The topic of today’s article? Smut, plain and simple. The ever-popular combination of sex and violence comes to the ZX Spectrum with Spanish developer Genesis Soft’s 1989 breast-em-up (and that ain’t a Freudian slip) Sabrina!
Here’s Sabrina’s loading screen, and in the interests of keeping the site relatively family-friendly VGJunk’s unofficial site mascot Satan Goat is pulling double duty as a censor bar. I reckon the breasts on the poster in the background are fine because the nipples are just one pixel, but that’s not the case with Sabrina herself. Let’s just say she should probably go up a bra size or two, because she’s spilling out of the one she’s wearing now.
Aside from that, I rather like this title screen. Sure, Sabrina might have the shoulders of a rugby forward, but apart from that it’s pretty good. A nicely detailed face and a background showing a charming Mediterranean town, all captured in black and white so you’re not subjected to the Spectrum’s occasionally retina-searing range of colours.
As well as this… engaging image, Sabrina’s title screen also features some digitised speech! That’s always impressive to hear coming out of a ZX Spectrum. Okay, maybe not always impressive, because I think Sabrina has the worst digitised speech I’ve ever heard in a computer game. I had to listen to it a dozen times before I realised it was saying “Genesis Soft presenta Sabrina,” because it sounds like Stephen Hawking being slowly fed into a rusty woodchipper.
It turns out that the eponymous Sabrina is not a character created for the game and she is, in fact, based on a real person. Specifically, you’re playing as Italian beauty pageant winner turned pop star Sabrina Salerno. As she was an Italian pop star in the mid to late eighties, I’m sure you can imagine the kind of poppy-funky-dancey music she was releasing, and it seems she was mostly famous for the raunchiness of her music videos. I watched a few of them as research for this article, and that was definitely one of the more, ahem, invigorating research sessions I’ve ever done for the site. You probably couldn’t get away with watching them (or doing a Google image search for Sabrina) at work, let’s put it that way. As you can see from the game’s cover, Sabrina also came with a cassette of Sabrina’s music, including her hits “Boys” (sample lyrics: “boy, boys, boys, get ready for my love”) and “Hot Girl,” as well as a cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” I listened to that version of Kiss, too. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Obviously, if you’re making a game about an Italo-disco singer known for her sex appeal, there’s only one possible genre for it: the side-scrolling beat-em-up. Hang on, really? Not some kind of music management sim or even a “make a music video” type thing? I can understand it not being a rhythm-action game, because the Spectrum’s ability to output bearable music is outdone by a squeaky dog toy tied to a pneumatic drill, but a beat-em-up? Oh well, time to start beating people up, I guess.
That’s Sabrina on the left of the screen, (and also twice at the bottom of the screen, which is perpetually emblazoned with the enormous status bar common to Spectrum games,) and she’s ready to move from left to right across a series of single-screen areas. There’s no scrolling backgrounds in this one, folks, just a series of individual screens. When I say “go from left to right,” I mean it, because that’s really all Sabrina can do. She can’t even jump and it does feel weird to be playing a brawler with no jumping in it at all. Just like in real life, I kept trying to do flying kicks when I very much did not have the capacity to pull off flying kicks.
This being a beat-em-up, naturally there are people for Sabrina to, you know, beat up. For the first half of the game, it’s mostly a repeating cycle of these three enemies. There’s a skinny woman on the right and a less-skinny woman on the left, and they’re presumably out to destroy Sabrina in a fit of outraged moral fervour. Just behind Sabrina is a knife-wielding maniac. You’d think he’d be the most dangerous of the three, but all of the enemies attack in the same manner: they walk into Sabrina and drain a bit of her health, while also causing Sabrina to be frozen in place while bright colours flash punishingly around the edge of the screen and a noise that sounds like a robot with diarrhoea not quite making it to the bathroom in time plays.
So, what moves does Sabrina have at her disposal to deal with these threats? Well, she has three attacks. She can slap at head height, she can kick at shin height – and that does look like it would be quite painful – and she can also do this.
That’s right, she can inflate her boobs and use them to batter people into submission. You’d have to pay certain specialist websites cold hard cash to get video footage of that kind of thing, but with Sabrina on the ZX Spectrum you can experience the effect in all it’s blocky, low-colour glory. It’s a move that’s destined to join Haggar’s spinning lariat and Axel’s Grand Upper in the pantheon of all-time classic beat-em-up attacks, I’m sure.
As you move forward, you’ll quickly realise that there’s a rock-paper-scissors – well, rock-paper-boobs, anyway – relationship between Sabrina’s moves and the enemies that are vulnerable to them. For instance, the knifemen can be knocked aside by a single blow from Sabrina’s ample charms, but the women are unfazed by her breasts and must be either kicked or slapped, depending on the type of woman. It’s an interesting take on the usual beat-em-up gameplay, I suppose, and it gives the action the feel of a memory-matching game rather than a brutal slugfest. I did begin to rue the fact that Sabrina’s boobs didn’t work on everyone, though, because they’ve got the greatest range and the fastest activation of all her attacks.
Then there’s the real danger that Sabrina faces during her adventure: high explosives. Most of the screens beyond the first two or three have a cartoon bomb laying on the floor – in the screenshot above, you can see it just in front of the purple door – and if Sabrina doesn’t get over to them quickly enough, they explode. If they do detonate, it’s an instant game over no matter how many lives you have, so obviously getting rid of the bombs is your top priority. To remove them, you have to punt the bomb off the screen by standing near it and using Sabrina’s kick attack – not part of most bomb disposal manuals, but it works for Sabrina as she has absolutely zero compassion for any innocent bystanders that may be harmed when she hoofs ten pounds of semtex at them.
Getting rid of the bombs isn’t as easy as I’ve made it sound, actually. Part of the problem is the position you have to take to kick the bomb: you’d think you’d want to be next to it, so that when Sabrina kicks the animation clearly shows her foot swinging and making contact with the bomb. That is not the case; you have to be standing right on top of it, maybe even slightly beyond it, in order to successfully kick the bloody thing. The is made more difficult by the frequency with which the bombs are placed directly under open windows, windows from which people will drop flowerpots onto Sabrina’s tousled head. Taking damage freezes you in place for what feels like a thousand agonising years, (actually about two seconds,) during which time the bomb’s countdown is still ticking away. This game isn’t exactly portraying Sabrina in the best light, is it? Not when everyone’s out to murder her for some unexplained reason. Maybe they foresaw that she’d end up recording Blondie's “Call Me” as a duet with Sam Fox in 2010 and were desperate to prevent this grim future from coming to pass.
That’s the general flow of Sabrina, then. You walk onto each new screen, check for bombs and if there is a bomb you rush over it and try to kick it away before it explodes, all while trying to remember which of your attacks are effective against each foe. And trying to remember which key you’d mapped to each attack, in my case. But it is any fun? Sadly, it really isn’t. The hit detection is sloppy enough that enemies you’re sure you should have defeated manage to sneak through, the fact that you’re paralysed by every successful enemy attack quickly becomes frustrating and when a bomb does explode, being kicked back to the title screen doesn’t exactly compel you to reach for the “new game” button. That said, there’s something I find quite charming about Sabrina. Maybe it’s that it took its ridiculous premise and not-very-videogame-appropriate heroine and ran with it, and the boob attack is so dumb it wraps around to being funny. The graphics aren’t bad for a Spectrum game, either, with some nice backgrounds and sprites that are a lot clearer in motion than they seem in these screenshots.
After twenty or so screen of this nonsense, Sabrina comes face-to-face with a lady that I’m going to generously call a boss. Standing here in this desolate alley, the only outcome can be a furious martial arts battle the likes of which Hong Kong cinema can only dream of. Are you ready to see these two mighty warriors locked in mortal combat?
I’m at a loss for words. Nothing I can come up with seems adequate to describe whatever this is. Two shop mannequins trapped in a giant blender? Mechanical soft-shoe dancers caught in a violent electrical storm? No, this fight simply is, and our human minds are ill-equipped to comprehend it. That’s what I kept telling myself when I couldn’t figure out what was going on here, anyway. As far as I can see, the only way to beat this woman is to make sure you start with multiple lives, get right up next to her and start wildly flailing on your attack buttons. With a little luck, she’ll be defeated before Sabrina runs out of lives. Any good will I had towards Sabrina by this point was quickly swept away by this awful, incomprehensible boss battle, so it is with a truly heavy heart that I must inform you it’s time to go through the game again.
That’s right, the boss was merely the half-way point. After flipping the tape over, the second half of Sabrina is revealed, and it looks like this. The gameplay is the same, but the graphics and setting have changed. The cartoon bombs are sticks of dynamite now, the levels have more of a “city centre” feel and there are different enemies. For instance, Sabrina is being chased by a crucifix-waving priest. Maybe he saw Sabrina thrashing around during the boss fight and came to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that she requires an exorcism. You can defeat the priest by whacking him with Sabrina’s boobs, and with that in mind I’m going to flip-flop again and say that Sabrina is actually kinda great.
As I say, the graphics might be a bit different, but the gameplay hasn’t changed any. It definitely hasn’t suddenly become interesting or anything, not even with the addition of the roaming priests and the punk-rock ladies you can see at the left of the screen. I do like their sprites, though. Where’s my beat-em-up about punk rock women with mohawks and switchblades clearing up the city streets? Hmm. They say you should be the change you want to see in the world, so I suppose I’d better learn how to make a beat-em-up.
Here’s an indication of just how loosely Sabrina was holding my attention: I wandered onto this screen and the first thing that sprang into my mind was “‘ayuntamiento’ is Spanish for ‘town hall’” followed by several minutes spent pondering the mysteries of the human mind as this piece of vocab from my GCSE Spanish lessons popped into my head fifteen years later.
“An old woman, a priest and Sabrina Salerno walk into a sex shop...” sounds like the start of an extremely filthy joke. It's a shame I can’t pop into the sex shop, I can’t believe Sabrina’s morally-upstanding potential murderers would follow me in there and I could get a bit of a break.
The second half of the game ends the same way as the first, with an identical boss battle against the flailing woman. At least these battles are over quickly. In fact. the entire game is over quickly: once you've had a bit of practise, you can beat the whole thing in less than ten minutes.
That’s it, the game’s over, and we’re presented with the cryptic message “llegaste al plato.” Obviously my GCSE Spanish lessons weren’t as comprehensive as I thought, because I originally through it was trying to tell me something about acquiring a plate. Then I looked it up and realised it’s probably supposed to say “llegaste al plató” (with accent) which means “You arrived at the set” (as in movie set). That makes a lot more sense, and it gives some indication of what Sabrina was actually trying to accomplish in this game. It doesn’t explain why everyone wanted her dead, though. Her musical output by 1989 wasn’t that bad. There’s also a mysterious code number provided, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for. And why the hell should I? What am I, Hercule Poirot? Someone else can put in the legwork to figure that one out, because I’ve definitely had enough of Sabrina by this point.
So that’s Sabrina, a game so European and trashy I’m surprised it wasn’t presented by Antoine de Caunes. Hold on a minute, just let me check… yep, Sabrina did appear on Eurotrash. Of course she did. If she hadn’t, I would’ve had to find someone who owns a hat so I could eat it.
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