Speedball review

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 is one of those studios that started small but valued quality over quantity which resulted in fantastic games and a 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 the BlackBerry.

But as always, let’s first take a look at the covers:

52003-speedball-atari-st-front-coverThis is the European cover and it nails down the futuristic sports imagery perfectly, with the player’s gear full of spikes and the blood splatters all over the stadium field floor. It conveys perfectly what the game’s about, but the artwork could be better.

242973-speedball-dos-front-coverThis is the US cover and I think is a lot better. It conveys the brutal, futuristic sport part even better, but the spikes and the violence are definitely toned down. Still, the quality of the artwork is way better and more colorful.

194416-speedball-nes-front-coverThis is the NES cover and as you can see, they’ve put back some 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.

236442-speedball-sega-master-system-front-coverNow 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 other ten 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 two matches against each team in order to move on to the next round).

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“Pounding it. Pounding it. Pounding it.” – Jim Sterling

After choosing which mode to play, you then have three teams to choose from along with the portraits of their respective captain and the stats below. There are only three major stats: Stamina, Power and Skill. Stamina is the energy each player has to tackle other players and to shoot the ball. It goes down everytime 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; and Skill is used when performing any action, the higher it is, the more chances your player has 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 five players. 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 two openings in the midfield that when the ball is shot through one, it comes out the other one in 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).

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There are also bonus items that appear randomly throughout the match that when touched by any player, it’ll 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 colorful, 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 also the music themes are very good, despite having a PC-speaker quality (press F3 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 had much 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.

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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 go 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 official adaptation of) and it shows, right down to the spikes (but not the roller skates nor 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 in 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.

Grand Prix Circuit review

Looking back at all the reviews I’ve made, I realized I haven’t reviewed a proper racing game yet. Yes, I’ve reviewed Test Drive, but that’s actually racing against the clock, what I mean is proper sports racing. And I think it’s about time I review the first Formula 1 game I ever played on the PC: Grand Prix Circuit.

Grand Prix Circuit is a racing simulation developed by Distinctive Software and published by Accolade. It was originally released in 1988 for DOS and Commodore 64. It was re-released the following year for Amiga, Apple IIgs and Macintosh. It was again re-released in 1990 for Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum.

It was designed by Brad Gour and Don Mattrick. Yes, that Don Mattrick! And no, you don’t a permanent internet connection to play it.

But as always, let’s first look at the cover art:

21264-grand-prix-circuit-dos-front-coverThis cover is an obvious reference to the glamour that has always permeated the sport. The photo itself is great, especially the reflection of the car in the sunglasses, but the title of the game and the name of the publisher on top of the photo, using a very dull font, is what spoils a potentially good cover.

At least, they rectified it somewhat in the re-releases:

385184-grand-prix-circuit-dos-front-coverNow, here the photo is a bit smaller due the the ugly yellow border, but at least, it now sports a proper title. But why yellow, though?!

Anyway it’s time to get this sucker ready for the pit stop:

The title screen and subsequent music are okay for a 1988 DOS game. And the menu screen is extremely simple to understand: First you choose between Practice (where you can race around any track by yourself), Single Race (where you choose to participate in one race in any track of your choosing) and Championship Circuit (where you race in all the tracks and get points to win the Drivers’ Championship according in what position you end in each race).

Then you choose between five levels of difficulty, ranging from arcade style to full simulation style to hard mode and then you can input your name and how many laps each race will be (qualification is always just one lap).

If you chose Practice or Single Race, then you can choose between eight historical tracks from around the world. In Championship mode, you race all these tracks in this order:

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A bit outdated, but most of these tracks, if not all, still exist nowadays.

Whichever mode you’re playing, you then choose between three cars (and the subsequent teams): McLaren (the fastest car but also the hardest to control), Williams (balanced between control and speed) and Ferrari (the slowest but easiest to control). And if you think that simply choosing the fastest car will make every race easier to win, think again. It might work on tracks with less curves (like Italy), but on tracks with a lot of tight curves (like Monaco or Japan), it’ll take a lot of practice just to finish those races with your car intact. And the inverse also applies with the Ferrari.

And speaking about car damage, don’t think that by simply playing it in the easiest difficulty setting will make your car impervious to damage like in other racing games. The difficulty setting is, for me, the real highlight of the game: it makes the gameplay range from a more arcade felling to a simulation felling by simply cracking up the difficulty. The easiest setting not only makes your car harder to break when smashing against other cars (but not invincible), but easier to drive, while raising the difficulty, the game will start to introduce manual shifting, engine and tire damage and other options closer to a proper racing simulation.

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Start of a race

Also by raising the number of laps in each race, not only makes the race harder and longer, but it introduces the necessity for pit stops during the race in order to refuel your car and change tires (also to fix any damage your car might have suffered in meantime).

But I can never consider Grand Prix Circuit a proper Formula 1 experience because not only is it unlicensed (although that doesn’t bother me personally) but there are only eight tracks in Championship mode and only ten drivers in each race (not to mention only three teams to choose from). It might be frowned upon by Formula 1 purists looking for a more authentic experience, although I think is perfect for beginners to the genre.

In terms of graphics, I think the EGA graphics look good for the time, very colorful and detailed, with nice backgrounds for every track and also good detail in the cockpits (although all cockpits look very similar from car to car). I simply wished there was more objects on the side of the tracks but the tracks themselves look good. In conclusion, it looks just like every other Formula 1 game at the time featuring a cockpit view (which there weren’t all that many).

45130-grand-prix-circuit-dos-screenshot-there-will-be-a-dnf-behind

Crashed against another car

Like I said before, the title theme isn’t bad. Quite upbeat, truth be told. And the sound effects are all there, from the engine roars to the crash sounds. Again, not bad for PC speaker quality sound. The animation and scrolling, however, could be a bit more fluid although I rarely suffered any slowdowns when playing.

The control scheme is quite responsive even when playing with the McLaren. Although I couldn’t use the gamepad and had to resort to using the keyboard. Still, didn’t had any trouble whatsoever controlling the car.

In conclusion, Grand Prix Circuit is a good racing simulation game, although not quite on par with other Accolade titles, but still a very enjoyable game. I recommend it if you’re looking for a simple and accessible racing game as an introduction to the genre or simply for a quick gameplay. But if you’re looking for a more complex, simulation-type game, then there are better titles out there.

45132-grand-prix-circuit-dos-screenshot-fortunately-you-can-change

Changing tires

Grand Prix Circuit was quite acclaimed at the time (especially the Commodore 64 version) but it was quickly overshadowed by other racing titles, like Indianapolis 500 and Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix series, which we’ll take a look later on. And if you want to check it out, then go here to play it on your own browser.

So, what is your favourite Formula 1 game? Let me know in the comments below or on our social media. Next time, let’s try a different sport. Until then, keep on racing and playing!

Batman: The Caped Crusader DOS review

Do you know what day is today? It’s Batman Day! That’s right. And I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to review a DC Comics licensed game (since I’ve already reviewed Marvel games). And I’m reviewing the first game ever to be released on the PC of my favourite DC superhero: Batman.

Batman: The Caped Crusader is an action-adventure game developed by Special FX and published by Ocean in Europe and Data East in the US. It was originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. It was re-released the following year for DOS.

Although this is the first Batman videogame released for the PC, it’s also the second Batman game ever made (the first one being Jon Ritman’s Batman, published in 1986, also by Ocean, but never released for PC). These two games, along with Batman: the Movie, are part of Ocean’s Batman game trilogy.

But, like always, let’s first take a look at the bat-cover:

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Not going to lie, the cover art looks great! It really looks like a comic book cover, with Batman fighting the Penguin with laughing Joker cards in the background. It’s probably more action-packed than the game itself (as you’ll see in a minute). And one might think that such cover was made by a comic book artist, seeing that the art style is very close to Neal Adams’ but it was actually made by the late Bob Wakelin, one of the best video game cover artists of the 80s.

But it’s about time to boot this bat-sucker:

The game is divided in two independently bootable sections: A Bird in the Hand, where Batman must stop Penguin’s robot penguin army and A Fete Worse than Death, where Batman must find and disarm the Joker’s bombs and then find and save Robin. In each section, we’re treated to probably the worst title screen I’ve ever seen. When I first saw it, I thought it was a pre-title screen. And I recommend reading the manual before playing as it not only has the backstory but also explain the menu icons and the control scheme.

The action occurs on screens of different sizes, reminiscent of comic panels. And every time you move to another panel, the new panel appears on top of the old one. It’s a novel presentation that would appear on some later comic-inspired games. But because a lot of panels are very similar, it’s very easy to get lost. I recommend drawing maps to avoid it. The art style in the game is very reminiscent of the Silver Age Batman with some Bronze Age elements here and there.

346021-batman-the-caped-crusader-dos-screenshot-in-the-batcave-ega

“I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM BATMAN!”

Both sections are very similar gameplay-wise. You control Batman and you have to grab items lying around the floor and use said items to solve puzzles to progress through the sections. But your health is constantly depleting and Batman can only carry up to 10 items. I guess Penguin and Joker must have poison Batman and stole his utility belt before the game. To replenish your health, you need to eat food. You can find it lying around or you can defeat enemies, of which some drop food. However, food dropped by the enemies only replenish some health, unlike the other food you’ll find that fully replenish it.

You use the directional arrows (or pad, if you’re using a joystick) to move Batman and an action button along with the arrows to fight, grab objects and access the menu. In the menu, you can check Batman’s health at the bottom (where it slowly turns into a skull), your progress percentage on top, your inventory on the sides and other options in the middle. Like I said before, I recommend reading the manual to understand the meaning of each menu icon.

One of the first objects you can grab is the batarang, which I highly recommend because it’s the best way to confront the enemies. And talking about the enemies, there isn’t a lot of variety (usually henchmen and smaller enemies, apart from the Joker and Penguin) and every time you defeat one, another one appears when returning to the some panel. Unless you need to get food from enemies, most of the times is just easier to avoid them and concentrate on solving the puzzles.

346029-batman-the-caped-crusader-dos-screenshot-these-penguins-are

“What are you?” “I’m Batman!”

The puzzles range from easy to hard and personally I found the Penguin section easier than the Joker section. On the top of some of the panels, there’s a short description which not only provide some clues but also helps distinguish similar panels and make for good references. But sometimes the clues aren’t enough to solve the puzzles and because of the limited inventory space, you’ll end up backtracking a lot (especially in the Joker section). And of course the debilitating health makes the game even harder! Is almost like the developers added this last feature to increase the difficulty tenfold.

And of course, if your health reaches zero, it’s back to the start of the section. There isn’t a save option nor checkpoints throughout the game. And I did found a point of no-return near the end of one of the sections. Meaning that if you reach that point and you don’t have the necessary objects to finish said section and enough health left for it, you might as well restart the entire section. At least, every time you solve a puzzle, you can drop the object used because you won’t need it again.

Graphically wise, the game looks nice, albeit with some small sprites (especially of the objects lying around) that almost blend in the background. They are also quite colorful but I wish there would be more variety with the sprites because, like I said before, most of the panels are very similar to each other. The animation is okay, but I wish there would be more of it during the action to know when we’re being attacked and Batman walks too slow, which sucks in a game with constant debilitating health.

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The title music isn’t bad but because it’s in a continuous loop, it gets old very fast and I don’t blame you for turning it off in the menu screen. The sound effects are almost non-existent, with some sounds when using the objects correctly when solving puzzles and the sound effects during the action.

The best part of the game for me are the controls, of which the keyboard is actually quite responsive, although Batman needs to be in the perfect position to go through doors or climb stairs, but apart from that, I didn’t had any problems controlling Batman. I don’t know how the joystick scheme is because I couldn’t configure my gamepad.

So, in conclusion, Batman: The Caped Crusader is a game that although it had a good success when released (mainly because there was only one other Batman game), it aged quite poorly. It isn’t very action-focused, with the real focus on the puzzles. Yes, I know that Batman is DCU’s greatest detective, but he’s still a superhero and I think there should be more action in the game (ironically, this wouldn’t be the last Batman game with puzzle elements, and I’m not talking about the Arkham series). And the constant debilitating health is an unnecessary feature. Some of the puzzles are hard as they get without the need to add more frustration to it.

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“Who the hell do you think I am? I’M THE GODDAMN BATMAN!” – Crazy Steve

So if you’re a Batman fan, you might feel some curiosity towards Batman’s beginnings in the videogame realm, but honestly I can’t recommend it. I haven’t played any of the other versions, but the Amiga and the Atari ST versions have better graphics, sound and music and the Commodore 64 version is considered by some the best version out there.

In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman would be released in cinemas worldwide and it had such a success that inspired several games in all platforms (home computers, consoles and arcade) that would overshadow all previous Batman games and begin a slew of action-oriented games (albeit with at least one exception, which we’ll take a look at a later date).

I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and I hope you have a great Batman Day. Until then, prowl the night and keep on playing!