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Cardboard Children - Screwball Scramble

Life.

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Hello youse, and Merry Christmas! At dinner, just the other night, the TOMY action game Screwball Scramble was brought out as a post-coffee treat. And a treat is exactly what it was. This wasn’t a board gamer’s house, and everyone in attendance was an adult. I played it while beautiful people watched, and it felt like something very real.

SCREWBALL SCRAMBLE

Screwball Scramble is a dexterity action game where players have to guide a steel ball through a set of obstacles to reach a goal. It’s a feat performed against a timer, but in the initial plays the challenge will be in completing the course at all. You are at the mercy of moulded plastic and your own frustration.

The first challenge is a set of tilting platforms, controlled with one button, where your ball has to be eased from one to the other in a steady flow. It’s not actually a difficult thing to do. One button press rocks the platforms into one position, and the release of the button rocks them back. This undulation can carry the steel ball easily, if you just time it right and play it gently. But with eyes watching you and a timer running, it’s far more of a struggle than you’d expect. And as with many of this game’s obstacles – the more tense you are, the more difficult it is to control the carriage of your ball.

Once past these platforms, your ball meets a little podium where you can swing a little magnetic crane around to pick it up. Failure at this point is rare – in fact, it feels like a nice moment of pacing in the drama of the game. The feel and the visual of the little crane picking up your ball is very pleasant, and it’s the perfect tonic after the anxiety of those rocking platforms.

But then you’re onto the steel rails, and you’re back in Hell. The steel rails can be manipulated apart and towards each other, to carry the ball along the length of the track they make. Separate the rails too much and the ball will fall. Keep them too close together and the ball won’t move. It’s an absolute bastard of a thing. There’s something deeply unsettling about seeing your ball fall through those rails, particularly when it’s falling because you let it. This coming together and drifting apart, this closeness and then the lending of space, this is the dance that sees adult relationships succeed or fail. There is much to feel in Screwball Scramble.

Onwards onto the little tray, which must be rocked and tilted so that the ball can pass by a scattering of studs. Another easy task, designed to give the player a breather before the hoppers.

The hoppers. The ball sits on the lowest platform, and a tap of a button pops the ball up onto the next. And on the player must go, tapping the button so that the ball hops up and up and up. And the feel of that button is crucial. You know – I can feel it right now, in my mind’s eye, the muscle memory of exactly how hard I should tap that button. Not quite that much, but that much. Yes, that much. No harder than that. And then something goes wrong. You didn’t tap hard enough, and the ball doesn’t fly. You go harder, but your measure is off now, and the ball flips out. This section is all about that memory of how hard that button needs tapped – and if you have no memory of it, it’s about quickly finding just how much force you should be using and sticking with it. Forever.

(It stands to reason that different editions of Screwball Scramble might call for different amounts of force and different subtleties of touch on the game’s controls. It’s something that might be worth testing, if anyone out there has different sets.)

The final leap of the hopper is through a hoop. And it’s easy to rattle off the hoop itself and out of the game. Players often pause for a moment before this leap, because for some reason this little move feels much more in the lap of the gods than most.

Once through the hoop, the ball is in the maze. The maze is an enclosed route, with one junction leading to a dead end. The maze is tilted to and fro so that the ball can carry through, and then the player has to make sure the ball doesn’t go all the way into the dead end and have to be tilted back out of there. There is no danger in this section other than the loss of time that can result from a ball being drawn into the dead end. It happens more often than you’d expect.

Waiting outside the maze is a little ferry that will carry the ball towards the Hammer. The Hammer is the final moment of this game, the last little bit of drama in this story. The ball sits in the hammer’s head, and then the player has to strike a button to send the hammer swinging. A clean, measured strike will fire the ball down onto the finish bell, calling a halt to the timer. But a too-soft strike will not allow the hammer to fall. And a too-strong strike could bounce the ball right out of the game or — and this is an absolute worst case scenario — straight off the table.

The bell rings. Like at the end of a boxing match. Like at the end of a battle.

I had Screwball Scramble when I was ten years old. I don’t understand how I can be 38 years old. I don’t understand how I can be 28 years later and still 10 years old. I don’t understand how I can still be distracted by toys when my life is dark and heavy with adult puzzles. In what direction am I supposed to be tilting? Is someone timing this? Is anyone watching? Is everyone watching?

I don’t know how heavy my touch should be. How gentle. How hard.

I’m trying my best.

I don’t want to fall.

Merry Christmas.

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