Friday, February 03, 2012

Old School Game Reviews: Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe

Welcome to the second edition of the “Old School Game Review”. Last time I covered the classic Sega Mega Drive title, “Streets of Rage”, and you can read that review here. But while I’m sticking with the Sega Mega Drive, I’m taking a different route this time. I’m going to review a game you might not have heard of. This is a game called Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.

Not familiar with the “Old School Game Review”? It’s basically a gift wrapped game review so in theory it’s nothing new. But what is different is that before I divulge into the review I talk about what makes this game so good, and some facts and memories the game gave me. Oh and what counts as an old school game? My ruling is the game has to be at least ten years old.
When did this game come out? 1990
What console was it released on? Sega Mega Drive/Genesis
What else was it released on? Atari ST, Amiga, Amiga CD32, PC, Commodore 64, NES, Sega Master System, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance.
Compilations? None really.
Other interesting facts? Quite a lot of people who have played this way weren’t actually sure if there was an original Speedball game. The original didn’t sell well outside the UK at all despite being well received. There in fact is a Speedball one although the game was not quite as good as this sequel. Speedball came out on the Amiga but was also ported to the NES, the Master System and the PC.
Best memories? I love the fact that I borrowed this game from a friend, and that friend aside (who I haven’t spoken to for years), I have yet to hear one person hear of this game personally. I loved taking my team which was slowly built up through the season, kick some ass and struggle to win the league with a patched up side. Then if you won the league or won the playoff, you’d do it all over again but it was even more difficult in the first division!

Now onto the review!

Speedball 2 is a forgotten relic; a fictional sports game that’s solid and has more depth to it than most genuine sports games can capacitate.

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe was released in 1990 on the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis for you Americans). It’s the official sequel to the sparsely heard of “Speedball”, which was released a year earlier on the Amiga, that was well received in the United Kingdom but barely received attention off these British Isles. Speedball 2 was released on the next generation Mega Drive, which naturally had improved graphics and the game took advantage of this and the other components that made it a much more powerful game console.

Speedball 2 is a fictional sports game set in 2105, and takes place ten years after the beginning of Speedball as a ‘sport’ where there is violence and chaos everywhere, the game is abandoned to the underground. In 2105, they try to revive the sport and all its vicious and bloody glory. The game has two divisions of eight teams and you take control of Brutal Deluxe, a new team on the scene just starting out. Your team is the weakest of the bottom division and it’s your job to either boost your current squad’s abilities to compete with the rest of the division, or to replace them with already established players that are available randomly on transfer.

So what type of sports game is Speedball? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a mixture of handball, hockey, rugby and football. It’s 9 players against 9, which consist of a goalie, two defenders, three midfielders, two wingers and a forward. The idea is to throw the ball in the other team’s goal. Sounds easy, but this is a game where violence is at the essence and is also rewarded. You can violently tackle other players and punch them, and if a player gets injured you get the points equivalent of a goal. The best way to pass the ball around is by throwing it from one player to another, although the opposition can easily intercept. You can run past players if you’re fast enough but they can tackle you. It’s a tough game.
You get points for injuring the opposition. He's bleeding by the way. Brutal.
Scoring starts at 10 points per goal but there are perks across the field that affect your scoring. On the two sides of the middle of the arena are multipliers, putting the ball through it once multiplies scoring by 150%, a second time will boost it to 200%, totalling at 15 and 20 points per goal respectively. On the sides of the arena are five stars, one side belongs to one team and one to the other. If you throw the ball at a star, you get one fifth of a goal (2 points, boosted to 3 or 4 with multipliers. Getting all five starts gives you the full equivalent of a goal, and the stars reset. Also note that if your opposite player throws the ball at your stars, or in the multipliers, it retracts the last bonus. Near both goals is a green circular object that each time you hit, gives you one fifth of a goal (once again 2, 3 or 4 points depending on the multiplier) but these points cannot be retracted unlike the stars and the multipliers. To emphasise the violence of the game, towards the end walls of the goal are buttons that heat the ball up intensely and you can throw it at your opposition, scorching them (for some reason it doesn’t scorch your players, but that logic can be overlooked). Also to reiterate, you get a goal equivalent of points if you injure an opposition member, so that can be a tactic if your team is strong enough to break the opposition down.

So with all these methods and perks to attempt to increase your score, you simply, have to score more than your opposition to win. But Speedball is hard. It’s a very hard game, especially as you start as the weakest team in your division. To make matters worse, you have to score quickly; the game is two halves of 90 seconds. While Speedball is a hard game it’s thoroughly enjoyable. I find it a lot more fun to play this game than most real life sports games. And while it’s violent, it doesn’t do it in a way that is tasteless, because the game is 2D and is viewed from above the arena; you see very little of what happens on the field that way.

There are other perks to. Randomly, items will be placed on the field that can temporarily boost speed or power, give the ball to your forward instantly, give the ball who got the item instantly, freeze all players on the spot temporarily, or instantly make all players fall over on the spot. Lastly, you can find coins that is used to purchase players in the League or boost your current squad’s abilities.

The main game mode is the league, as explained above. You start off as the weakest team and can build your players up to be competent, or, as a quick fix, purchase players on transfer. Either way you have to build your team to be competent and quickly – if you don’t place in the top two at the end of the season it’s game over. It’s hard but it’s a great challenge if you’re willing to take it. To get coin, you have to collect coins that are randomly placed on the arena floor in the match. I believe there’s a coins boost for winning matches too, although I’m not too sure about the technicalities of that. Either way, you find coin on the arena, collect it. You’ll need it to boost your team. Trust me, you don’t want to try and take on the league with your team the way it starts. If you get to second place at the end of the season, which is 14 games (you play all the teams twice, like in football), you’ll have a playoff match with the team that finished seventh in the top league. The team placed seventh in the top league is usually a tougher team that won the league, so it’s a tough match to go through. Winning the league is the easier route, as you then automatically gain promotion to the top league. The top league is much harder than the second league, all the teams play at a high tempo and hit you hard. You’ll once again be the weakest team in the division, but you’ll have the chance to further boost your squad again and have access to even better players than you did in the bottom league. You’ll have to win this league or its game over. Either way, the game ends at the end of the second season. You can also play the League mode like a manager; watch the games unfold and purchase or build your team up yourself, although this is no where near as fun (and it's much more difficult) as playing the game itself.
Playing League mode is a lot of fun, this is your starting line up, but you can buy better (and cooler looking) players later on.
The points structure in the league is quite simple. If you win a game you get ten points in the league. But you also get bonus points based on your tally for each match, you get one point for every 10 points scored in the match. For instance, if you win a match 52-16, you get 10 points for winning that match, and 5 more points for scoring more than 50 points. The opposition would get 1 point for scoring more than 10 points in that match. So basically it’s okay to lose matches, providing that you score a lot of goals. The top sides in both divisions score loads against the weaker sides, so you need to be capable of scoring high against these sides to compete as well. Winning 14 games out of 14 games doesn’t mean you win the league, because that will give you 140 points, but if you win each game 8-0 rather than 80-0, that’s a large difference (140 points, where as 14 x 8 is 112, giving you a tally of 252 points, a lot more). So win games and score lots, and you’ll be fine. Scoring lots and not always winning is also fine, but don’t depend on just winning.

There are other modes as well. There’s the Cup, which puts you in two legged matches against random teams from the second division. Other the course of these two matches you need a better total tally than your opponent and then you’re through to the next round. You take on three second division teams and then a team from the top division, usually one of the elite sides of that division. In these matches you also have to collect coin, although you can’t purchase players in this competition, meaning you have to boost your players with the coin you collect on the field. The Cup mode is okay, but it’s not a very balanced competition; you have three relatively decent sides and then put against one of the best sides in the game for the final. You’ll find more balance however, in the Knockout mode. In this mode you basically take on each side individually in order of difficulty, and if you lose once you’re out. Once again you cannot purchase players in this game, but have to boost your original squad with the coin you find. This game is arguably harder than the cup because of the fact that you’re depending much more on the coin you find than in the league. But it’s a thoroughly rewarding game mode as well. Lastly there’s a practise mode, which is not very good, as there’s no opposition. You take to the field on your own and can pass the ball around and score in an empty net.

The controls of Speedball are very simple. You only control one player at a time. All the other players are controlled by AI. If your player is off screen, you’re in control of another player afterwards. So if you’re in midfield and the opposition have the ball and start to attack your defence, you’ll probably start controlling a defender or a goalie. You can press any of the action buttons (A, B or C) to tackle if you haven’t got the ball. Once you have the ball, you use the D-pad to move and pressing any of the actions will throw the ball. You can throw it low or high, a low throw is quick but easy for an opponent to intercept. A high throw can take out an entire line of formation if thrown forwards, and your player (or an opposition player) can catch it on its way down to the ground. So you simply throw the ball to players, to arena perks or to the goal. If you haven’t got the ball you tackle the opposition, or if the ball is thrown into the air, try to catch it. As I said, the controls are very simple and easy to learn, but the game itself is difficult to master. Also be aware that the arena is closed off, there’s no out of bounds area and throwing the ball at the wall bounces it back into play and can be used to your advantage.

For its time, the music, while not having many songs, is quite good. The songs are basically some techno beats, to emphasise the futuristic setting of the game. The sounds are also fine, the tacking songs sound harsh, the throwing of the ball sounds reasonably realistic and because the players are all wearing metal protection and the walls and floor are metal, there are a lot of metallic sound effects which all add to the atmosphere nicely. Also you have an announcer saying “Get ready” after a goal has been scored, or the start of a new half, which is nice, and when you score you get a buzzer noise, followed by the same guy saying “Replay!”, and the build up and goal done in slow motion, which all add to the game. There is a multiplayer option available on the game, but it’s just a simple match between you and a friend. You have a certain budget of coin to spend to boost your players’ skills to, and you and your friend can do this in your own ways. Otherwise it’s just a plain one on one match between you and your friend; there are no league or cup options or anything like that, which is a shame.
I love the celebration guy. It's the same guy. With the same palette colour. Every time.
Overall Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe is an often overlooked game that deserves more merit than it has. I’m not saying it’s the best sports game of all time, but I will however say that it’s possibly the best fictional sport game ever made – there aren’t many of them around and this game does a solid job of making a fake sport interesting. I always thought that the premises for Speedball 2 would make a very good film; it has the violence, the passion, the energy and believability of a real life sport and would make a fine story to be told on a cinema screen. The game being done in the underground would also add to the dirty, filthy almost coliseum-like element the game has.

This is true praise of the game. For a game that came out over 20 years ago on a console limited in comparison to today’s standards, Speedball 2 does a lot. It’s frenetic, it’s difficult, it’s a tough game but it’s more than playable. It’s a great game. It’s such a shame that reboots of this game have been unsuccessful, it’s not because it’s a bad game (although the reboots have never touched the quality this game had), it’s because, well, how do you market a fictional sport? People aren’t interested in these type of games, not anymore. In the Mega Drive/Genesis era people were interested in innovation and ‘different’ games, nowadays all people want to do is shoot stuff. If they like sports games they’ll pick a replica of a real life sport done on video game. Speedball 2 is lost as a forgotten relic and it’s a damn shame.

If you have your old Mega Drive/Genesis and have never played this game and enjoy the sound of it based on this review, seriously, get it. In the UK at least you can find copies very cheap on Amazon, and I doubt it’s much different in other countries. The game sold relatively well back 21 years ago, so that’s not an issue. Sustainability is. But if you’re bored, want to play a retro game that you’ve never played before, give it a go. I implore you. Because to me, Speedball 2 is a forgotten relic; a fictional sports game that’s solid and has more depth to it than most genuine sports games can capacitate, and it simply doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Rating: ****1/4 stars

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  1. Firstly: Nice review. It`s a fine game, and you called it.

    "I always thought that the premises for Speedball 2 would make a very good film; it has the violence, the passion, the energy and believability of a real life sport and would make a fine story to be told on a cinema screen."

    Speedball actually is inspired by the 1975 movie "Rollerball". Have a look at this:

  2. Excellent, I didn't watch the whole movie but watched the trailer, I never knew about this film! Thanks for the info! =)