From rather an unpromising beginning, towards the end of the shelf life of the BBC series machines, Blue Ribbon software really became the King of the budget title. This is not so because it produced high quality games of its own though. The majority of its better releases had already been outed by Superior as full-blown £9.95 titles and were picked up by Blue Ribbon to be re-released when they had finished bumming around the charts. Blue Ribbon did produce a few of its own games from scratch though, and Screwball is one of them.
Considering Blue Ribbon titles were so cheap, and thus all-pervasive on the High Street late-Nineties, the first thing you may wonder is why the game Screwball is conspicuously missing not only from your games collection but also from every mail order list in your back issues of Electron User. One answer to this is that it was never made available on cassette - [At least not for the Electron! - Ed] instead it was one of five titles on the first Blue Ribbon Games Disc.
Now this disc, as with all Acorn Electron disc-based products, is rarer than a Kansas City title. The version here at EUG HQ does in fact have a professional inlay displaying "BBC Master" and an alternative Electron 'sticker' (In reality, it looks like the word has been printed by a dot-matrix onto a disc-label and then cut into a narrow strip) badly disguising this. There is no doubt though that this is a professional release by Blue Ribbon for the Electron with a Plus 3 3.5" ADFS disc drive attached - the games have been specially adapted to work at &1D00 and in some cases they are 'cut-down' Elk, not BBC, versions.
Such is the case with Screwball. It takes a few seconds to load and assemble then the screen is filled with 3D boxes. The idea is a simple variation on the Crazy Er*bert style of game. You move the Screwball character, a red man with a pogo-stick looking body, with the AZ*/ keys and he leaps from square to square changing the colour of it as he lands. In each of the four corners of the grid is one Black Bug, a sort of sombre (and completely unanimated) monster which moves one square in any direction seemingly waiting a random amount of time between moves.
The idea is to navigate the grid and change all the squares to a different colour. A fairly bland top-screen border tells you the time remaining of the minute you have to accomplish this, what level you are on and what your score is. The grid itself is not exactly eye-catching, and appears slowly, but is done in machine code. So too are the characters: your character turns to face the way he is jumping when you press each key. There's a few blips as the baddies and you hop around.
Unfortunately, the whole essence of the game is without any real challenge; actually managing to become tedious before even the first minute of playing it has passed! Notably, it seems to run very slowly on the Electron - the minute you are meant to have to complete the colouring in actually equates to two. This actually had me wondering if it was, although included as part of the Electron compilation, really a BBC only game that had not been converted.
Stick it into your BBC Master (or an Elk with Turbo board) and it plays a lot faster, although still not as quickly as one might have expected.
In both cases however, hopping your Screwball around the board is ridiculously easy and the ludicrous amount of time you are allowed means you can quite literally run circles around all of your arachnoid-looking opponents. As the levels increase, in a rather sad attempt to introduce some variety, the colours are altered (Whoopee) and a few blocks disappear at random. Leaping into a space causes death, as does collision with a bug, but once again the spaces are not particularly difficult to avoid.
If you wish to, you can try and score more points by digging holes in the grid for the bugs to fall into. Doing so belies that the bugs have no artificial intelligence at all - they just move blindly towards you like Zombies!
One more feature is the Hyperspace key (SPACE) which will transport our hero back to the top of the grid. Except that sometimes it doesn't work and he dies instead. Not a bug but actually a feature. When do you need to use it? Well, personally, never. But the author imagines the situation where you are surrounded by bugs and need to escape. My own feeling would be that if you are stupid enough to be in that situation, you deserve to be eaten by them!
Tragically, there is simply nothing more to say about Screwball. It has no loading screen or fancy effects and you know you're really grasping at straws if you find yourself writing about the Pause/Unpause feature in a review.
This is rather surprising in that, although Blue Ribbon's own titles were inferior to the ones they re-inflicted on the world in collaboration with Superior, they did manage to code similar comparable jaunts effectively. Interestingly though, if you browse through how many Blue Ribbon titles were actually available at the time that Games Disc 1 was released, you will find only nine individual cassettes in total were available. Did they discount releasing Screwball because they felt, themselves, that it just couldn't measure up in its current form?
To get five games on each disc later though, they may have needed to pull one more out of a hat. It may just be speculation but the game's poor quality certainly seems explained by such rationale.
Finally, perhaps as a rogue Blue Ribbon title, Screwball will be worth a look, and even a download, to complete the Blue Ribbon 'collection'. However, collectors who have only heard of its existence right now should be rest assured that they haven't missed anything worth seeing.