonballs and drops barrels but it's targetable with autoaim so you don't have to do anything crazy / bouncy in order to hit it. I kind of like the robo-kitties that appear in the third and final episode. They're Terminator-style melee fighters that relentlessly pursue you and can't be killed with most weapons, which merely knock them down. Like Quake's zombie, you must deliver the killing blow with an explosive weapon.

And, yes, Shadow's kit has been expanded with both rocket launcher and plasma gun equivalents. Your slot five equivalent shoots cucumbers, a reference no doubt to meme videos of cats being surprised by strategically-placed cukes. Number six is a... blue bird, that rapid-fires eggs. Always nice to have a high rate single-target damage source. The golden shotgun is gone, its functionality replaced in spirit by one-hit sneakers that slot more readily into a Berserk powerup for Rebecca. It offers more opportunities for rewarding risky play than, say, accumulating ammo for the golden shotgun across an entire episode and then dumping it into the boss.

I'm pleased with the track-like level design that MSPR went with and it feels like a logical exaggeration of one of Shadow's most unique gameplay traits. It's the three-dimensional movement, though, that really makes Rise pop, whether it's the madcap bouncing adding another layer of risk to the travel paths or the increased ceiling height making for more varied locales. The outdoor areas shine pretty well, ranging from the bright and joyful grassy woodlands of E1 to the rugged, snowy mountains of E2. You even get some spookiness with the polluted wilderness of E3. Indoor environments get some new fun stuff if not necessarily with props then stone ruins and tech facilities giving way to nightmarish conveyor belts and piston presses. The raised ceilings also offer the opportunity for taller wall decorations, adding more opportunities to add character.

Rise of the Wool Ball builds upon Shadow's foundation in just about every conceivable dimension. Fans of the original's Wolf3D-clone style or dungeon-crawler type first person shooters may be disappointed to see the jump to three-dimensional movement. Personally, I'll echo my sentiments from my SotWB review and say that I'd love to see MSPaintR0cks tackle Doom's less bounded level geometry. Then again, I have a feeling that one of the logical endpoints of Rise's track-like gameplay - not to mention hedgehog protagonist - can be glimpsed in the Doom-derived Sonic Robo Blast 2. Any further developments may be relegated to fan-created content as MSPR appears to be making a point and click adventure game: Beyond the Edge of Owlsgard. If you're as much of a fan of the genre as I am, then look for it to release mid-2022. Until then, the Wool Ball series is here for all the anthropomorphic antagonism that you need.



Into the WoodsE1M1
Kicking off the E1 theme, a sort of forest / water / wood cat outpost hodgepodge. This is a good tutorial level and introduces the single biggest break from Shadow of the Wool Ball: verticality! Mushrooms are a fun analogue to jump pads and you get a silly moment with a field that's full of them for maximum bounce. The author also gives you time to get used to the mechanics of navigating Rise's more advanced two-plane space before introducing the enemies.

E1M2Muddy Waters
MS introduces a new gimmick as well as some more granularity to the whole verticality thing. The staggered cat balloons emulate yet another hallmark of RotT and the crushing floor / litter disposal area is a fun way to use lifts mainly as hazards. Most of the rest of the Shadow crew shows up so you get to do some real work with the shotgun. There's also a helicopter dude who totes explosive barrels, utilizing the upper plane for enemies as well. The higher ceilings go a long way toward making the levels look more geometrically appealing.

The GymE1M3
The author returns to the Shadow format with an E1-style bunker but adds a few cute touches to keep things feeling fresh. While two dimensional, there's a cute bit with boom boxes that play a cover of "You're the Best" and observation panes that let you view exercising kitties. It also introduces musclehead cats alongside the 1 Hit Kicks. The fan corridors are a now classic bit and feature in a fairly long obstacle course sequence. A few of these rooms make for some bloody shootouts, enough that the basic pistol start requires a more tactical approach.

E1M6Sk8 or Die
This is virtually the same thing as Shadow's "Windy Warehouse" (E2M3) but there are a few differences that take advantage of Rise's shifts in design. The basic premise is you're forced to maneuver through an obstacle course and, upon reaching the end, must traverse it again in reverse. You aren't being blown by fans, here; instead, you're on a madcap skateboard ride. You still have to navigate barbed-wire crates but you also have to time faster jumps over the occasional railing.

The Infested ClearingE1M4
Whoa! MS switches things up again by giving us an NPC who isn't Baaaaashful. It's a nice change from the regular asides from the commander cat. We are thankfully back from the classic Bunker Brawl aesthetic and back in the forested, naturalistic hodgepodge. This level does a good job of weaving bouncing segments and muck water areas together along with a fair bit of kitty carnage. I really like the big with the forcefield generator. You may or may not get a lot of use out of the cucumber launcher but it's available early and a great tool for all of the obnoxious ammo sink monsters.

E1M5Meowzekis Home
This boss level has both a front and side entrance. They both end up routing you over a fish-infested sluice. The mushroom segment has a novel approach to gunplay since you're lining your shots up against the heli-kitties and cannoneers while bouncing. The real fun is against Meowzeki, though, who makes up a more lovingly scripted boss fight. He only has three moves, two of which leave him vulnerable to sustained cucumber pounding. His regular jump attack is the most dangerous and probably best handled by dodging and not using brain and reaction power to time your shots. A cool episode topper!


Stranded In the ColdE2M1
MS breaks things out in a big way. "Stranded" feels enormous compared to the previous levels. It has two long, one-way legs that feed back into a massive outdoor area. You'll need to traverse both of them in order to finish things out. The ice mountain theme is a neat change and also comes with its own healthy contrast in debuting fluid damage floors. In this case, it's lava. The author abstains from any hardcore platforming action in this instance; it's mostly relegated to what amounts to tightrope action. I like the organic pacing of combat, particularly as you clear your way through the outdoor area.

E2M2Cozy Castle Kittenstein
Time for another interior level. While it sort of smacks of the bunker theme you're still reminded of your predicament by a few windows to the windy outdoors. It's also double decker - as opposed to "The Gym"'s single plane of action. The castle is fun to investigate and has fun with a different sort of fan tunnel that blows you up and then gently sets you back down in rhythm. It could be used to make navigation tedious but it's mostly utilized in concert with spike floors and ceilings in order to make timing hazards. I appreciate the little bit with the hopelessly screaming cat stuck who hasn't quite got his wings, so to speak. There's something depressing, though, about the floating corpses that you leave\in the air. In stark contrast, the plasma gun equivalent makes its debut here and it involves shooting eggs rapid-fire out of a bird.

A View From AboveE2M3
Another huge, high-vaulted mountain map. Like "Stranded", it feels pretty big, but most of the level blows by like a race course due to the ubiquitous horizontal fans. I appreciate the highway to the red key; it's sort of like a roller coaster ride. The eastern half of the map is where you do some hoofing and has a great walk out to the farthest outpost. The cat statues hint at a different, palatial and almost ruinous theme. The biggest surprise for me is the re-appearance of the observer gimmick from Shadow's "Watch Out For the Watcher" (E2M4).

E2M6Super Speedy Swashbuckler
A total change of scene to something like a pirate ship that's coursing through rough water. I'm not too sure about the cannons that are firing barrels at the platform structure but, hey, it's fun! The meat of the map is in the central obstacle course to the red key that access the shutdown button shed. Well, that and the army of cats that awaits at the northern end of the map. The theme comes with a couple of cute sprite changes to flesh out the mini Pirates of the Wool Ball TC plus a double time sea shanty. Oh, and a special vocal performance from Herr Cat. Fast and fun.

Lava CavernsE2M4
This time the snowy grounds give way to lakes of molten rock. The map has a bunch of platforming as you leap between mushroom beds and over lava but it also has a hover-fan segment as well. It also uses a sneaky finishing sequence insofar as you need to run one route through to the exit door in order to blast open a necessary shortcut. It's preferred, anyway, since taking the other route means that you will be without the shotgun for the vast majority of the action.

E2M5Hunting Grounds
Skateboarding returns with a vengeance. In an interesting twist, you actually fight the boss on your board. The author putting you through a collection quest with the sheep is a great design decision as it gives you a chance to get familiar with the course. Y'know, before you start in on the hoverboard wrangler. If you were less than stellar at the skateboarding segments then you might not have a great time with this fight. It's mechanically pretty simple as all he does is throw exploding barrels at you.


No Way BackE3M1
Well, MS switches up expectations with wide, open spaces and tons of cats. It still feels a bit empty but I think that this is mostly due to the sterile factory environment and tall building facades. In keeping with the race track motif, there is a huge conveyor belt track that runs through and around much of the level. It sort of figures into the nightmarish machinery of the cats, especially given the crushers / presses. The cavernous playing spaces drive home just how dangerous all of the hitscanners can be. I like the introduction of the robo-cats since you have plenty of room to run from them. I can only assume that later encounters will be less accommodating.

E3M2Massive Molten Magma Mess
Conveyors fit in a big way, here, cementing E3's theme as a sort of nightmarish industry. Well, alongside the opposing vertical crushers. This is a tough level! The author uses the upper tier in several places, making for a number of platforming challenges. You'll need to navigate three-dimensional space in order to find the shortcuts that route you out of the otherwise inescapable conveyor loops. I got stuck for a bit in the southern segment. Combat starts out feeling pretty meaty but is mostly over once you blast out the red key room, oscillating fan chamber notwithstanding.

Wonders of TechnologyE3M6
Um. This level is a framing setup for a "virtual reality" program that is more or less E1M1 and E1M2 of Shadow of the Wool Ball, but strung together. And with a simplified, retro-style color palette. And, uh, all of the VR monsters are hedgehogs, of course, with you rescuing cats. It feels a little dirty but it's a fun trip down memory lane and not all that difficult compared to, say, killing the two robo cats with your ammo / gun reward. It's far from impossible but if you squander your resources then you'll have missed your shot.

E3M3Puzzling Punishment
This level starts out cool enough with an ominous trek through fish-infested industrial runoff through a green wool jungle. The rest of the map is a more low-key industrial Hell / obstacle course. The oscillating fan segment feels different since there are pockets of projectile-shooting monsters on the edges of the ring. I like the big alleyway-like crossroads structure with the central bouncing mushroom. The movement-blocking railing feels underutilized in Rise. Most of the fun centers around discovering Scott and then leaving his fate in his own capable hands.

Purrfect DarkE3M4
Super tall ceilings, lava-bound race tracks, and packs of cats to chew through. "Purrfect" feels like a synthesis of the main gameplay bits of Rise of the Wool Ball up to and including piston crushers that guard bouncing mushrooms. The superlong countdown sequence has you vault back through both platforming legs of the level in a platforming marathon that is, thankfully, forgiving. The combat winds up feeling pretty intense in this map if only due to the sheer player exposure. The opening firefight - with executioner squad behind you - sets the tone. It's at its most action-packed, I think, in the western valley.

E3M5Top of the Tower
E2M5 had fun with the race track gimmick. This level makes the sole bouncy shroom an essential mechanic in terms of how you handle the boss. Two of his moves sweep the floor and must be vaulted in order to avoid them, in one case shirking almost certain death. The order of the attacks stays the same but his primary window of vulnerability dwindles as you inflict damage. Once you learn the steps it's a pretty simple fight but you have to move and strike so as to set yourself up on the correct side of the mushroom. If you want to maximize your damage output, at least. This wicked cool level feels like a far more robust boss map than the good fun of "Hunting Grounds". It's also way less antagonizing then the insanity of Shadow's "Paws of Evil". A great finish!



  1. I hope your doing well, friend! I visit your page at least once a month for reference material.

  2. Love this game! The final boss in E3M5 might just might be my favorite boss fight of any WAD, P- or I-.