I considered writing a hyperbolic introduction to this piece, something to set the dystopic scene, layered with in-depth considerations about how violent fictional futures are actually mirrors reflecting the dark acts of our own time.
Instead I’ve decided to take a slightly more controversial tack and lead with a simple statement: Speedball 2 is the single greatest sporting videogame ever created.
It’s a game that exudes sporting perfection from all of its leather and metal covered pores. It’s violent, funny, fast, intricately balanced, and lets you score points by crippling members of the opposition. On more than one occasion I’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by breaking the limbs of the opposing team’s striker in the dying seconds of a match. And it’s those moments that make it quite so special.
The game is a cross between ice hockey, rugby and a street brawl, with some strange pinball influences thrown in for good measure. Each bout lasts three minutes, split into two ninety second halves. You score points by hurling the metal ball into a goal, bashing it against bumpers, or, as previously mentioned, beating the other team into mush.
Passes, shots and sliding tackles are all controlled with the same button, and the steel plated arena is littered with instantly consumable power ups that give you a speed, toughness or armour boost if you manage to grab them before a member of the opposition does.
Violence isn’t the only key to success though. A clever manager needs to train his charges, buy and sell players on the transfer market and make sure that his substitutes are up to scratch too. The last thing you want is a player being stretchered off by the medical robots, only for him to be replaced with a useless buffoon.
You play as Brutal Deluxe, a band of rogues and misfits new to the league, who must duke it out against teams with names like Violent Desire, Damocles, and the Raw Messiahs. Games are punishing, and to start off with you’ll lose more than you’ll win, battling to scratch together some cash to try and take a shot at the big leagues.
The static images you see when you win or lose perfectly encapsulate the joy of victory and the crushing misery of defeat. You live and breathe with your players, learning their names, their positions, even building stories around each of them as they’re crippled and put back together again.
It might not have the strongest AI, and its difficulty spikes might crash through the ceiling of the futuristic arena is takes place in, but Speedball 2 stands as the greatest sporting game ever created because of the narratives it pushes you to forge. Your own successes and failures build rivalries and your last minute tackles fermenting grudges that last your entire career.
For all of its violence and sci-fi bluster, Speedball 2 is a story about the underdog, about dragging Brutal Deluxe from spirited nobodies to the top of the league. It’s a story of clenched fists and broken bones, and few games since have been able to tell it quite so well.
By Harry Slater