These days pretty much every sports game is licensed with a real world league and aims to be more or less a simulation of the actual sport. Back in the 90s, however, video game sports were much more creative. You had games like Mutant League Football and Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball which took real sports and added a unique video game twist. Then you had things like Speedball, which was a game that basically created its own cyberpunk sport that was a mix between hockey and handball. A sequel, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe was released in 1990 on many of the various home consoles and computers of the time, and was just recently given the HD treatment with the release of Speedball 2 HD on Steam.
If you’re familiar with the original version of Speedball 2, you’ll be right at home with this HD version, it’s basically the same game with an HD coat of paint. Everything that was good about the original game remains good in this version, but many aspects of it feel very dated over 20 years later. Sports games have come a long way, and Speedball 2 HD feels very much like a game of the early 90s in a lot of respects.
The biggest issue is the difficulty, or more the lack of difficulty. Like a lot of the sports games of that era, it is ridiculously easy to exploit the AI. The core game mode is the career, which has you taking a scrub team and building it up to win all 5 cups, and this task is far easier than it could be. As you play games you earn money to spend either on new players or to improve the skills of the players you already have. Basically, any time you face a team with around the same rated players as yours, you will be able to score pretty much at will.
There are several ways to score points, and unless the opposing team seriously outclasses you in terms of player ratings, you’ll be able to score 20 points about every 5 seconds of game clock. Matches consist of two 90 second halves, and we had instances where the final score was like 750-0 with time of possession being in the realm of 98% vs. 2%. On the other hand, if you’re facing a team that is far superior to your own you’ll find yourself incapable of doing much of anything. There are only rare occasions where you get matched up against better teams though, and you’ll have enough money to max out the stats of all your players well before you reach the end of the career mode, which means the vast of majority of the your matches will be ridiculous blowouts.
Now of course, sports games are always better played against real people, so you may be willing to overlook the easily exploitable AI in favor of a good multiplayer experience. That would be a decent idea if not for the fact that the game only supports local multiplayer. As of right now, this is a PC only release, which is about the last platform you think of when it comes to local multiplayer. It supports native 360 controller support, so you could simply play with two 360 pads connected, but the lack of online multiplayer is simply absurd. For most people, this basically means the game has no feasible mulitplayer component whatsoever, which isn’t what you really want out of a sports game.
In terms of the core action, it’s fast paced and fun, but the standard of early 90s sports games were such that it comes off feeling overly simple. The game only uses one button in addition to basic movement. When you have the ball your only action is throwing and when you don’t have the ball you can tackle. The movement feels good and hitting opponents is fun, but the lack of more complex actions feels needlessly simple. There is no reason there couldn’t be separate buttons for passing and shooting (other than this not being the case in the original game), instead you simply throw the ball in the direction you are facing. You have some limited ability to curve or loft your throws, but it’d be nice if you had different kinds of throws as well.
Don’t misunderstand, though simple, the core gameplay is still enjoyable. There are various power-ups on the court and several ways to score points, it’s just all kind of irrelevant when you can ignore it all and win almost every game without putting forth much effort. The 1-2% of matches you’ll play against opponents that are rated just enough higher than you to make the game close really highlights how good the game can be, but these instances are few and far between during career mode. You could play quick matches and choose teams that will make it competitive, but without the driving force of career progression there is little to get invested in. In the rest of the matches, it gets boring just scoring over and over again with practically no resistance. When you find yourself ahead by 200 points and just jogging in circles in an attempt to run out the clock and get the match over with, there is something wrong.
With HD in title, you’d expect the game to look significantly better than the original version, and it does. This being a game originally designed for 16-bit and equivalent systems, all the graphics have been fully redrawn to give it the HD treatment. The game looks nice, but it has a 16-bit sensibility to its visual dsign. If you were expecting a fully modern looking game you may be disappointed, but they absolutely nailed the look of a high res 16-bit game. However, in this instance HD means 720p, your only option is 1280×720 or similar 16:10 and 4:3 resolutions.
Speedball 2 HD is a faithful remake of the 1990 classic. It retains everything that made the original game fun, but much of its design feels outdated as a 2013 release. The easily exploited AI and lack of any online multiplayer compound to make this a game that is simply without challenge. The core gameplay, while fun, feels overly simple compared to modern sports games and becomes boring with the lack of challenge. The developers accomplished the goal of releasing Speedball 2 to run on modern machines with nicer looking visuals, it’s just a shame they didn’t do more to modernize the game. If you have a lot of nostalgia for Speedball 2, you’ll probably enjoy this HD remake for what it is, but those looking for a new arcade sports game should look elsewhere.