Review: Speedball 2 (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 400, Fuzion 30, SuperGAU 374/541, Vectronix 593/785
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

In many ways there’s really bugger all point in me reviewing Speedball 2. You already know it’s brilliant, it’s one of the greatest games released in the 16-bit era and, alongside Sensible Soccer, stands as one of the best local multiplayer games you could hope to play. The strange thing is it only got 88% in ST Format despite being a game that stands the test of time far better than 99% of 16-bit releases. I can only imagine they knocked points off because they didn’t think it offered enough over the first game, and yet that is ludicrious.

The original came out in late 1988 (reviewed in ST/Amiga Format issue 6), a cracking little cyberpunk sports game, basically rugby with more violence. The pitch was just a single screen width with no horizontal scrolling and the metallic pitch and players lacked the chrome finish which would become a Bitmap Brothers trademark. The pitch was simpler without so many power-ups where the sequel’s 3-screen-wide pitch is covered with power-ups and resembles a pinball machine in places, and gameplay was a little cramped with little opportunity to move the ball around to evade your opponent. The prequel was competent and reasonably fun but the Bitmap Brothers had not yet found their identity. In common with their other work, the game was smooth and clearly well-programmed (though on the ST this is easier to achieve when scrolling is only vertical).

The sequel then was the Bitmap Brothers going back to Speedball and making it a Bitmap Brothers game. Graphically it’s acquired that Bitmaps magic, that metallic sheen, that was missing in the first game. The pixel art is magnificent with some incredible stills between matches in addition to the beauty of the match itself. It’s bigger and better with a bigger pitch, more power-ups, more ways to score, hell you even get points for injuring your opponents, which adds to the fun/carnage. The addition of a fantastic management layer with coins appearing on the pitch to help you fund new signings or training for your existing squad is in itself a huge enhancement. Replays of injuries and goals? Yes please.

The extra expanse of pitch allows a far more expansive, dare I say it, beautiful game. You can start sweeping moves out from the back, the goalkeeper passing out to your wide defenders, who can switch it into your midfielders to send a raking ball down the opposite flank, pulling your opponent this way and that, crossing a dangerous ball into the box, for your striker to violently beat the living crap out of the keeper and then sweep the ball home.

Speedball 2 shines brightest in multiplayer, as all 16-bit sports games do, but the pandemic has rather limited my options for people to play against. In the end I managed to persuade my wife to have a go, but the games ended with me beating her by 80 points (a goal is 12 points) or more which was fun for me, but not so much for her. This highlights where these sorts of games can have a bit of a weakness – if there’s a significant skill gap between players it doesn’t work so well.

Controls are similar to the first game, with movement controlled by the stick and the fire button working in context – if you don’t have the ball and it’s on the ground you launch a crunching tackle (ideally at someone’s head) while if it’s in the air you leap like a salmon to intercept the ball in flight and begin a new attacking move. Once you have the ball, like a game of rugby you can run while carrying it, but unlike rugby forward passes are fine, with a tapped fire button sending the ball towards the nearest player in the direction your stick is pointed, and a longer press sending the ball soaring into the air.

Between matches the management section (if you’re playing the league or cup) allows you to reinforce your squad with better players, while the coaching options allow you to improve those you already have, and collecting coins during the match help add funds to increase your budget for both of these, lending the game an extra layer of strategy.

One thing I’ve not yet mentioned is sound. The game kicks off with some fantastic sampled music, easily as good as anything you’d hear from an Amiga. Sadly once in the game itself it’s not quite as good as the Amiga but the chip-based sound effects are perfectly serviceable. No ice cream for ST users though. The Amiga version’s sounds make a difference in terms of the atmosphere around matches but once you’re in the game and fighting for points you soon stop noticing. While we’re comparing with the Amiga, visually it’s not too far behind. Scrolling is smooth, and animation is fluid. In match the main differences appear to be a lack of diagonal lines on the pitch in the ST version vs the Amiga, presumably due to the ST having to do something more tiled where the Amiga can simply scroll the pitch as a single image. Other than that though there really is very little to choose between them.

Evolution of a Speedball team – look at those nice friendly chaps on the left.. not sure I’d want to meet the ones on the right in a dark alley…

Difficulty is pitched pretty well, it starts out challenging though as you improve your squad the games against weaker teams start to get easier, with the games against the best opposition being as hard as you’d expect. They’re more aggressive at getting the ball back from you and you have to really think through your passing to make it work. I played several hours in the league campaign and honestly had an absolute blast, where you start with a desperately weak team and inevitably get steamrollered. In those early games I focused on collecting coins so I could buy the superstar players who would make my team work – a good quality centre forward is a must as used properly he can steamroller through the opposition and injure at least two players per match, earning an additional 20 points in addition to scoring goals (you need the pace to evade defenders). Given the game ends if you fail to achieve promotion in the first season, it becomes a race against time to build a team strong enough to compete over 14 matches against 7 other teams, and the same again in the top division. This is a clever decision as had they allowed you to noodle about in the lower division building up a team but not winning enough to go up, it would be possible to quickly build a massively-overloaded team with too much power and then steamroller the league. While I do quite like doing that kind of thing (that turtling approach mirrors my approach in Mega Lo Mania and Stronghold for instance) it’s probably wise to give the player a little nudge to get a move on, and give them more of a challenge.

Video Of Me Playing

I thought I’d put up my first ever video of me playing one of these games. In the end it’s a season and a half of action. Let me know what you think in the comments, but please try to keep it free of the racial slurs the internet seems to love.

The Verdict

By now the verdict should be obvious. If we’re going full 90s I could describe it as a stonking sports game for any self-respecting gamester, but I won’t, because I’m too old for all that and nobody said that stuff even then other than writers in computer magazines. Nope, instead I’m going to tell you that it’s bloody brilliant. It’s still, in 2021, along with Sensible Soccer, one of the best sports games you’ll ever find, fantastic on your own and of course brilliant with your mates (provided the skill gap isn’t too big). Once the pandemic is done, go get your mates, gather them around an ST or Amiga (or emulator or FPGA replication of either) and have some fun. They don’t make them like this anymore (modern attempts at capturing the magic simply fail).

Resources

Manual: http://www.c64sets.com/set.html?id=109

Amiga vs ST

Some kind soul took the time to do a proper comparison so you can see how the visuals and sound differ. Enjoy.

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