Retro Game Review: Wizball (Commodore 64)

Wizball, first released in 1987 by Manchester-based Ocean Software, is arguably one of the strangest shoot-em-ups ever to have been released for the Commodore 64. Developed by Sensible Software, it added so many new elements to the basic side-scrolling shoot-em-up concept that they almost managed to create a brand new game genre and one that’s never really been replicated since.

The plot itself is unlike your typical shoot-em-up and manages to avoid the “alien race attempts to invade Earth” scenario. Something terrible has happened – all of the colour has been drained from the world. It’s your wizard’s job (accompanied by his faithful cat) to restore said colour and eliminate all the creatures that are out to stop you. To do this, you have transformed yourself into a ball (or sprout depending on your viewpoint!) and it’s your job to move around the levels, destroying creatures with a range of weaponry, and collecting droplets of colour that you can take back to your lab ready to reinfuse into the landscape!

Controls are fairly complex and difficult to master, although relatively easy to pick up. At first, your ball is bouncing all over the screen and you have very little control over your inertia. Controls are limited to moving left and right, altering the rotational speed of your ball which then bounces across the landscape in the corresponding direction. However, take out a couple of creatures and you’ll get enough powerups to allow you to gain extended and then full control of your movements. You can then work towards enhancing your firepower and eventually activating your cat!

Your cat follows you around in a smaller green ball (a pea, perhaps?!) firing his own weapon but it’s his job to collect the droplets of colour needed to repaint each level. Droplets can only be picked up once they have been freed from the corresponding coloured blobs that appear on screen (shoot a red blob and a red drop of paint appears). Every so often other coloured drops appear giving bonuses or triggereit unwanted effects.

The game is controlled with the joystick and a single fire button to use all your weapons and to activate any powerups you just wiggle the joystick for a second or two (although early on in the game all of these are lost when you lose a life!). Most of the time, your cat will follow you around, shooting when you do, but when it comes to collecting the droplets of colour, only the cat can do it and here’s where the innovative control comes in…

If you hold down the fire button, you can control the cat independently of the ball and he can then go off and collect as many colour drops as you can. Once you have collected enough droplets of a chosen colour (or of several to allow you to mix them) you are transported to the lab via a psychedelic bonus level where the colour is added to the landscape, you get a bonus added to your score and you can select one of your weapons to be a permanent add on.

There are a number of game modes on offer with single and multiplayer games. Up to four people can play either individually (taking turns between lives) or as a team with one player controlling the wizard, the other controlling the cat.

While the gameplay itself is incredibly simple, it’s orginality makes it one of the most playable and addictive shoot-em-ups ever released on any platform. It’s no wonder that people are still talking about this game so fondly so long after it was first released. The game is just so compulsive you find yourself always wanting just one more go and before you realise it, you will have spent hours playing it!

The graphics in Wizball are well animated, well defined and are generally easy on the eye. As you start off, the backdrops look rather bland while they are in various shades of grey, but as you progress and the colour is added, they soon come to life in an explosion of colour.

Sound is easily the strongest aspect of this game with all the music and sound effects being provided by the legendary Martin Galway. The game kicks of with a stunning title track, superb in game sound effects (albeit without music), and a light, but still fabulous hi-score track. The in-game effects are full of wonderful effects of shattering glass, echoes, and a constant warbling ambient background noise that adds so much atmosphere to the game. The highlight for me – and something that Wizball is always remembered fondly for – is for the remarkable guitar solo that plays when you have lost all your lives. How Martin Galway managed to get these sounds out of the C64 without using samples I don’t know!

The game was released on the Spectrum as well (although I can’t understand why with the system’s colour handling capabilities!) and eventually the game was converted across to the Atari ST and then to the Amiga, but neither of the 16-bit incarnations managed to retain the feel and charm of the original. With its vastly inferior sound and poor scrolling, the Atari ST version paled into insignificance in comparison with the C64 and when the Amiga version was released, Ocean decided to port the game straight from the ST rather than writing it specifically for the Amiga. All of the drawbacks from the Atari ST version were still present and Amiga owners expected and deserved more than a 16-colour low-res game with poor scrolling and sprite handling.

This is probably my personal all-time favourite game for the C64 and I would have to say that it is probably the best C64 title ever released. It’s not technically stunning, but it is incredibly playable and will always have you coming back for one more go. Even now, over 30 years after it was first released, I choose to play this more than I play most modern games on all the other platforms I own.

An essential game for anyone who still has a working C64 and one of the true all-time gaming greats. It just goes to prove that even though the C64 hardware is over 35 years old, it still has software that can compete with contemporary games. Simply remarkable.

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