Cardboard Children – Screwball Scramble

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.

29 Comments

  1. SecondDimension says:

    Loved reading this. I’d forgotten, but I had this around 24 years ago, and as soon as I saw that picture I remembered every moment of it. It was those bars that did it for me. They started many a tantrum

  2. BooleanBob says:

    Completely forgotten this existed, but seeing that picture brought an almost violent reaction. See those children smiling? The wonders of photoshop. Nobody smiles while they’re playing Screwball Scramble.

    Not sure I ever completed it all in one go as a nipper. I can still feel the rising frustration with those sodding bars! And don’t get me started on the hoppers!

    • Spacewalk says:

      Ooh those fucking hoppers that shit can fuck. Right. Off.

      I can’t even see a ball in that photo and I refuse to believe that they’re up to the maze. No wonder they’re smiling.

      • iainl says:

        The kid’s hand is on the Hammer control. So logically, the ball is out of sight, in its bucket. To have made it that far? No wonder they’re smiling.

    • Nice Save says:

      To be fair, the kid on the right is clearly grimacing, the one in the middle has just been told to show more teeth, I said smile dammit, and the one on the left, oh, don’t even get me started on him.

  3. Herbal Space Program says:

    Nice read, I still have fond memories of this game, even 20 years after.
    Oh, and I cheated by the way, I removed the top cover of the maze, you can’t be mad at me: it’s christmas.

    • LexW1 says:

      Fondly? Goodness, I certainly remember it, but with a pall of boredom and disgust (unlike many games of the era).

      Seemed like everyone had it when I was little, and virtually everyone (except those newly introduced to it) rather hated it. We’d probably have hated it even more with that weird little hoop though!

  4. dodgeblan says:

    I’ve been reading RPS at work for about 6 months now and I had to create an account JUST FOR THIS ARTICLE.

    When I was a kid my parents bought me a ton of these wacky ball-thru-a-maze games. Maybe they bought them because I loved video games too much, and they thought these video game-like things would entice me off the computer. And when I say they bought me a ton I can remember at least 3 different ones. One was Sonic themed.

    Screwball Scramble was always the king. As this article points out it’s so well paced. The ramps are the introduction to our shiny metallic hero. The rails are their brutal humbling. The jumps and maze are the ongoing struggle, followed by the joyous spaceship ride of triumph. The catapult is the satisfying denouement.

    Screwball Scramble is the Citizen Kane of little ball games.

    • Spacewalk says:

      If SS is the Citizen Kane then what does that make Fireball Island?

    • bishmanrock says:

      Was the Sonic one a verticle one? Because that was pretty sweet too, if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t).

  5. dodgeblan says:

    screwball scramble SEQUENCE BREAKING

    • Sin Vega says:

      Cheater! That board doesn’t have the hoop set up, and the ball would clearly have bounced off it. Minus 76 points.

      You could skip from the bottom hopper to the top one, though. I did it many times, in my former position as history’s greatest monster.

      • PoisonedAl says:

        That’s the version I remember having. I never remembered a hoop on it. Maybe it got lost but I have a feeling the early versions never had a hoop and it was added to stop people skipping the hoppers like that guy did.

    • Herbal Space Program says:

      Holy ****! Now I feel the need to speedrun this game.

  6. thekelvingreen says:

    The Maze would often become detached and be found amongst other toys. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to a market or boot sale and have spotted The Maze sitting amongst some broken HeroQuest miniatures or a box of Lego or a bundle of Action Force figures.

  7. KDR_11k says:

    I had a cheap copy of that game from a damaged goods store, some parts didn’t work but it was still fascinating.

  8. Chicanery says:

    I’d been thinking of this game lately. I don’t know why, but it’s been on my mind. Glad to see it’s not just me.

  9. JiminyJickers says:

    Haha, I love this game. Used to play it to death when I was younger. Speedrun!

  10. epmode says:

    I haven’t thought about this thing in at least two decades. I love this article.

  11. JB says:

    I too have very fond memories of Screwball Scramble. I’m now wondering if it’s still in my Dad’s loft or if I brought it with me when I moved out. I was a very lucky young man and also had Aaaarghh! link to img1.etsystatic.com (Known as Tricky Traps some places) and also Yeeaghh! link to i179.photobucket.com Both were just as frustrating and fun as SS. Good times! Also, while I was up in the loft getting down the Christmas decorations recently, I dug these out link to i.imgur.com I just need to give the battery terminals on SkyFighters a clean, the rest of them are still working. It’s like it’s 1984 all over again =D

  12. animator_pinball_fan says:

    I had this same feeling a few months ago. And then I discovered Perplexus! I can’t stop playing it and it’s not just nostalgia. Seriously, if you haven’t tried Perplexus yet, it’s like Screwball Scramble on steroids. And it looks great on your desk.

  13. Synesthesia says:

    I had this! I was decent at it! There were other ball labyrinths like this. There was a King Kong themed one that was amazing. KONG MAN!

    Found it! I also had this one.

    link to youtube.com

    oh my god, i think i still have them. I’ll look for them at my parent’s house today. Will update.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Godwhacker says:

    Merry Christmas Rab, and keep up the fabulous writing

  15. Emeraude says:

    Lovely piece.

  16. jrodman says:

    I do believe that I received this game as a Christmas present from “Santa” (aka my mom) in approximately 1984.

    I believe I adored it for at least a full two weeks.

    Those hoppers were mostly luck though.

  17. JuergenDurden says:

    I love this article except for one glaring mistake: the game itself is called “tricky golf”. This one seems bizarro to me, am I in a different dimension?

    • emertonom says:

      As with many Tomy products, this one appeared under various names at different times and locations. My particular copy was titled “Run Yourself Ragged,” which always struck me as an oddly unappealing name, but not exactly out of keeping with the frustrating nature of the game itself. It also didn’t make quite as good use of color as this copy.

      I love all these Tomy wind-up games, though. I particularly liked the “Pocket Arcade” line, which were like wind-up versions of video games–“Desert Race,” “Torpedo Terror,” all those guys. One of the things I want to do once I finally learn enough CAD to produce 3d printed parts is figure out a way to produce a version of Terry Cavanagh’s “Hexagon” in this form, as I think that’d be an awesome retro artifact, and that particular game rather lends itself to this kind of adaptation.