Futuristic sports have been a moderately successful gaming genre, during the whole of the 80s and early 90s, with the Bitmap Brothers’ Speedball II being probably the final great hurrah of this curious sub-genre of sports titles. But what about earlier titles, like Rocket Ball? Surely enough there have been some exceptions, even in the last few years, but it is safe to say that developers have mostly moved on from the idea of playing a made-up futuristic sport on their computers. Why? Well, all because gamers seem to prefer playing actual real sports on their consoles. What a sad world we live in… o tempora o mores.
But enough moping, let us go back to 1985, let’s put on some skates, wear a protective helmet and let’s rocketball.
In the future, there will be no wars, but there will be nostalgia.
Rocket Ball, developed by John Sinclair for IJK Software and released on C64 and Amstrad CPC (by P.Beckett) in 1985, does not really seem to hide its inspiration clearly taken from the 1970 movie Rollerball with James Caan. Yes, the movie which had a terrible 2002 remake starring, among others, Jean Reno and digitally added in Slipknot. And no, I wish I was kidding. While IJK Software couldn’t clearly get the rights to the movie, it definitely matters little since we’re not here to follow the plot, but only to play a good old (new?) simplified match of Rollerball.
In the game, two teams of five skaters will fight each order in order to pick up a ball, shot by a cannon, and bring it to the goal and score. If that kind of gameplay sounds like an overly simplified and violent version of American football with basically no rules, well, it’s because that’s what it is. It is also possible to elbow other players in the stomach or kick them to the ground. But that is the extent of Rocket Ball’s violence: no blood or deaths, just a lot of small superficial scratches.
While Rocket Ball is as straightforward and barebones as a sports game in 1985 could get, the design is spot-on. The screen scrolls from left to right, with the player skating to pick up momentum and slowing down in order to crouch and pick up the ball, along with shooting. Naturally, with the ball in hand, the player has to balance speed and accuracy in order not to overshoot the goal or getting kicked in the shins by the adversaries. While there are only single matches to be played, it is possible to select five levels of CPU difficulty.
There are plenty of interesting small details, like the teams marching at the start of every match, presenting themselves to the public. Personally, I love the moment when, after a goal is scored, the screen stops scrolling and several players pensively pass by like they’re just contemplating their own life mistakes. Fantastic, there’s definitely not enough moping in futuristic sports. The ending screen shows the winning team saluting the public with an appropriate fanfare blaring in the background.
So far so good, there is only one main issue for anyone intentioned to play Rocket Ball for the first time: the controls. Basically, the game requires very precise timing to be able to pick up the ball, which is carried out by pressing the button to make our character crouch. But again, the player is on rollerskates, so the whole thing becomes very hard to do correctly and there will be times when the ball will just roll in the gutter despite one’s desperate attempts to pick it up.
Graphically, Sinclair (a name not really synonymous with Commodore!) kept things clean and simple, which is for the best. The gameplay is appropriately fluid, with pretty big sprites and well done animations, especially for the public which is usually something most sports games tended to skip on. The sponsors depicted on the stadium’s various banners are actual existing companies, which is pretty strange to see in such a low-budget title. Soundwise there’s not much to talk about, most of the match is spent in silence with only minimal sound effects. Still, one little bit of trivia: it is curious to hear the famous Rocky fanfare (not Gonna Fly Now, but the one before the fights) played before the match starts.
Rocket Ball, despite its status as an ultra obscure cult classic, is still fondly remembered by many players today. It is definiely still not a bad choice for a quick co-op match, especially because scoring is not even required to have fun. Which is amazing for a simple game that is now 36 years old.
On a conclusive note, apparently, Ubisoft is slated to bring back not only the futuristic sports game but almost a remake of the original futuristic title by John Sinclair, with their free-to-play Roller Champions. Is that going to be better than 1985’s Rocket Ball? No way!