CHEERS AND BOOS
George Plimpton was right. Atari's Home Run baseball game may have been the worst-looking and poorest-playing video game ever invented. Instead of nine players on a team, you had three, and when you moved the joystick, all three of them moved as a unit. The game looked as much like baseball as Howard Cosell looks like Jim Palmer. The other early Atari VCS sports games, Basketball, Bowling, Football, Golf, Volleyball, and Pele's Soccer, were uniformly inferior compared to Intellivision's offerings.
Sports games are tough. While most games give a designer the freedom to create new and imaginative scenarios, sports games must resemble real life. That baseball diamond has to be shaped like a diamond and there have to be nine players on it. There also must be a ball and the capacity to throw it anywhere on the field. All the traditional and complicated rules of baseball must be adhered to. That's a tall order for any game, much less a game jammed into a 4K cartridge. Nevertheless, video game designers have been unable to resist the temptation to turn every real sport (except maybe bocce ball) into a home game. And in the last year, as they have learned to bring more and more complexity out of the Atari VCS, their efforts have paid off. The following are some of the best sports games for that system.
Pong was the first video sports game, but we have come light years since 1972. Both Atari's RealSports Tennis and Activision's Tennis are excellent versions of tennis, and are nearly identical. We get a view from behind one player, the view we are familiar with from watching tennis matches on television. You can move your player all over the court and you hit the ball merely by running into it -- no need to swing a racquet. The red button is used only to serve. Both games automatically keep score for you. Though both companies claim that you can direct your shots cross-court or down the baseline, this is almost impossible. Both games are fast, furious, and a lot of fun, especially against a human opponent. An added attraction is the perfect shadow following the ball in flight.
There are slight differences in the two games. Atari's is a little cleaner lookin -- players wear colored tennis outfits, the net has holes in it and you can actually punch an eight-letter name in the screen for each player. In Activision's game, however, the computer is a little tougher to beat.
Activision also has a somewhat similar Hockey cartridge. In this game you and your opponent each have two players and you bat the puck in one direction or the other with your stick. The game is very good and has all the elements of real hockey. Except for the fistfights.
THE NEW NATIONAL PASTIME
With just one joystick and nine or 12 players to control, it is debatable whether or not team sports like baseball and football can be successfully translated into video games. There is just so much going on. However, both Atari and arch-rival Mattel (with their M Network line) have come up with some pretty good efforts that go far beyond the first Atari sports game.
Like the tennis games, Atari's RealSports Baseball and Mattel's Super Challenge Baseball are very similar. Both games field nine players and feature pitching, hitting, baserunning and fielding. But this time Atari has the better game for several reasons: In the Atari game you can play either against the computer or against a friend, while Mattel requires that you have friends in order to play their game. You can hit home runs in the Mattel game, but all batted balls are grounders - something I can't figure out. The Atari game has a clever feature - the VCS randomly decides which of your pitches will be accurate. So like in real baseball, you may have a Nolan Ryan fastball one day and the next day you could have nothing on the ball.
The two companies go head-to-head again with RealSports Football and Super Challenge Football, and this time it's a toss-up. Both have scrolling playfields. The Mattel game, amazingly, does not have any kicking in it, but unlike the Atari game, you can program the actions of every player on your team individually. On the Atari game, you can kick field goals and the crowd cheers your good plays, but mattel has the field marked off for every yard, not every ten. Both are good games, if you want to play football on your TV set.
Some sports don't lend themselves to video games very well. It's doubtful that we'll ever see a good bowling or golf cartridge, and why would you want to? The precision of rolling the ball or swinging a club can't be duplicated as long as we have joysticks with simple on-off fire buttons. But there are some other unexpected sports that have been turned into video games that are quite good . . .
Track and Field - amazingly, two companies are about to release nearly identical games before the 1984 Olympics. Activision's Decathlon and Starpath's Sweat both contain all ten events of the decathlon, an incredible accomplishInent. Running, long jumping, discus throwing, javelin, and pole vaulting are all included in these games.
Driving -- Some people may not consider auto racing a sport, but just about every video game company has at least one such game and Activision has three. The best is their Enduro, in which you drive your car on dangerous twisting roads through darkness, snow, and fog. Atari's Pole Position, translated front their hit arcade game, is also very good, although it tends to look better than it drives. The 5200 version of the same game is excellent.
There are others - boxing, skiing, swimming, checkers, chess, bridge, pinball, basketball, and more - in varying degrees of success. Playlng VCS sports may not be as much fun as going out and whacking a few fungoes in the sun, but at least you don't have to worry about busting any windows.