Friday 24 June 2016

Mega Drive Review - Speedball 2 (Game 109)

'Speedball 2' is often cited as one of the best games on the Amiga. Is this future sports title any good on the Mega Drive, or should you seek out one of the many modern remakes?

Developed by Bitmap Brothers
Published by Virgin Games
Released in 1990

When an old game is reworked for a new platform there seems to be two schools of thought: You can leave it exactly as it wasand let it shine by its own light. Failing that you embrace the modern. Youchange it so it takes advantage of newer technology; you rework the gameplay throwing out anything archaic. In extreme cases (like 'Syndicate') this has even meant starting from scratch, so only the name of the classic original remains. 

'Speedball 2' has been a game that has seen more than a handful of re-inventions and every one of them were disastrous. The PlayStation 1 version was ponderous and slow with ugly 3D graphics. The GBA port had such a limited zoomed in view of the action that it was impossible to play. 2007 saw 'Speedball 2 Tournament' on the PC which had such laggy controls that it was nearly impossible to beat the computer. Finally an iOS version fell apart simply because using the touch screen didn't give precise character control. It's telling that the best received of all the modern 'Speedball 2' games are the ones that retro gaming fans will most easily recognise. The PS Mini version of 'Speedball 2: Evolution' and 'Speedball 2: HD’ both retain the 2D game play although in both the graphics have been redrawn.  As Eurogamer notes, "3D revisits have never really hit the mark, and the most recent revival's faithfulness to the original is a pretty good sign of how good 'Speedball 2' was in the first place."

According to Sensible Software's Jon Hare "'Speedball 2' is a classic sports game by one of the UK's greatest development teams of the 80s and 90s 'The Bitmap Brothers'". It first saw light of day on the Amiga. It presents a fictional sport that's an odd fusion of rugby and ice hockey with an ultra violent, futuristic twist. It has often been compared to the film 'Rollerball' but Mike Montgomery who designed the game claims this wasn't the intention. "I know 'Rollerball' was around at the time, but to be quite honest it was a coincidence more than an influence."

The game is of course a sequel, and like its predecessor game play is viewed from over head. The player take control of a team called "Brutal Deluxe" who are new to the Speedball league. On a metallic enclosed pitch this novice team need to get more goals than their opponent, but flinging the metallic ball past a goalie isn't the only way to build a high score. With bonus points awarded by lighting up stars and point multiplier ramps, 'Speedball 2' was certainly influenced by another hobby that had a focus on ricocheting metal balls. "Yeah, it was based on pinball" Montgomery admits, "Definitely pinball."
The most controversial way to win though was by assaulting the opposition. "We wanted people to be quite violent," says Montgomery. Every player on the pitch has a health metre and a player will collapse of violently tackles reduce this to zero. The result of this is the opposing team being given points and a substitution coming on. Once all three substitutes have been used the downed player has a worse fate; forced to play on at half speed and half strength. It's a brutal fictional sport and according to games historian Joel Snape "the satisfying violence of the tackles is a huge part of the appeal". Edge magazine once noted that" the foremost strength of 'Speedball 2' was the addition of arena furniture and new ways in which to score which encouraged strategic individuality during play". "We tried to make it more of a tactical game" acknowledges Montgomery "where goals mattered but there's other ways of scoring". 

Critics universally adored 'Speedball 2'. Amiga Power labelled it the "ultimate future sport game - fast, brutal, enormously playable." They even said it was the third best game on the computer back in 1991. CVG called it "probably the best sports game ever seen". However it wasn't just the Amiga version that was showered with praise. According to Mean Machines magazine “'Speedball 2' is one of the finest Amiga games ever and apart from minor sonic differences, the Mega drive version is exactly the same." It was a thought echoed by Sega Pro who thought the Mega Drive 'Speedball 2' "is a superb conversion [...] violent, fast and very exciting". 

The game plays identically to the Amiga version, even down to having one contextual button which can perform all actions. However, in a nod to FIFA the Mega Drive's remaining two buttons can be used to perform specific pass and shoot actions if required. The "after touch" feature that gave Amiga players precise control also has survived the conversion, as Dpad button pushes make the ball curve after its thrown. 

Annoyingly though the failings of the Amiga game mechanics also appear on the Mega Drive version of 'Speedball 2'. In two player mode whoever is moving up the screen has an advantage since they can see more pitch and the position of the goal far more easily. In one player mode you can also steal victory with underhand tactics. Computer controlled goalies can't avoid tackles from the side, so sliding into them while pressed against the top wall always leaves an open goal. When the tournament rests of victory in a match its hard to resist using the glitch to secure an easy win. However, like most cheats in games to use them is to rob yourself of the enjoyment of playing a game as it was intended. 

People (in the UK at least) saw developers BitmapBrothers as Video Game Rock stars, mainly because they saw themselves that way. They sold their games by selling themselves, suggesting to the public that they were cool and successful by posing in front of helicopters in dark glasses and leather jackets. According to Montgomery “it was written into the contract that [publishers] had to promote 'The Bitmap Brothers' as much as the game, and we had ultimate control over that." As a result the Bitmaps gained a level of fame that developers of the period simply hadn't witnessed before. 

The Original Pitch
Every game they made adhered to their edgy, modern image which ultimately led to the studio's trademark "chrome" visual style. It was a striking artistic choice designed to make their games unique in terms of aesthetics and immediately recognisably "Bitmap Brothers". Dan Malone was responsible for the look of ‘Speedball 2', a man industry hero Gary Carr considers ‘the best pixel artist in the world, no question.’  This game more than any other epitomises the iconic Bitmap Brothers "chrome" aesthetic. "My earliest and most standout memory of 'Speedball 2' was figuring out how to draw and animate characters in force plane view, in 8 directions and make them look good in relation to the actual pitch and walls" Malone remembers. "The graphical look had to be something original so we ended up with the polished futuristic style with an almost cathedral everence, plus edge lots of edge!" Malone is understandably proud of his work on 'Speedball 2' calling it his "best game". It's something Montgomery agrees with. "There was a lot of games coming out at the time but they weren't using the palettes properly they were quite dull you know. 'Speedball's got those nice glossy shiny beautiful original graphics."  But for Dan Malone, there's nothing particularly remarkable about the way he works his digital paintbrush.  "I just want to hide the pixels" he famously once said. 

Thankfully Malone's gorgeous graphics have been faithfully replicated on the Mega Drive pixel perfectly. The menus are identical and even the majestic title screen, will be recognisable by anyone familiar with the original. This is a blessing as game historian Duncan Harris believes “Malone’s title screen for 'Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe' might be one of the greatest of any video game: a stadium in a city of endless steel." According to Harris it sets up "a world of tyranny and intrigue, a future world seething with corruption and violence, and a sport in which everything has changed."

On the mega drive though, this futuristic sports is played on a pitch significantly simplified when compared to the Amiga version. It is a shame as a lot of the time most of the screen is predominantly one colour; a grey floor on which characters chase a grey ball. 

"People – journalists – often made jokes about palettes back then" Malone admits. This incredible artist was even christened the “monochrome guy”. 

Perhaps as a response to this criticism, the Mega Drive version of 'Speedball 2' has greater visual distinction between the two teams. In the Amiga version it was hard to tell them apart as the only team signifier was a thin headband. On the Mega Drive though teams are a different colour, just like they always should have been.

Excellent graphics and gameplay wasn't enough for a Bitmap Brothers game though. "Our philosophy was that not only did the game's visual style have to be the best, but so too did all the other elements," Montgomery says. "Everything had to be great" and that always included the music.  People often talk about 'Speedball 2's excellent sound track but the reality is the game has a total of 3 tracks collectively lasting just six minutes.  The most recognisable is naturally the title music which was composed by Nation 12, who was actually John Foxx the original front man of UltraVox. His music is edgy electronic and sets the tone for the game perfectly. "I remember at the time becoming conscious of a new generation taking computers and games and even coding as their primary cultural currency – the first full generation to do that. This was a seismic shift away from the way music had dominated previous generations. Now it was all technology-based – so this generation predicted the future perfectly." 

At the time, approaching professional bands for video game music was unheard of. "We came up with the idea one day and thought we’d see if it worked out," say Montgomery. "We chose some bands and contacted them to see if they were interested in working with us and it proved fruitful." Foxx meanwhile was seduced by the arrogance of the Bitmaps, sucked into the celebrity like so many game critics.  "The Bitmap Brothers philosophy was never articulated, it went without saying. You either got it not."

The Mega Drives sound chip actually lends itself well to Foxx's music, its brash synthetic sound seems ideally matched. "The songs were always intended to evoke a world that the games might take place in" Foxx recalls. "They set the stage and the atmosphere, just as a movie theme sets up the world of the film. They were the gateway".

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Foxx's track was only used on the title screen in the Amiga original, however now the song has become background music for every match on the Mega Drive. It's a wonderful song in isolation but quickly becomes irritating when played repeatedly. There's a reason why music can be turned off on the first screen you see upon pressing start. However, without a backing track it's very obvious how many of the Amiga's sound effects have been cut in the Sega conversion. Players no long groan when tacked and the spectators are silent unless a goal is scored. "In those days doing crowds was quite hard, because of the memory constraints," says Montgomery "so that's why I think they had to go in the [Mega Drive] console version". The biggest audio crime though was removing an ice cream sales man. He used to be heard calling for customers throughout the Amiga version, a fantastic idea by Richard Joseph. "I remember, he came into the office and went 'Tell me what you honestly think'" Montgomery recalls "and I went 'Wow, that's incredible. That's going to make it fly.' And it really did. It's so memorable!"  It was silly, served no purpose but became an iconic part of 'Speedball 2' and the Mega Drive version really loses its charm without it. 

"At our peak, when we were recognised, we would have people shout "ice cream" at us in the street" Montgomery recently admitted in the 'From Bedrooms to Billions' documentary. It just goes to show the extent of the fame the Bitmap Brothers enjoyed, a legion of fans that adored and still love their games.

"We are very lucky in that our titles have done well and people recall them with fond memories," Montgomery recalls. Amongst all their success though, 'Speedball 2' was this Rock star groups' "gold disc". "I think we did over 1 million units over all formats. It even sold well and Japan it's our biggest ever hit over there" the designer once told Edge Magazine. "We were always extremely confident in the game, it's strange to think that it only took us nine months and we had such fun doing it!"

Modestly, Montgomery thinks the continued adulation that 'Speedball 2' attracts is "humbling". "It's great our games stand the test of time and are still considered by many as some of the best ever." However, he believes he knows why people will always prefer the original version of 'Speedball 2' over any later version. "I think the problem has always been that the gameplay was designed for 2D," says Montgomery. "3D just doesn't quite work. It's supposed to be fast and furious - you end up with a different game just to make it work, and that's not really the intention."

Evidently when it comes to a masterpiece like 'Speedball 2' any addition is actually a subtraction.

Where did I get this game from?
The bundle of Mega Drive games I bought last year had several loose cartridges, one of which was 'Speedball 2'. However, for a game I had such memories of and still enjoyed today, a loose worn out tatty labelled game simply wasn't sufficient. I found a complete near mint version from 'Level Up' games in Canterbury, one of my favourite Retro Game shops. It was a bargain at £8, though "mates rates" meant I paid less than this. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review of one of my all-time favourites - with some well researched quotes and trivia.


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