Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Chapter XXVI: Speedball 2 - Brutal Deluxe

While I was growing up, I had a close circle of friends who used to play games in my house. One of the main habitués of these gaming sessions was a friend of mine called Louie FC. I had specific games to play with each one of my friends, tastes differ and all that. Every time I and Louie couldn’t decide which game to play, it was already established that Speedball 2 was going to be that game. It makes sense, it’s a fast and action packed competitive game which brings immediate satisfaction while playing.

One day, after me and Louie couldn’t agree on a game to play, it was evident that another session of Speedball 2 was coming up. Then, while I was booting the game, I noticed Louie crouching next to the bedroom window facing the outside. He was shaking. I walked there to check what was up, and noticed we was crying and trembling incessantly. I asked what was wrong and he said, while sobbing ‘I don’t want to play that game’.

I never asked why. I just turned off the computer and never played Speedball 2 with Louie again. I wonder what was going through his mind. Maybe he never liked the game and had his breaking point, or maybe he had a bad dream in which armoured men from the future beat him up while someone was yelling ‘Icecream! Icecream!’ in the background. Either way, it didn’t matter. From now on Speedball 2 was going to be a single player affair.

Eventually I turned off the computer and we went sword fighting with some He-Man weapon replicas that I had. Louie’s favourite movie was Conan, The Destroyer. Yes, you heard that right, not Conan The Barbarian. Conan The Fucking Destroyer! If there was any more proof needed that kids have no discernible taste in anything, here’s the proof. So next time you get nerd rage from seeing any of the recent The Hobbit movies, just remember that somewhere, some kid is having the time of his life watching that wretched trilogy. But I digress. The point is, because of his experience of seeing Arnie swinging the sword, he always though that he could teach me a few moves and make me look cooler while holding the weapon. Yes, a just few minutes after crying because of a video game.

It seems silly to revisit Speedball 2 at this time. It’s one of the most famous games on the Amiga and it’s regularly mentioned in retro articles and magazines. I’m not even going to try to beat Super Nashwan, it’s no point to try it without the proper training. I’m just going to play it, enjoy it, and maybe try to discover why Louie FC was crying.

One thing that I always admired about Bitmap Brothers was the unifying aesthetics of their games. The grey/blue metallic colour scheme was a trademark, and this was something that not only was recognizable, but it looked immensely cool. Maybe this choice was forced by hardware limitation, and having less variation in colour meant that it was possible to use more shades. Either way, these coders had immense flair in pulling such great looking games. While this search for a strong identity is something that is prevalent with the indie game designers of today, it was very rare in the 16 bit age. Sensible Software was another developer of the same pedigree, but I don’t seem to recall many other. Maybe Team 17, except that their games weren’t very good.

On my first go, I launched the CD32 version by mistake, which was a good thing in a sort of “game historian”, kind of way. And well, here’s my review: it’s worse. I didn’t spend much time in it, thankfully though, as its overuse of orange and violet were hurting my eyes. The Chaos Engine AGA version also suffers from this poor judgment in colour use, and I have to question what was on The Bitmaps minds, or eyes, when they did these conversions. More colours don’t immediately equal better, and we’ve all grown to love the metallic greys of the originals. This just goes to show how much sacrifices everyone made in early nineties so they could play on shiny CD’s. Mega CD and CDi owners had it much worse though.

So, back to the Speedball 2 we all know and love. Great kickass intro tune, just as I said before. I just can’t decide between this, Gods and The Chaos Engine’s on what’s the better one. And every one of these is unforgettable, as I can hum any of those straight away, even after years of absence from my life. I should make a Bitmap Brothers “mixtape” to have on my car, and blast it while speeding on the sea road. That’s my definition of happiness, by the way.

The gameplay is as timeless as ever, which is a bit redundant. Timeless is timeless. So there, I said, in case someone else wants to write a similar blog in 2100 or something. Speedball 2 is still fast and fun in 2015, of that I’m sure. But one player only gameplay can be quite limiting, since the tactics are mostly about brute forcing our way through the field. That was my main memory of it; Of favouring the central area of the field and just plow through the opponents defences. This time I tried some variation, mostly by playing more on the wings and trying to both dribble and making some oblique shots on the goal, which wasn’t very efficient. Maybe that’s what Louie CF cried about: The limitation in tactics that the game presents.

The attacking part of the game is particularly infuriating, since unlike most football games there’s no way to swerve the ball, and the goals are too small to compensate for having just 8 directions in the joystick. So yes, the best tactic is beat the shit out of the keeper and just score on the empty goal. Which was also a valid tactic in the school yard. This seems a bit petty to pick just small details on a game this old, but Speedball 2 is such a classic, and by now everyone knows how good it is, so there’s no point in repeating what everyone else has already written.

Even with the drawbacks described above, it’s still fun in one-player modes, much due to the fast and weighty feel of the action. It’s mandatory that a game which aims to simulate a made up futuristic brutal sport to feel right, and while many other games of the same era feel limp and soft by now, Speedball 2 feels punchy and brutal, thanks to the great sound design and art direction. It’s never too much too waste words on how great Bitmap Brothers games look, so I’m going to say it again. They look great, and in the context of these particular one, the metallic look is incredible appropriate.

I haven’t had the opportunity to play against other human, mostly because I know no one which might be interested in doing that. Which might seem a bit sad, but it’s probably just a reminder that everybody else except me has grown up. By I’m sure it’s still immensely fun. I wish every other person in the mid 30’s would drop whatever dull thing they might be doing and play Speedball 2 instead. The world would be a much better place.

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