Monday, 20 April 2015

Scumball (Mastertronic/Bulldog Software, 1988)

Produced for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 by Software Creations.

Written by Peter Gough for the ZX Spectrum.

Converted for the Commodore 64 by Martin Howarth, with graphics by Tiny and music by Tim Follin.



For RESET magazine's sixth issue's Format Wars article, I had chosen to write about budget game publisher Mastertronic's final release under the Bulldog sub-label - Scumball. At least in my mind, it has to be one of the most memorable budget titles of all time, and I'm sure it is so to many others as well. Although clearly a cousin to Ultimate's Underwurlde from 1984 and Bubble Bus' Starquake from 1985, Scumball was more accessible due to the initially much lighter price tag and a more easily memorizable map. At the time of release, Crash gave the Spectrum version a very respectable 81%, and shortly after, Zzap!64 gave the C64 version 79%, so that alone should make you expect a rather tight comparison.

At the time of editing this entry into blog form, the Spectrum version has a score of 7.53 from 32 votes at World of Spectrum, and the C64 version has been given a 7.2 by 26 Lemon64 voters. Perhaps it's not the most popular game of all time, but I think it's a fine farewell to a fine budget sub-label.



As suggested by the other comparable game examples, Scumball is another one of those flip-screen action platformers in an immense maze-like environment. You control an android named L.I.N.D.A. (the Laser Incorporated Nasties Disposal Android) through a maze of sewers, shooting an assortment of all sorts of little nasties. These nasties are headed by a monstrous green slime creature, who likes to keep to himself in a certain corner of the map. Your ultimate mission is to kill the green slime monster with eight grenades that are scattered around the maze, but you can only carry one grenade at a time, so you've got a fairly time consuming job ahead of you.

Your android has a reasonably tough shield, but considering the amount of work you have, the amount of damage you can withstand while at it is relatively small. The shield can be recharged at the
designated charging stations, or by collecting spare batteries. Falling into water will kill your android immediately, however, as will collision with a flying spike pod. Happily, the sewer maze is inundated with other helpful items as well, such as laser refill packs and invulnerability shields, so you will be given a fair chance at completing your mission.

At the end of the game, your performance is reviewed and given to you in a report. The end results will depend on your shooting accuracy, time spent on the mission, times you have died and the number of collected extra lives. You can also view a status report during the game with the Report button, which also pauses the game.

Whatever your success of performance with the mission is at the end, it is a nice feeling of achievement when you actually get through the game. It is one of the rare titles of this kind that I have managed to beat fair and square, and I still come back to it often enough. Still, it's an above average game at best, and your enjoyment mostly will depend on your preference to the skill level required from each version, as well as the soundtrack that you are more likely willing to listen to for more than a few runs.



For a change, we have some sort of a believable excuse not to skip this section, because Scumball was only released on tape for both machines. In addition to that, the loading itself is drastically different for each version. Anyway, here are the loading times:

ZX SPECTRUM - 5 minutes 14 seconds
COMMODORE 64 - 2 minutes 31 seconds

Loading screen from the ZX Spectrum version (left) and Invade-a-Load! from the Commodore 64 loader (right).

So the C64 has a strong starting point. It doesn't have a proper loading screen, but instead you can play a version of Space Invaders - it's Richard Aplin's Invade-a-Load, which was often used for Mastertronic (and its sub-labels') games at the time. It is a rather playable version of the game, so it's a very good option for a normal loading screen. That said, the original loading screen is very nice, and I do think at least the original version of any game should have one if possible. But hey, each to their own.



Scumball is relatively simple in terms of controls. You can only go left or right or jump. Down is not an option. LINDA's jump is by default a fairly high one - three full platforms high. LINDA can also shoot some sort of projectiles, which look nothing like Laser, which it is supposed to be, although I do have a theory about this one, which I will get back to later on. The projectiles are able to destroy any other sort of nasty creature, except for the giant white spiders and the great green slime monster. Then there's that key that you push when you want to see a report of your current progress, but that has too little to do with the game itself for me to dwell on it.

To be brutally honest, Scumball is not a particularly well designed or programmed game. Controlling LINDA is easy enough and will become a part of your DNA in no time, but it's the collision detection, particularly with some of the platforms, that never quite reached my required standards. You see, there are some of these trapezium-shaped platforms with the narrow side down, that would clearly leave some space for you to jump below from. But no. All the platforms are strictly squares or rectangles in terms of collision areas, but are only stylized to make them look like there's more room for error than there really is. This is exactly the sort of little thing that makes my blood boil.

Another well known point of irritation in the game is that room that you shouldn't go down from, which is number 118, but who would ever remember that unless you had a good number of hours behind you with the game? Yes, the room below 118 brings an inescapable Game Over.

But it has to be said that Scumball also has some very good points to it as well, the most particular one being that it never really feels too difficult. Once you find the slime monster's "lair", and figure out a good pattern to relatively safe adventuring around the underground maze, the game becomes dangerously addicting. Of course, I wouldn't be writing this comparison if there were not some important differences between the two versions.

There is a sense of difference in difficulty in the two versions, for various reasons. For one, there are some screens in the game that are re-designed for the C64, very likely simply for the reason of making the game easier. Secondly, the C64 version offers collectable extra lives - the Spectrum version doesn't. In both versions, you will come across these diagonally moving mines of sorts; on the Spectrum, they kill you instantly, while on the C64, they will drain your energy much like any other enemy. Then again, the green tentacle things that grow on the floor in random places and wiggle around, drain your energy quicker on the C64, and some of those watery platforms don't work in all places as they should, and will kill you instantly, so there is a different sort of balance in both games.

I'm sure I missed a few details there, but I think that's enough to come to the conclusion, that each version has its merits in playability. If we were to over-simplify it, the C64 version would be the light mode and the Spectrum version would be the heavy mode. I prefer the C64 version, because I don't need to focus on it that intensely, but I can understand if someone preferred the original. So I'll give them a tied place.




For a long time, I never really took the time to really see the differences in the two versions, mainly because I didn't have to, even though I have played both versions quite a lot across the years. For the most part, the two versions do have a very similar look.

Title screens and exclusive bits for ZX Spectrum (left) and Commodore 64 (right).

It is clear throughout the game that the C64 version is graphically a very straight port of the Spectrum original in many ways, but when it comes to the special effects in the game, most of them didn't make it onto the C64. You can already see this on the title screen: the original has a title logo that flashes red, blue and yellow, while the conversion only has a simplified yellow Scumball plaque. The Spectrum version is more colourful in this case anyway, which is not something you can say very often. However, the title screen already tells you of some difference between the two versions - the C64 has a high scores table, which the SPECTRUM version is missing... if it is of any use to anyone. Then again, the Spectrum version boots the game up straight to the control defining screen, which the C64 version doesn't have.

Recharging screens from ZX Spectrum (left) and Commodore 64 (right).

When you start the game, you get a brief "get ready" sort of a screen, in which LINDA is being charged up. Again, the original text is more flashily animated, and feels more colourful than the one in the conversion. Also, the charging animation is a bit different: the white cylinder at the top of the charging contraption circles around, which is indicated by a black line going around; and the left thing going to LINDA's back flashes through the Spectrum's palette. On the C64, the cylinder is rolling a bit quicker, but is the same colour as the pipes connecting LINDA to the machine, and both of the things going into LINDA's head flash through the C64's colours. But you'd really have to be a nihilist or something to think this actually has any worth or meaning in the end. Really, the fonts in use and the natural palette of each machine are more interesting.

Location graphics comparison. Top row: ZX Spectrum. Bottom row: Commodore 64.

Here we have a couple of locations to compare, the other one being one of those that I mentioned earlier to be slightly differently designed in both versions. Other than the obvious, you can't really notice anything particularly noteworthy here - the colouring is similar enough, with obvious differences in palette, and everything that are supposed to be in their right places, are, with the obvious exceptions. Noteworthy about the great green Slime Monster is, that the SPECTRUM version of him is animated to move his lower lip on the Spectrum, while on the C64 he doesn't do anything, and while on the Spectrum, his eyes are yellow, the C64 monster's eyes are as green as the rest of his body.

Colour clash on the Spectrum (left) versus no clash on the Commodore 64 (right). Description below.

Here you see a power charger block, on which LINDA can recharge. The only difference there was the slight flickering on the Spectrum, which made taking a good screenshot a bit more difficult, but in action, it doesn't really bother. Also, there's that item inside the red 'S' box, which features the inevitable clash of attributes, making it next to impossible to decipher what the item within the 'S' box is. On the C64, there is no problem of showing items of two different colours simultaneously in the same space.

Collectables and enemies. Top row: ZX Spectrum. Bottom row: Commodore 64.

Something that the C64 users can boast of here are the differently coloured collectables, and particularly the extra life collectable, which isn't available on the Spectrum. All the items on the Spectrum are white, which of course is necessitated by the attribute clash thing, so because LINDA is white as well, you will have as little of clashiness as possible.

By contrast, the killer mines (second from the right) look better on the SPECTRUM due to the colour flash effect. On the C64, you can't really tell the killer mines apart from all the other monsters at first, since they're just white, but then again, they don't instantly kill you on the C64 anyway. Also, the green tentacle thingies flash cyan on the Spectrum, while on the C64, they are just green.

I don't think we really need to take a further look into all the details, because it just doesn't serve a purpose. Although the graphics are very similar in basics, the special effects earn the original version an easy win here.




This is going to be a ridiculously short one. The Spectrum crowd might have a say about this, but a relatively short (1 minute and 10 seconds) but sweet Tim Follin tune on repeat is infinitely better than an array of really farty sound effects that are indiscernible from each other for the most part. An option would be nice, but neither version offers one. So I can only declare a win for the C64 on this one. I suppose there could be some people out there who listen to random blurping for hours on end just for entertainment, and this is just my opinion, but I seriously hope I'm of a vast majority with this. Otherwise, my belief in humanity will be lost.




Personally, I grew up with the C64 version of Scumball, so I might be a bit biased towards it. But seeing as the game isn't too much different from each other on either machine, you are only left to choose between visual effects over a brilliant soundtrack, and also between easy mode and hard mode. If we take loading out of the equation, like it has been done for quite a long time now, we'll get a tied score. If, however, we choose to give an extra credit for being able to play a Space Invaders clone for a short time while waiting for the game to load, the C64 version wins by a hair's width, but I have always thought a game should have a proper loading screen. It's really a personal choice.

ZX SPECTRUM - 2, COMMODORE 64 - 2 (or 3, if the loading bit is taken into account.)

Considering Scumball was basically a good, cheap clone of full price titles Underwurlde and Starquake, you certainly got your money's worth for two quid. Once you get to know the map, on a good day you might easily complete it under 15 minutes. Once you complete it, though, it will not likely hold much reason to play it very often in the future, unless you're hell bent on achieving the highest rating possible.

Screenshot from the PC remake by Paul Jenkinson.
For those of you, who wish for a slightly more advanced version of Scumball, Paul Jenkinson made a PC remake of it in 2002. Instead of a flip-screener, the game is now a 4-way scroller, and features enhanced music and graphics, which are mostly very pleasing and not overdone, and I do recommend it for all of you who enjoyed the original. There is also an unofficial, and frankly a bit cheap sequel for the Spectrum, which takes less than 16k of RAM, and looks more like a Cybernoid clone, so I wouldn't expect too much of it, but at least it's a nice piece of evidence that the original game is sort of well remembered.

That's it for now, hope you enjoyed it! Remember to visit the RESET magazine website as well! See you next time with some more blog-exclusive material. Comments, suggestions and corrections are still welcome!

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