One of the most famous developer studios from the late 80s and early 90s was The Bitmap Brothers. If you had a Commodore Amiga, you know what I’m talking about. The Bitmap Brothers are one of those studios that started small but valued quality over quantity which resulted in fantastic games and rockstar fame among video game companies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a retrospective about them. But today, we’re going to take a look at one of their earliest games: Speedball.
Speedball is a futuristic action/sports game developed by The Bitmap Brothers and published by Image Works. It was originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, DOS and Atari ST and re-released the next year for the Commodore 64. In 1990, it was ported to the Sega Master System and the following year to the NES (as KlashBall). And in 2013, the Amiga version was ported to BlackBerry.
But as always, let’s first take a look at the covers:
This is the European cover and it nails down the futuristic and brutal sports imagery perfectly, with the player’s gear full of spikes and the blood splatters all over the stadium field. It conveys perfectly what the game’s about, but the artwork could be better.
This is the US cover and I think is a lot better. It conveys the brutal, futuristic sport part even better than the previous cover but the spikes and the violence are definitely toned down. Still, the quality of the artwork is way better and more colourful.
This is the NES cover and as you can see, they’ve put back some of the spikes and a bit of the violence too. It’s also a pretty cool looking cover but I have no idea why they changed the title.
Now this one’s the Sega Master System cover and as you can see, it’s definitely the most brutal one. They’ve doubled the spikes and the blood on this one and it could perfectly be a death metal album cover.
But as always, it’s time to boot this sucker:
As you can see, Speedball features a pretty cool title screen, with the fist coming through the screen and then we have the main menu screen with a fist constantly pounding his own leg, just to reinforce how hardcore this game is.
In the menu screen, you have several options: you can either play against a friend or against the AI. The single-player options are League and Knockout. League is your typical league gameplay where you face down against 10 teams for points and you can also choose its duration. The more matches you win, the more points you have. Knockout is more akin to a cup tournament, where you face the other teams in a best out of three matches against each team in direct elimination style (you need to win 2 consecutive matches against each team to move on to the next round).
After choosing which mode to play, you then have 3 teams to choose from along with the portraits of their respective captain and the stats below. There are only 3 major stats: Stamina, Power and Skill. Stamina is the energy each player uses to tackle other players and to shoot the ball. It goes down every time one of your players is tackled by an opponent. Power is the force each player employs when tackling an opponent, the stronger your player is, the more stamina the other player will lose when tackled. Skill is used when performing any action, the higher it is, the more chances your player succeeds in performing said action, whether it’s tackling other players or shooting the ball. Power seems to be the most important stat in the game because the AI tends to perform better when controlling teams with high power.
And then we finally get to the match. Speedball is sort of a no-holds-barred handball sport, played in a top-down view, with teams of 5 players on the field. The objective is, of course, to score goals, but you can tackle any other player to get the ball or to avoid them getting the ball (except for the goalies).
There are also black bumps randomly distributed throughout the field where the ball can ricochet, as well as the field’s walls. There are even are 2 openings in the midfield that when the ball is shot through one, it comes out through the other one on the opposite side of the wall (like in Pac-Man). With practice, you can make awesome trick shots that’ll dazzle your opponent (especially if you’re playing against a friend).
There are also bonus items that appear randomly throughout the match that when touched by any player, have several different effects on the gameplay, from freezing the opponents for a short period of time to electrify the ball, turning it into a throwing weapon, among others.
You can also collect coins during the matches and if enough are collected, you can have several choices at the end of each match that’ll affect the next match, from bribing the ref or the official to downgrade the opponents’ stats, among others. It would be better if we had this option at the start of each match because it’s near impossible to predict if the next opponent will be strong or weak.
Now for the technical aspects, I have to say that the EGA graphics are quite good. Although the game isn’t very colourful, the sprites are however very detailed. The animation is okay, nothing spectacular, but quite serviceable for such a fast-paced game, but the game tends to slow down if there are many players on screen at once. And the music themes are very good, despite having a PC-speaker quality (press F3 anytime to enable the music), but the sound effects are mediocre.
The control scheme is quite simple but it gets a bit used to, whether you’re playing with the keyboard or a joystick (I personally recommend the joystick), but after a while, I didn’t have a lot of problems controlling the players. And like I said before, the AI performs better the stronger the team is, so the difficulty changes a lot from match to match.
So in conclusion, Speedball is a fun game to play, whether alone or against a friend. Sure, it has its flaws (like the slowdowns or the random difficulty), but I had fun playing it. A difficulty select option would be much appreciated, among some other small tweaks. If you like fast-paced action sports games that are very easy to get into, then I recommend this one. If you want to try it for yourself, then click here to play it in your own browser.
Speedball, according to its devs, was based on the 1975 movie Rollerball (but it’s not an adaptation of it) and it shows, right down to the spikes (but not the roller skates or the bikes). The Amiga version not only has better graphics but also digitized sound effects and music, although the controls remain the same and the AI’s more polished, resulting in a harder difficulty.
Speedball received critical acclaim and it was very successful among the public (as with almost every Bitmap Brothers’ title). But it was quickly surpassed by its vastly superior sequel (which we’ll review at a later date).
So, do you prefer Speedball or its sequel? Tell me in the comment section below or on our social media. Next time, we’re going to continue exploring the future. Until then, avoid any spikes in your clothes and keep on playing.