Knockout City is a kid-friendly ‘shooter’ that trades guns for dodgeballs

Young audiences love Fortnite. It’s full of bright colors, dance moves, and cartoon characters such as a sentient banana man. But it’s not exactly “kid-friendly.” While it doesn’t have blood and guts, it’s still a third-person shooter where players gun each other down with snipers and shotguns.

Knockout City is a perfect alternative for worried parents. Developed by Velan Studios, the team behind Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, the multiplayer dodgeball game is squeaky clean family entertainment. Though what’s funny here is that the game isn’t fundamentally that much different from a traditional shooter.

The basic premise is that two teams of three jump into a small map and try to hit each other with rubber balls. Throwing is an incredibly streamlined process designed in a way that players of all ages can understand. Hold down the throw button and the ball will auto-lock onto the closest target — no aim required. Players can counter each other by catching a ball before it hits them and sending it right back. Knock an opponent out, get a point.

It’s a deathmatch without the death.

Dodgeball is an inspired choice for the shooter framework. It’s a perfect deconstruction of the genre that gets at what’s actually fun about firing a digital gun. It’s not about the bullets and loud noises; it’s the same satisfaction that comes from landing a bullseye in a carnival game.

Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto hit the nail on the head when he spoke to The New Yorker back in December. Reporter Simon Parkin calls up an anecdote from the Nintendo 64 era where Miyamoto was reportedly “saddened” by all the killing in Goldeneye 007. When asked how he feels about how dominant the shooter is in today’s landscape, Miyamoto inadvertently describes the exact appeal that Knockout City carries.

“I think humans are wired to experience joy when we throw a ball and hit a target, for example,” Miyamoto told The New Yorker. “That’s human nature. But, when it comes to video games, I have some resistance to focusing on this single source of pleasure. As human beings, we have many ways to experience fun. Ideally, game designers would explore those other ways.”

A player throws a dodgeball bomb in Knockout City.

Nintendo itself is no stranger to twisting the idea of a shooter into something non-violent. The Splatoon series takes the core tenets of the genre and replaces bullets with ink. Knockout City is a successful experiment for EA that follows Splatoon’s delightful lead.

As someone who very much enjoys the genre, Knockout City leaves me questioning why so many games instinctually gravitate towards guns. The more you break down what’s fun about shooters, the less it actually has to do with artillery. What’s the difference between chucking a ‘Sniper Ball’ at someone to eliminate them and landing a headshot with an actual sniper rifle? It’s the same action with the same result; it just trades lead for rubber.

Knockout City is an imaginative twist on the modern shooter that proves there are still so many ways to approach the genre. What’s yet to be seen is whether or not it can rewire players’ brains. For decades, we’ve been taught that guns are what make popular games so fun. If EA ends up landing a surprise hit, “kid-friendly” games might actually become kid-friendly for a change.

Knockout City is currently free-to-play until May 31 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch. It will be purchasable for $20 after that and will remain available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers through EA Play.

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