It has recently occurred to me that I've been playing video games for a very long time. In fact, for as long as I can remember I have had some sort of video gaming entertainment to hand, from my earliest recollections of the ColecoVision owned by my parents to my very own first computer, the Acorn Electron.
Scrap! Scrap! Scrap!
When you grow up with technology you don't really notice the subtle advances, but when I played Speedball 2 for the first time on my Amiga I was a very happy little geek. I had in my possession one of the finest sports games available on any platform at the time, and I could while away hours and hours fine tuning my mean bunch of rogue sportsmen into lean killing machines, as well as pummelling my mates into submission well into the wee small hours. I don't hear from many of my old friends these days...
Then I heard that the Bitmap Brothers were planning an update for Speedball that would both win over new fans and surprise and endear their older audience, and so I was quietly anticipating the title a great deal .. until it finally landed in my PSX. And what a huge goddamn mess they've made of it.
Rough And Tumble
Things started promisingly enough as the short intro cinematic kicked in, and I was treated to a wonderful CGI sequence depicting the eponymous speedball's manufacture and subsequent launch into a game of thugs generally bashing each other around in order to get their hands on it.
I was hoping that the standard had been set by the quality of the intro, but as soon as I arrived at the main menu I realised something really quite striking - it looked almost exactly the same as it did around six years ago on my old Amiga. "Fair enough", I thought. "They want to bring back the feel of the original - that's fine by me."
To see what the actual game was like I chose to play a knock-out tournament from the single player menu. From the same front screen, you can also choose a two-player game, an exhibition match, or customise your team by altering both the name and the aesthetics of your team and individual players, including hair and skin colour. Which is a nice touch.
I nipped through the team stats menu though, wanting to jump into some action straight away. Part of the appeal of the original was that you could pick it up and play a quick match for 10 minutes whenever you wanted. The first thing that immediately struck me about the sequel though was how damned ugly everything looked. The players were ridiculously disproportionate, with enormous shoulder pads completely dominating the rest of their bodies, and of course the low-res PlayStation graphics hardly did the arena and player textures any favours, giving the entire visual experience a rather cheap and rough look.
The game itself is simple enough. Two teams start at the centre of the field in a formation, and the ball is launched into the sky before landing for the players to scrap over. You direct the players with the d-pad whilst tapping X to toss the ball to another player or shoot for a goal. You can also attempt to activate the various bonuses and goal multipliers in order to bump up the score, which adds a pleasant variation on the theme. Various power-ups also appear throughout the match in order to temporarily bump up the players' speed or aggression, or to have adverse effects on the opposing team, such as halting their movement for 15 seconds.
Actually playing the game hardly held any recompense for the frankly gaudy visuals though, as the PlayStation controller simply didn't lend itself to the games frantic pace, being more suited to games of comparably relaxed accuracy like FIFA rather than Speedball's frantic button bashing as you attempt to weave the ball around the opposing team's players. Of course, credit must go to the Bitmap Brothers for managing to re-create a hugely exciting and frantic game (occasionally a game became so energetic I broke out into a sweat), but the enjoyment is utterly marred by the fact that playing Speedball 2100 physically hurts.
I'm not exaggerating. After a couple of games in knock-out mode my wrists and thumbs were screaming for mercy, and I was forced to stop playing. I was simply astounded at how they had managed to achieve this, and to prove that it wasn't just me being pathetic (as is often the case), I challenged a burly mate to a game of the two-player mode, but lo and behold, after a few matches we were both pounded into submission by the inanimate grey box.
Speedball 2100 is replete with game modes, options and menus, but none of these actually offer anything much different from the standard game, other than progressing through it in a slightly different fashion.
You can choose to play friendlies or knock-outs, or play a full championship as a player manager. You can even act simply as a manager, sorting out the player stats like aggression and speed, and dealing with player transfers to and from other teams, all of which is paid for by players collecting money from the pitch whilst they play.
The whole affair is frankly tired and unsatisfyingly similar to the original Speedball 2 though, which was far better for its originality and functional graphics, as opposed to the ridiculous fluff littering the game here. For example, the stadia in which you play are almost exactly the same as before, except gratuitously swathed in coloured lighting. And at the end of the day, the poor use of the PlayStation's abilities only proves that Speedball did not warrant or need this update.
I remember Speedball 2 so fondly for its superbly detailed graphics, the wonderful pounding sonic effects, and of course the addictive, stomach churningly violent (for the time) action of the game itself. By comparison, as a full-price package Speedball 2100 simply cannot compete as a title worthy of purchase.
It's a shame that the Bitmap Brothers have managed to display such an utter lack of imagination, and why they had to ruin one of the finest landmarks in gaming history to do it is beyond me...