For Amiga gamers in 1990 the world was oval, its core a rectangle. Time existed as 90-second intervals, each announced and punctuated by an electric buzz, a pneumatic hiss and the sound of 36 fists and feet converging on a steel sphere. Zig-zagging sprints and hurdles were burned on to the eyes, the ears filled by a raucous metallic churn. Bodies were folded, flung, and sacrificed to hungry scoreboards and an insatiable crowd. ‘One day,’ promised Speedball 2, ‘all sports will be played like this.’ But somehow, come the day, none of them were.
Having consummated The Bitmap Brothers’ dominion over the Amiga’s arcade scene, sent journalists into hyperbolic fifth gear, broken Japan and laid the foundations of Renegade (a developer-focused publishing collaboration with Rhythm King Records), Speedball 2 became a conundrum, zealously guarding its fanbase and confounding those that conspired to take it away. ‘Like Speedball’ became an enduring industry analogy, saved for the occasion when some brave fool would ride on the game’s coat-tails and inevitably fall off. An officially developed successor, PlayStation’s Speedball 2100 [4/10, E90], disappeared into budget obscurity almost upon release; the Bitmaps tried again with the PC’s (unreleased) Speedball Arena and all but disappeared until French developer Kylotonn’s resurrection in the form of the forgettable Speedball 2 Tournament in 2007, and a remake-cum-port on Xbox Live Arcade in the same year.
People will always covet the object of such a curse, not least when it represents something unparalleled in modern times. But dissecting Speedball 2, just as the industry so often reverse-engineers anything worth exploiting, reveals an anatomy of irregular parts and associations. There’s a top-down camera cranked impractically close to the action, undermining the spatial awareness so imperative to videogame soccer; there are star players that specialise in disrupting team dynamics, commanding both attention and opposition; there’s a pitch that resembles a pinball table of warps, rails and bumpers, sending the ball into potentially accidental score lines.
Moreover, the tempo of tackles and lobs is just as influential as their direction, the pulse of the pass-shoot control scheme permeating the subconscious like that of a modern rhythm game, albeit one where the beats are solely to the face. And 90 seconds of Speedball 2 seldom entails fewer than 90 separate moments, ball possession swinging between teams like a pendulum. The trick, in singleplayer especially, is to break that default rhythm and impose one of your own, each button press powering the stride of a freight-train centre forward.
With that in mind, there’s little of recognisable substance in contrived clones such as Deathrow, the Xbox title that swaps ball for luminous disc. That crude science by which a seminal game’s uppermost layers are sliced off, updated, re-branded and rearranged is squandered on the likes of Speedball – a product of genuine chemistry. Track one of the Bitmaps later on in their careers – Eric Matthews became director of creative development at SCEE Studios London and Cambridge, Mike Montgomery a co-founder and manager of mobile developer Tower Studios, Dan Malone an artist-for-hire who designed characters for SSX – and they’ll likely recall the tattered cigarette packets and notebooks upon which genres were improbably spliced, rules unflinchingly rewritten, and Speedball born again. Irregular and inspiring, games of its kind are the very stuff of gaming, the creative sparks that fire their manufacture becoming the ciphers that keep them unique.
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