Friday, 8 November 2013

Wizball (Ocean, 1987)

Written by Jon Hare, Chris Yates and Martin Galway for the Commodore 64. Converted by Steve Watson, Paul Owens, Peter Clarke and Mark R. Jones for the ZX Spectrum. Converted by Steve Lamb and Alison Jeftha for the Amstrad CPC. Converted by Nick Sheard, Shaun Ridings and Roger Fenton for the DOS. Converted by Peter Johnson for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Additional sounds for the Amiga by Ian McLaughlin.



Wizball appears to be one of those games that will always divide the audience, depending on whether you can learn it or not. I've read from a lot of forums people saying that the game is overrated, because they either never understood the hype or couldn't get a grip on the controls or whatever. Sure, it's a very fantastical idea and doesn't involve much real world physics or anything, but isn't that one of the basic ideas behind gaming? Interacting with your dreams.

Regardless of it being called overrated, Wizball is placed at #34 with 242 voters having rated it 8.51 at Lemon64's Top 100 list. At World of Spectrum, the game has a score of 8.06 from 51 votes, which isn't bad at all, although it doesn't reach the top 100. Atarimania has the ST version rated 7.6 with only 13 votes, and the Amiga version takes the low end with only 5.9 from 58 LemonAmiga voters. Although proven slightly less trustworthy in their opinions in some of their reviews, the folks at CPC Game Reviews have given it a whopping 9 out of 10. The DOS version was the most difficult for finding any reviews and ratings, but at least the good old Home of the Underdogs has a Top Dog mark on it. So, let's see how the ball rolls, shall we?



I can sort of relate to Jon Hare and Chris Yates, the two young lads who founded Sensible Software. They were originally musicians, and wanted to become rock stars, but I guess it was fated that they would get bored of trying and become top game developers instead. Not that I would ever become a game developer - I'm happily employed within my own area of expertise. Anyway, Jon the artist and Chris the programmer were employed by LT Software, but were soon recruited to make the controversial game "Twister - Mother of Harlots" for the ZX Spectrum, released through System 3.

Having gotten enough money and skills, they took off and founded Sensible Software, immediately starting to work on their first two games for the Commodore 64. The first one to be published was a cheap parody of the over-populated space shooter genre called Galax-i-Birds, published by Firebird in 1986. The other one was published by Ocean Software with the more familiar title, Parallax, gaining their first big hit game. Their deal with Ocean got them soon working on their next game, which would have an entirely different approach to space shooters. I've heard that at some point, it would've been more like a platformer/shooter type of a thing, but as the game got more and more evolved, the platforming element just got sort of dropped off almost entirely.

That game, of course, was to become Wizball in a few months, first to be released for the Commodore 64. The reviewers didn't seem to care much, which platform the game was on at the time, it seemed to be universally loved, or at least liked. It was never an easy game to pick up, and still isn't, if you don't have the least idea of what you should be doing, but that's what the instructions are for.

So the first thing you see (and hear) is the high score list, from where you can either start the game by pressing the fire button, or enter the menu from pushing the joystick in any direction. The menu has options to play in a single player mode, a two-player competitive mode, a two-player co-operative mode, a three-player mode and a four-player mode. I've never tried the last two modes, but there's quite enough to do in the first three modes.

Before moving on to the actual game, you should probably know a little of the back story, in case you haven't read the manual yet. Squeezing the long story shorter, let's just say that you're an old Wizard with a pet cat, living in a previously brightly coloured Wizworld, now rendered greyscale by the evil Zark and his horrible henchsprites. So, your job is to step into your circular transporter, obviously called Wizball, and with the help of your pet Catellite, restore Wizworld into its former glory by collecting colour droplets and shooting your enemies.

Now, the game actually starts in a slightly off-putting manner, by dropping your ball-wizard in the middle of a bland-looking landscape, making it continuously bounce. At first, if you try to get the Wizball into any direction, you only have a very small amount of control over the bouncing. So, you need to get yourself some upgrades to get the controlling easier. By shooting at certain enemies, they will drop upgrade bubbles, which you must collect. Then you need to activate the upgrade with a method instructed in each version's manuals, but in most cases, it's just waggling your joystick left and right in a quick, but short burst. The Catellite is activated from the third upgrade icon, but you shouldn't activate the Catellite, until you're fairly certain it's safe enough to use it. Once you've gathered enough colour droplets with the Catellite, you proceed to the bonus stage, where you can collect some points for extra lives and upgrades. When you're done with the bonus stage, you'll empty the colour vials into the big cauldron in your homey wizardring hut, and you'll be able to choose a permanent upgrade. This is the first step to make the game perfectly completable. Then, you will have to go through tubes to other levels to collect different colours and paint them back eventually into their own colours. And that's how the game goes, and all 8 levels of it have to be coloured three times before they get their original colour.

Once you learn the mechanics and get comfortable even with the initial states of the Wizball, it's easy to become addicted to it. It's one of those games that I play and likely complete once every year or two. I've never tried it properly on any other computer than the original, so it's high time for me to do it now. Perhaps not complete it on all of them, but have an attempt at it anyway.



Now, I know this bit doesn't hold much currency anymore (if it ever really did), but let's go for it just for tradition's sake. For once, I have located an image of the original Amiga disk, wahey! The only Atari ST disk I found was a cracked one, so I can't really count on it being realiably close to the original. Therefore, I shall only present the times I could get, and not include them in the final scores. Another problem I faced with the available original images was with the C64 disk version, of which I only found an NTSC version released by Mindscape, which I couldn't get to work (though I found an NTSC crack that worked). One other thing: all the five Spectrum tape versions I could find were within 5 seconds of each other, so I included the quickest one, which was an ERBE release.

AMIGA: 40 seconds
ATARI ST: cracked - 35 seconds after trainer menu.
CPC TAPE: 5 minutes 29 seconds
CPC DISK: about 7 seconds (?)
C64 TAPE: 5 minutes 55 seconds
C64 DISK: n/a (at least well over 2 minutes)
DOS: no loading time.
SPE TAPE: 4 minutes 23 seconds
SPE DISK: about 16 seconds (?)

For once, the Amstrad tape is surprisingly quick to load, and the original C64 version is the slowest - at least on tape - but the Spectrum tape is the quickest of the three. Disk versions all seem to be super fast, but I can't really get any reliable results without proper equipment and more original versions - the Amiga version is the only one I trust right now. Whatever the case, the DOS version beats all the others because it has no real loading time once the computer has booted. But let's take a look at the loading screens at this point again, because we have a lot of graphicless ground to cover in the next section.

Above: loading screens from C64, Spectrum and Amstrad.
Below: title screens from DOS, Amiga and Atari ST.

Strange, this one. I can definitely say that out of the 8-bits, the Spectrum loader looks the best, but I do like the rather strange C64 screen as well, although/because it doesn't look anything like the game's cover art. Amstrad screen takes on after the DOS version for some reason (missing some elements and having more overall ugliness), and the two 16-bits have a similar approach, but have some animated elements in them as well. The Atari version is just slightly more convincingly done. The thing is, though, that the 16-bit versions only have the Ocean logo as the real loading screen,
and the Wizball title screen is exactly that: a title screen. So, I'm a bit puzzled here as to how am I supposed to give them scores now?

Loading screens from Amiga (left) and Atari ST (right).



We'll start with the C64 version, because it's the original. I told you enough about the options in the description, but there's also a bit of instructions you can read before heading on into the action, which could turn out quite useful. Note that this in-game information isn't available in the other 8-bit versions; it isn't much, but when there's no manual (erhm), a little information is more than none at all in a cryptic game like this, and I bet it's one of the reasons why some people give up on this game so easily. Anyway, starting the game opens up a greyscale area under you, which you will begin bouncing on. At first, you can only steer the Wizball by rolling it left or right in a chosen speed, which the ball will take once it has bounced off the ground. I think there's, like, 5 or 6 different speeds for each direction, but can't tell for sure, since it has such an analog feel to it that you can never get the speed to climb up gradually enough to count it. The control is just so smooth even in its lowest ability that you can easily see your air speed from how fast the ball is rolling. The same controllability is in the first upgrade, but of course you'll now be able to control it sideways in mid-air. The final upgrade gives you full controllability, but there's still a nice spacey inertia in your movement - it feels very organic.

Let's move on to the more general stuff, that doesn't require too much elaboration. Firing your weapons is very rapid and responsive, and the two-way upgrade works very nicely in a quick, slightly randomized fashion. The Catellite can be moved by keeping down the fire button and moving the joystick, or if you have a friend to help you, you can choose to play a two-player co-operative game, and have your friend use the other joystick to control the Catellite, whenever it's available. The laser beam is more effective than your regular gun, but is slightly slower, and the spread gun (that looks like a sun in the icons bar) alternates shooting directions between upper half and lower half, and it can be equipped for either the Wizball or the Catellite. The two remaining icons in the toolbar are a bomb to kill off all the enemies in the near vicinity, and the Yin/Yang-symbol gives the Wizball and the Catellite a protective shield for a short time. The game starts off in an area where you can only shoot some stationary enemies, which will all give you pearls that you need to pick up in order to highlight the next item in the toolbar. After the first batch of enemies are finished, the next will arrive, and the real action begins, so make sure you have everything you think you will need by then. There's an enemy counter beside your score counter, counting enemies for each level, so you might want to keep an eye on that sometimes. When there's very little enemies left in the field, you need to hurry up and kill the last ones before the filth patrol arrives to take you down - they usually only come when there's not much else happening. Finally, your main mission is to locate those single-coloured floating balls, shoot them down and collect them with the Catellite, as they drop to the ground as ink droplets. If you collect droplets of other than their original colour, it might have some good or bad effect, all of which are explained in the instructions. All 8 levels require a certain amount of colours in different combinations to get back to their natural states. You can't get into the later levels initially - instead, you have to plough your way through first, and finish up getting the earlier levels back into their true form. The game gets gradually more difficult, with some tricky elements in the level maps and your enemies getting more vicious and dangerous every time you get further in the game, but they always appear in single groups, and in an effectively randomized order, but never are they unfair. You do have one secret weapon, though: you can hide from the enemy bullets at ground level. After all the 8 levels are done, you get the obligatory ending screen and start back at the beginning with all your collected equipment, so after that it's just aiming for the high score.

One more small detail should be noted, which heavily involves graphics: the playarea takes 2/3 of the conventional screen height, and sideways leaves a bit of black on the sides to mask the scrolling effect - this leaves 1/3 of the conventional screen height for the scores and the bit with the ink cauldrons and the level indicator. The PAL version has this clever bit of coding that places the Wizball's toolbar in the screen border, outside the conventional area of the screen, where all the action takes place. The NTSC version isn't quite as clever, and switches the bottom of the conventional screen area with the toolbar and the ink cauldron stuff. It seems like a small detail considering it's very much a graphical thing, but read on.

There are some things quite a bit different about the SPECTRUM version, that made my experience with it rather troublesome. First off, the game starts off in a slow motion animation of the Wizball coming to life, instead of normal speed. It kind of throws you off a bit, if you've gotten used to the original. Second, controlling the Wizball's directional velocity is a lot more sensitive than it should be - it doesn't feel nearly as maneuverable as the original, even though it has most of the speed notches. Third, it has less screen width than the original (not the toolbar is placed at the right edge of the main screen area), so there's not really that much time to react to enemies, which - erm, fourth - are sometimes hugely faster than on the C64, so your only option to play is to proceed VERY gently and by firing constantly. Fifth, the enemy waves always seem to come in the same order in their specific levels, which kills the surprise factor for the rest of the game, when you notice it. Sixth, there's no bonus round. Seventh, you have no two-player option. Eighth, you can't dodge the enemy bullets by staying on ground level, which is just plain annoying, and could've been left out just to mess with you. And so on and so on. The Spectrum version also seems to have a few bugs, or features based on a lower amount of memory. Sometimes, the enemies seem to just disappear into thin air, and also the item bubbles sometimes seem to disappear from screen before I've moved far enough to make it naturally disappear. The collision detection in this version is something of a mess as well - you have a bigger chance of going down a pipe by accident because you only need to be half-way in, and you seem to collide in enemies from a character block's radius in some cases. A lot of these problems could be explained by having one programmer start up the project and leaving it before finishing, and Ocean getting another programmer to tidy up the previous programmer's slightly unfinished work and release it as it was at the moment. (I read this from an interview of Mark R. Jones by another blogger - check it out here.) So, in a way, the Spectrum gamers got an unfinished product instead of proper Wizball. But you're welcome to treat it as a hardcore version of the game, because once you get into the more frantic/random rhythm of the Spectrum version, you'll be just as hooked on it as on the original, except that you'll be more exhausted more quickly.

But that's still not too bad, really. See, the AMSTRAD version plays almost nothing like it should. First of all, the game is a flick-screener now, which affects pretty much everything. For example, all the enemies will appear on screen instantaneously as you change the screen, and this makes changing levels feel like Russian roulette. But I'm getting ahead of myself - first things first. There's no two-player mode in this version either, not that it matters all that much in this case. As you begin your game, you will start from the left-side end of the first level, bouncing up and down, but you're only able to bounce in full sideways fashion, which will happen only when you bounce off the ground - the game hasn't got the animation for the accelerating rotation. There's no feel of gravity at all, it's just as if you were moving a cursor in a graphical user interface (such as Windows) by joystick. Secondly, there seem to be only a few types of enemies, one of which is almost impossible to kill because of their infuriatingly random patterns of movement. There's no grace in anything here, it's just mayhem. Third, and the most annoying so far, is the way your two-way shooting ability changes direction: it just seems to shoot most of the time in the wrong direction, with a few random shots in the right one, so your best bet is to not choose the ability at all. Fourth, same problem as with the Spectrum one: you can't dodge the enemy bullets by staying on ground level. Fifth, I couldn't find the pipeway to level 3 from level 2, which would suggest there's only two levels, but if that's how it is, I can't fathom why you should need the third base colour cauldron. Well, I'm sure there's plenty of more problems in this version, and worse than on the Spectrum, but the game was too hard for me to even get the first ink cauldron filled before giving up after an hour or so, even with the emulator's advantage of a save feature, so I'll just leave it at that. If someone can prove me they've completed the Amstrad version of Wizball in one sitting without save features, there's a free beer coming for you... or whatever you prefer, as long as it's not too expensive.

The DOS version gets it a bit more in the right direction, but it's hard to say how good the game is actually in balance, because you'd really have to have a proper old PC to play the game as fluently as possible. DOSbox just can't do enough here. Still, what I could make out of it is that the controls are more similar to the C64 version than the previous two compared - the physics work in a more similar way and the controllability is, from what I could tell, pretty close to the original. What makes this version less enjoyable is the intense difficulty: you'll get two enemy groups at once on the screen quite often, whereas the original only has one group at a time. Couple that with the bad compatibility in DOSbox... you still got a more playable game than the one on the Amstrad. It might even be slightly better than the Spectrum, but it's such a different balance that I can't decide upon it. You do
get the in-game instructions, though, and the bonus stage, so there's a lot more to offer in the DOS version than in the two 8-bit conversions. If you want to try it out, it's relatively easy to find on abandonware sites, but I won't link them here. The keyboard setup I can tell, though: space bar shoots, Z and X move left and right, ' and / on an English keyboard (or ä and - on a Finnish keyboard) move up and down.

Let's see the 16-bits, then. Gameplaywise, I couldn't find any huge differences between the AMIGA and ATARI ST versions, so most of what's said here, goes for both of them. Initially, the gameplay feels pretty good, everything seems fine except your Wizball handles a bit slower. It's not too bad, but takes a bit time getting used to. As you play on, though, you start to notice a slightly different balance in the game; the slower handling affects the whole game in a negative way. Bouncing from the obstacles throws you off and getting back to your rhythm takes some more time, and the enemies have a better chance at colliding into you because it takes more time for you to handle the Wizball. The biggest problem with the handling is, that the game responds to your controls very slowly - but lo and behold: this is the only noticable difference between the Amiga and Atari, since the Atari version actually responds slightly better to your controls. It also makes it more difficult to notice, that you really only have 3 or 4 speed settings in your Wizball. So, we're already well into a bad start here. Your weapons work very differently compared to the original - the shield looks like it can be on all the time, as long as you keep pushing the button, so it doesn't work in a pulse-like fashion - but then again, it doesn't shield you nearly enough, so it's gone both good and bad; the two-way gun shoots only one bullet at a time to each direction, and does it slowly. If you have the Catellite with you, you get a whopping two bullets at a time. Actually, it's not even supposed to be a conventional firearm, it's a laser blaster, so there shouldn't be much of a rule to it how it should be firing - but actually this is just a problem on the Amiga; the ST version has a proper laser blaster, although it works just as slowly. For some reason, I couldn't even get the filth patrol to appear on the Amiga, so I don't know if they even exist on it, but considering I got it on the Atari, it might've been a random bug or something. At least you have all the playmodes available again, and you can even hide the enemy bullets at the ground level, but most of the enemies are different in these two versions, so they act differently and it takes some time to figure out their patterns. Of course it does that also in the original, but these have a more random style of movement. All in all, I can't really say the 16-bit conversions are all that well converted.

This bunch is a really diverse lot in quality, and really difficult to judge because of a lot of things - but mostly because I can't play the DOS version as well as I'd wish to, so here's how I put them in order:

1. C64



C64: PAL (above) vs. NTSC (below)
Naturally, we begin the graphics comparison with the C64. Now, we touched this first bit earlier already, but it's such a pivotal part of the whole graphics engine in the original that it deserves another mention. The game scrolls left and right, and has these panels above and below the action screen, which tell you your score, your lives, the number of enemies, the amount of ink you have in your cauldrons, which level you're on, and most of all, your ability upgrades. In the PAL version, it's placed at the very top of the screen, even above the so-called paper area, in the border, and in the NTSC version, it switches between the bit with the cauldrons in it. And here you can see it for yourself, how it looks in each version. The way the scrolling is handled would be a bit uneasy for the eyes, so it's masked by a bit of blackness, but you also get some sort of screen memory thing going on, which keeps elements like the bonus pearls and enemies for a short distance outside the screen.

Of course, the story of the game goes that all the colour has been taken away from Wizworld, so everything is greyscale initially, except for yourself, the Catellite, the enemies, the upgrade pearls and everything outside of the playarea, except for the cauldrons, which just happen to be grey. All the levels have their own distinctive and detailed terrain and structure, and sometimes requires precise navigation. Gradually, as you collect their base colours and mix them with other colours, the levels will turn back into their own look. Level 3, for example, will go through the following transformation.

The four phases of colouring level 3 on C64.

From top to bottom:
C64, Spectrum, Amstrad, DOS,
Comparing these two matters to the others, then, is a bit difficult, because it's a matter of taste as well as a matter of practicality. Clearly, the 16-bit versions take the lead in the practicality issue, because they have more graphical and random access memory to use for the scrolling engine. The playing field is a bit wider, too, but it also makes the graphics a bit smaller, but not too small. Then again, because the controls are so slow, it's just as well that you see much more in these two versions. All that is acceptable, but was the overly bright and flashy title bar (not to mention the Ocean logo at the bottom) necessary? It all just feels too much, particularly when you're supposed to be working in an area with all the colours drained out. I, for one, can remember the game's title after having loaded it from a disk telling me its name, and seen the OS loading texts and the title screen. This isn't supposed to be Dizzy.

The one conversion to get closest to the original in screen size and style is the DOS version. Everything is in its right place and as unflashy as CGA is able to be. Sure, the colours are all wrong, the cauldrons look a bit weird, and some of the graphics are even a bit unclear. If you manage to play far enough, you can even read some classy typos. Strangely, the AMSTRAD version has a little bluish colour in the supposedly greyscale landscape. The setting looks pretty good initially, but as mentioned before, there's no scrolling - it's a flip-screener, so there's little to do with any kind of memory in the placement of enemies: it's all a game of luck after the initial batch of upgrade pearls. Note, that the toolbar is slightly different: here the yin/yang has switched places with the bomb. Anyway, the background graphics look pretty nice, except there's no stars. Unfortunately, I couldn't get far enough to make a better judgment of it, but from what I could see, it wasn't all bad, but could've been SO much better. Even the SPECTRUM conversion scrolls quite nicely, and has a detailed, if monochrome, terrain. The screen size is smaller in width, as mentioned before, so it makes the playing a bit more difficult, as you don't have as much reaction time. This is the only version to place the ability upgrades toolbar to the side, probably because no one had thought of a way back then to copy the C64's original concept thoroughly. Also, uniquely, all the cauldrons are coloured by their respective inks, due to attribute clash. And still more: the scores are left by themselves at the top, and the cauldrons at the bottom are joined by the lives indicator in addition to the level indicator. It can be a bit diversive when you are playing for the first time and are trying to figure out what's what and where are they, because usually, the number of lives used to be told next to the scores.

Above: Spectrum, level 1 progression. Right: DOS, level 1 progression (unfinished)
Below: Atari ST & Amiga, level 1 progression.

And here are some level transformations from the conversions I managed to play so far as to get some screenshots. If you haven't noticed yet while reading these, you can click on the picture to view it full-size. The SPECTRUM version looks a bit silly, going bit by bit in different colours, but considering the machine's graphical limitations, it's quite understandable. I couldn't get as far in the DOS version, mostly due to the bad DOSbox compatibility, but judging by the first colour upgrade, it looks like it follows more of the original's colouring method. On the AMSTRAD, I couldn't even get the first cauldron filled, and I couldn't find a video of it being played far enough from YouTube, so hopefully you'll forgive the low score it's bound to get. The AMIGA and ATARI ST versions look the same, so there's only one of them included in the collage above.

Random enemies from various versions.
Some enemies look different in different versions, mostly due to each computer's graphical capabilities, but some of their behaviours have been modified as well, so I can't really comment on that properly. I can only say that each line-up of enemies represent their versions as well as they can, and don't really have anything to debate over in terms of graphics. To each is their own. Here's a badly arranged collage of a bunch of enemies from all the versions, see if you can guess which are from which.

Another graphical element we need to adress is the Wizball's death effect. The original death on the C64 sounds and looks sort of like glass shattering all over, which makes a nice mess. In the DOS version, you do get a disintegration effect, but you can clearly see that the Wizball remains throughout this animation in clear form, even in separated pixels. It's silly and funny, but I'm not sure it fits the game's overall atmosphere. The SPECTRUM version is horribly boring, the Wizball only turns red before respawning. Actually, it's kind of funny, because you get the whole set of traffic lights with the yellow Wizball when you get the invincibility mode. But still, lazy graphician. Death on the AMSTRAD isn't all that much better - you get a very quick pacmanesque animation and then you respawn, there's no ceremony to a loss of life. On the AMIGA and ATARI, Wizball's death looks like something, but it's just a bit too unceremonious for my taste as well - you only get a growing pixelation of the screen when going out and coming back in, when you respawn.

Wizball's death scenes. Top row: C64, DOS, Spectrum.
Bottom row: Amstrad and Amiga/ST.

I realize there's some level design differences in all versions, but most of them are just matters of opinion and practice. The game is so out of this world anyway, so I can't really comment on the graphic style of any version, when it comes to the level designs. However, I still have one more thing to comment on and compare: the Wizard's hut.

Wizard's hut comparison. Top row, left to right: C64, DOS, Spectrum
Bottom row: Amiga/ST and Amstrad.
So, because I couldn't get that far in every version, I had to resort to copying an image from another website, and I'm grateful for a website called CPC Softs for this one screenshot. If this bothers anyone, I'll make a new collage without the Amstrad, because I can't be bothered to try the damn thing again. Anyway, in colour, it looks the closest to the original, but seems to be missing the cat, even though the Catellite is parked at its corresponding parking meter. Also, the hole from the roof is missing. The DOS version has everything in order, except the colours, and instead of reading "select permanent weapon" it says "select your weapon". The SPECTRUM version of the Wizard's hut is a very two-dimensional space, with no visible back wall, and even the two balls are missing. A dumber player might not have the intellectual capability to connect the two together, if it wasn't clearly there to see. And of course, the 16-bit versions have it all just as pretty as it possibly could be. Sure, it looks good, but it also takes a bit of mystique away from the character and the world as it has too much detail. This is the only part of the game, where the overexposed title bar isn't all that much different from the rest of the screen, and it might've been the coder's intention that the colours would compliment themselves when the game was completed... what do you think? I can't say for sure, but now, everything seems more natural.

Now, I mentioned earlier about the loading screens and title screens. Since writing everything above, I've come to learn that the Atari version was made before the Amiga version, and it actually shows in one bit in particular: the ATARI version has an additional animation sequence, where the wizard sends Wizball off into the dark world. This bit is not included in the Amiga version. Also, the title screen effects are more effective in the Atari version, so I'll have to give it some headway. Other than having that awfully bright title tag during the game, the 16-bits get an easy win from the graphics section.

I almost forgot to go through the different startup and menu screens, so I'll put it here, even though it's going to look a bit amateurish. Then again, who said I'm a professional?

Basically, the menu screen is what you might think of as the proper start-up screen, because that's where you select your options before heading off into the action. It's just not that simple with this game. The C64 original actually starts off with the high score table, and you enter the play mode selection screen by pushing the joystick in some direction. If you push the button, you'll start off the game straight on in a single-player mode. If you manage to top the high scores, you can leave a brief message along with your initials. The DOS, AMIGA and ATARI versions start off with the title screen, already seen in the loading screens section, but by pushing the designated fire button, you enter the menu screen, which only has the play mode selection in the two similar ones, and the DOS version has additionally some control options and sound toggle. The two 8-bits left are the only ones to have some sort of picture in the start-up screen, but the AMSTRAD doesn't have a menu - instead we get this strange picture depicting some of the visuals from the game, but in a squeezed manner. Otherwise, it's just "push button to play". The SPECTRUM at least has control options, and more expectable graphics in the title logo and two huge Wizballs facing each other. The cheapness of the two weaker 8-bit versions are shown also in a lack of a proper high score table: there's only the top score that's seen at the top of the game screen. When it's game over, that's it - you either go back to the main title screen or restart the game.

A final note before getting into the scores: Spectrum has no end-level congratulations scrollers, but you'll notice when you get the levels completed when the next level opens up and you're transported straight into it, as it does in all the other versions as well after the end-level scrollers. Naturally, I can not say, whether or not the Amstrad version has the same problem. But let's see the scores:

3. C64
4. DOS



Again, let's start with the original. The C64 has for long been known as the retro machine of choice, if you want to have some great sounds. Wizball is one of the reasons for the C64 to gain this reputation. Martin Galway's immortal soundtrack, featuring a very electric guitaresque virtual instrument playing the main melody in the title theme (not to mention the brilliant game over ditty), accompanied by amazing, spacey arpeggios and phasing effects, is still regarded as one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever made. The high score tune only compliments the highly hypnotic title theme by being a completely different beast altogether - there we get to hear a nicely elaborate bossanova tune with a weird sci-fi feel to it. The sound effects aren't any less memorable, though: the game has a strange and constant cosmic atmosphere noise all the time, so we don't need any music, unless we're clearly threatened by some more than normally dangerous enemy. The bonus stage has this groovy melody that well could've begun its life as a bass guitar solo, and after you've played it once, it changes into a more spacey indescribable piece of music. All the noises from laser shooting, level transferences, enemies dying, collecting pearls, activating ability upgrades, etc. are instantly recognizable as effects from the C64 version of Wizball, although you'd be hard-pressed to actually describe them in words. The whole soundscape is such a mesmerizing place to be, that it feels like a home in another galaxy, and I can't praise it high enough. The NTSC soundtrack plays a bit slower, though, so the PAL version is more recommended.

So, the 16-bits have a really tough job at hand to try and beat the original. The two share the same title tune, but the AMIGA has a bit slower and more orchestrated version of it, but it's a slightly unfitting rock tune in a minor key, which feels strange in a game like this - it could've been better in some sort of platformer. Strangely, the Get Ready ditty is the same as the Game Over ditty, which is unfittingly cheerful and kind of nagging. One other tune I could find from the game, which sounds like a strange variation on the main title theme, and it plays during the bonus round. As for the sound effects, I already mentioned the shooting, which sounds like shooting a handgun, and most of the other sound effects sound kind of wrong to my ear. Only the drop sounds a bit like a waterdrop dripping. There's some nice effects in the wizard's hut scene, but that doesn't help much, when most of the other sounds are wrong, or worse, taken entirely away.

The ATARI version, with its default setting, works strangely well even with the same tunes what the Amiga has. The tunes sound less bulky, or more characteristic, and there's more sound effects in the game that actually sound more fitting for Wizball. There's some nice laser sound effects, explosions, badly imitated cat meowing, and best of all, a good spacey atmosphere sound. Still, not as good as the original, but close enough to be almost enjoyable.

Originally, I had a paragraph here about the SPECTRUM version having not much sounds at all, but Alessandro Grussu kindly corrected me on this issue. Well, I was correct as far as the 48k version went, having only a few bips and bops, but the 128k version is indeed a very different beast. Although it does not have quite as much atmosphere as the best of them, I have to commend the 128k Spectrum version for its nice tunes. It's not quite as epic as the original - feels more like a Japanese NES title, actually, but I do like it more than the 16-bit soundtracks. However, as there are less sound effects than the 16-bits, or more particularly, the original, I can not with good conscience rank it up quite as good as the Atari ST version.

Surprisingly, the DOS version, although suffering from a similar problem as the 48k Spectrum for having only a PC beeper for sound outlet, makes up its lack of quality with some quantity and variety. There's still no music, but there's at least some more easily identifiable spurts, beeps and whatnots.

The AMSTRAD doesn't have much difference to the DOS version - a similar amount of sound effects and no music whatsoever, of what I could find. It's only a matter of opinion, which do you prefer, the DOS or the Amstrad, and in this case, I prefer the DOS for some reason.

1. C64
3. SPECTRUM 128k
5. DOS



Even though the traditional overall points counting method is purely mathematical, the final scores for once represent the view of the majority. My personal beliefs, however, dictate that playability is more important than graphics, so the C64 wins with that. But still, it's not exactly as clear as that, right? It could be argued, that the Spectrum version can become more playable than the Amiga version with a lot of practice, but the Amiga version can't get better due to it's sloppy coding. The DOS version, as well, could have something going for it, had it been possible to play it properly with modern machines. I think we all agree, however, that the Amstrad version deserves its spot.

1. C64: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 7 = TOTAL 16
2. ATARI ST: Playability 4, Graphics 6, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 16
3. AMIGA: Playability 3, Graphics 5, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
4. SPECTRUM 128k: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 9
5. DOS: Playability 2, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 8
6. SPECTRUM 48k: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
7. AMSTRAD: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 4

Although Wizball will probably always be the one most fondly remembered by C64 players from Sensible's catalogue, they did have quite a few brilliant hit games after its release. First of them was Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit, one of the earliest and best game creation systems that didn't require any coding experience from users. Due to the limitations of the software, it has been a bit criticized
afterwards, but has a very creative fanbase still in 2013. In 1988, Martin Galway would officially join Sensible Software, and their first game as a threesome would be Microprose Soccer later that year. When Galway left Sensible and joined Origin, the twosome switched over to the 16-bits and created more hit games, such as Mega Lo Mania, Wizkid (the sequel to Wizball), the Sensible Soccer series and the Cannon Fodder games. At the turn of the millennia, Sensible Software was sold to Codemasters, and their story turned to continue in different forms.

Thanks for reading! Comments, corrections and suggestions are as welcome as ever!


  1. Your efforts are excellent!

  2. Thanks for the comments! I just noticed, the Atari ST loading time was wrong, so that's updated now, not that it matters all that much... but I know some people might be a bit picky about details. =)

  3. About the Spectrum version, you are mistaken: if you load Wizball in 128K you've got AY music and sound effects. And very good they are too!
    I'd rather give it 3 for playability and graphics, and 4 for sounds.

  4. I tried loading it in 128K mode, but I only got the same 48K beeper sounds - perhaps I used the wrong version then? I'll take another look later and correct this issue. Conserning playability, it's really a matter of what you're used to, although I have to compare it to the original, so I'm not going to edit that.

  5. Sounds and Overall sections now updated with thanks to Alessandro.

  6. Well, there is a simple type-in listing available for the A8 (in ML) that is very similar to Wizball: Zauberball (german for Wizball) by Oliver Cyranka. Nowhere near as good as the commercial game, but as said before, a type-in listing for free:

    1. Thanks, I'll put it on my list of updates and take a look at it when I find the time for it. =)