Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tennis Games on the ZX Spectrum - Wimbledon Special: Part Three

As I type this, the mens' final of Wimbledon 2017 is underway. Also underway is our continuation (from last year!) of our trawl through the archives to locate and play tennis games. Previously we have taken a look at tennis games for the Super Nintendo and the Atari VCS/2600, 5600 and Lynx. Waiting at the tee today is the ZX Spectrum. And in an attempt to have some order to things, we're going to go in alphabetical order today. Just five games are listed here. There are more for the Speccy, but these will do for now. The rest can wait until next year.....

Adidas Championship Tie Break - Ocean (1990)
An overhead scrolling tennis game? A novel way to present the sport, but it doesn't really work here. The game gives you plenty of options for which kind of game to play, and a range of colourful courts to play on. You can even choose the weight of your racket, although I couldn't be bothered to play long enough to find out what effect this would have. The problem with this game is that you only get to see a small area of the court while playing. The screen follows the ball as it moves from one end of the court to the other. Fortunately your player always manages to find himself in the right position for you to return the shot, so it's just a case of correctly timing your racket swing. It's probably possible to do all manner of shots, but it never really feels like you're in complete control of what's happening. The sound is crap too. 

Konami's Tennis - Imagine (1986)
This is quite a fun little game of tennis. There's no real faffing with options, with just a few menus to get through and then you're off. Your player is able to move freely around the court and there is a feeling of control when you have your shots, although it sometimes seems that pushing upwards when hitting the ball gives it a bit too much power and it ends up flying past your opponent and ending up out. The players don't change positions so you're always positioned at the bottom of the screen. Sound isn't amazing, just a weird boingy noise when the ball is hit or bounces. Graphics are good, although it might have been better if the players were drawn in black and not white. But, all in all, not a bad game.

Match Point - Sinclair Research (1984)
An oldie but a goodie. Match Point is simple, basic fun. You can configure your game all from one simple screen, even give yourself and your opponent a name. Players are little stick figures, which move smoothly and fluidly around the court. Ball physics seem realistic and everything mostly works well in this game. Extremely polished and technically impressive, even compared with later games. If you want to play tennis on the Speccy, this is the game to go for!

International 3D Tennis - Palace (1990)
Oh, darn it! I've got my alphabet wrong! I comes before M. Oh well. So, International 3D Tennis is our next tennis game. Calling the game 3D is pushing it a bit. You can view the game from a variety of viewpoints which all kind of give a sort of three dimensional appearance, and your players are a bunch of triangles assembled to look like a human being. Their animation is fluid and again gives an impression of entering the third dimension. Gameplay is a bit slow-paced, although this is another one of those games where you are assisted by the computer, although not to a great extent, and higher difficulty settings reduce the extent of assistance. The viewpoints are interesting but more than likely you'll choose the standard one. There's quite a bit of depth on offer as you can play tournaments around the world, but the game feels like it's a bit of a novelty.

International Tennis - Zeppelin (1992)
One of the Spectrum's later tennis sims which shows in the overall presentation and quality. Fun and fast-paced and a good alternative to Match Point. Plenty of options give you a lot of ways to play the game. Sound is minimal but does the job. Graphics are also quite detailed, even if the background image makes it look like you're playing in a cave.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Olympic Gold - Sega Mega Drive/Genesis review

A game about athletics sponsored by a sugary unhealthy drink
Game: Olympic Gold
Format: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis
Developer: Tiertex
Publisher: US Gold
Year Released: 1992
Also Released on: Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear
Now Available on: Nothing

Well, the Olympic Games are over now for another four years. Didn't we do well? Sadly, I wasn't chosen to participate in them this year but I'm sure this will change in time for the Tokyo games in 2020. Between now and then, I'll pick a sport that we aren't that great at, practice it, and then go to Japan to represent Team GB. Maybe I'll pick ping pong. We don't really do that well in ping pong, do we? There's a gap in our country's skill set there. I shall plug it.

In the meantime though, I've been having my own Olympic Games in the comfort of my living room. Oh yes, the sofa Olympics, featuring Olympic Gold on the Sega Mega Drive. Olympic Gold was released to coincide with the Barcelona games of 1992. It was also released on the Sega Master System and Game Gear. Olympic Gold was the first game to be officially endorsed by the International Olympic Committee, with a new one released for every summer and winter Olympics since then, although this year's Olympics only appear to have been attended by Mario and Sonic and their friends. Back in 1992, this would have been unthinkable. Mario and Sonic in a game together. Never!

Olympic Gold opens with a map of the world and the names of each previous host city flying out of their location in the world, plus the year in which they hosted. If anything, it provides you with a quick geography and history lesson. You then get to choose the language that you would like to play in and then it's on with the games.

However, before you get to have a go at showing off your sporting prowess, a recreation of the Olympic stadium’s electronic scoreboard is displayed on your screen. It has the ability of producing amazing state-of-the-art (for the early 1990s anyway) graphics and animations plus in-game menus and options too. It also displays the scores, which is handy what with it being a scoreboard and everything.  

The game's menu, on the stadium scoreboard. Clever, eh?
From this magical multipurpose scoreboard, you can choose your in-game options. You can choose whether to practice a specific event, partake in a Mini Olympics, or go all out in the full blown Olympics. Mini Olympics simply lets you pick the events that you want to compete in, whereas Full Olympics requires you to compete in all of them. And by all of them, I mean seven events. Yep, just seven. Those Barcelona Olympics must have been over within an hour of them starting if the game is an accurate reflection of the real thing. Nothing like the two week affair we had over in Brazil this summer.  You then get to pick your skill level – either crap, not-so-crap or superhuman – displayed in this game as Club, National or Olympic. Then you get to choose who you would like to play as. Each competitor represents a country, and you can’t switch your competitor’s nationality. Too much red tape, apparently. 

Not really too sure what the difference between National and Olympic actually would be?

The opening ceremony is over. The flame has been lit.
The flamelighter makes his way down the stairs with
his hand on fire.
Regardless of what mode of play you have chosen, you are then swiftly thrown into the first event itself. Well, not so swiftly if you’ve chosen to take part in the full Olympics. You have to get through the Opening Ceremony itself first. Barcelona ’92 must have been on a tight budget, as it appears that all their Opening Ceremony consisted of was somebody lighting the flame and some doves being released. And not even a sign of that Freddy Mercury Barcelona song. Of course, you can always skip the ceremony by bashing one of your control pad buttons, something you’ll be getting used to as you play the game. 

So, what are the events and how are they portrayed in Olympic Gold? I’m glad you asked as I have the answers right here: 

Run Forrest Run!
100 Metres: Pretty straightforward stuff, this. Run in a straight line for 100 metres as fast as you can. Usain Bolt is quite good at this. I’m not. Olympic Gold employs the good old technique of getting you to press buttons as quickly as possible, a la Track and Field. You need to alternate between button A and button B. The faster you do it, the faster your runner runs. If you feel that it makes a difference, you can press C at the end of the race to push your head forward a little bit with the intention that it crosses the line before the head of one your opponents. Unfortunately, there is no option to dive over the finish line.  

The bloke in lane three appears to be hopping his way
through the hurdles
110 Metre Hurdles: Similar to the above but ten metres longer and with the added inconvenience that some imbecile has placed miniature bridges in your way. You can run through them, which slows you down and probably hurts, or you can jump over them, which is what the professionals do. I remember getting picked to represent my house group in hurdles in my school sports day back in 1995. I decided to go for a mixture of the two methods and came last. I don’t think I’d ever hurdled beforehand; I got picked simply because I was quite tall. In Olympic Gold, alternating buttons A and B gets your speed up, whereas smashing down on C causes your athlete to launch himself off the ground in the hope that he’ll gracefully glide over the hurdle in his way. What I found from playing this game is that I still seem to use the same tactics that I used in my 1995 Sports Day, with the same results. Maybe I need to change tactics. 

Catch this!
Hammer throw: For this event, you spin round and around and around a number of times until you’re spinning so fast that letting go of the hammer that you are holding onto causes it to fling a great distance. The greater the distance, the better. Pressing C gets your spin cycle started, bashing A and B makes you go fast and faster, and pressing C again releases the hammer from your grasp. And then you can watch as it plummets to the ground just in front of you. A bit of practice will result in the hammer going further, much to the crowd’s delight. 

D. Stead stares with intensity at Bully's prizeboard
Archery: Now, I play darts every now and again but don’t understand why it isn’t an Olympic event. Watching darts on TV at the start of every January is my New Year treat – a bit like an extension to the festive season. I’m sure it’d go down well in the Olympics. The closest they get to it is Archery, which I suppose is basically the same only with bigger darts. And no Bully’s Special Prize for the bullseye. They should do that in the Olympics archery. Somebody gets a bullseye and Jim Bowen shouts from the background, “It’s a Bullseye! You’ll love eating your food with this. You’ve won a luxury cutlery set and case!” Do people still have special cutlery sets? My mum and dad had one in a massive case with a velvety cover that spent most of its time at the back of a kitchen cupboard. It only ever came out for Christmas dinner. Anyway, archery in this game just requires you to press C to pull back your arrow, the D-Pad to attempt to aim your shot, and C again to fire. What makes things slightly more challenging is that as you attempt to line up your shot, you appear to be a bit wobbly. The first few attempts aren't too bad, but you begin quivering like a jelly after go after go after go. I’m not sure whether this is down to the strain on pulling back the arrow, or the wind, but it gives the event a whole new layer of complexity and excitement. 

Stead appears to be aiming for the area between the targets. Doesn't bode well

Not going to make it, not going to make it
High Jump: Run a bit with a pole, and then use it to launch yourself into the air, hoping to get over a horizontal pole placed at a height and landing successfully on a cushion. This isn’t easy to pull off due to the weird combination of button presses that you have to master. It goes from being a button bashing challenge to a coordination challenge. In fact, it’s probably easier to do it in real life. 

Stead dives elegantly into the blue waters below him
Metre Springboard diving: Probably the best event of the game, although that isn’t really saying much. You need to complete a series of dives of different techniques. In practice mode, you can view a demo of how the dive is done beforehand so you know what buttons to press and when. There are a number of dives to master, so it really is a case of remembering each combination for each dive. Easy to do if you’ve just watched it, not so easy if you’ve just done a load of other events and have a memory like mine. Still, it’s quite funny watching your athlete hit the water on his belly. In main competition, all required dives are chosen for you, apart from your final one, so make it a good one. I suppose this event is the only one that actually rewards skill, even though it primarily requires you to remember button combinations. 

Well, he crapped that one up, didn't he?

Just like my local leisure centre, only without a pensioner
doing widths instead of lengths
200 Metre freestyle Swimming: Similar to the running, only you don’t need to bash your buttons quite as rapidly, but you do need to get your timing right to flip yourself over to turn the other way when you approach the end of the pool. 

So, they are all of the events. Once you’ve completed an event in practice mode, you are taken back to the main menu where you can choose the event again if you want another go or pick something else. That’s a little something that niggled me. Why the game couldn’t just ask you if you wanted another go before taking you to the menu screen? In either of the Olympic Modes, there are usually multiple rounds of the same event. For example, in the 100 Metre sprint, If you finish in the top three in the first race, you qualify for the final. You have the option of watching or skipping the second race which decides your other three opponents. And then all six finalists run in the medal race. In other events, your score is totalled up after you’ve completed three rounds of it to decide the final scores and the medal winners. I'm not really sure how the high jump works. It just seems to go on forever until you mess up three times.

Not sure whether this is game based on Barcelona '92 or Berlin '36. Could be the latter. Hitler himself is
on the starting gun, and there is a distinct lack of diversity in the athletes.

If you win an event, you are presented with the gold medal and a snippet of your national anthem is played. When I say you are presented with the medal, all you get is a screen with a picture of it in an open box. There are no podium posing and medal-biting shenanigans here.

GBR appear to have done suspiciously well in this games, with
Pam Kidman topping the table. Zebedee Smirnov competed for
EUN. Who's EUN? Ooooh, former Soviet countries apparently.
No sign of China though.
After you've completed all of the events, the final medal count is tallied up and the Olympic champion is decided. Woohoo! It really isn't that exciting, but there is a small bit of tension if you are doing well and want to maintain your position at the top of the leaderboard. Just a small amount. Nothing like the real thing. At least I don't think it's like the real thing. I'll find out in 2020 when I'm in the ping pong.

The problem with this game is the events aren’t really that much fun. I’ve never been a big fan of games that just require you to press buttons as fast as you can or memorise combinations, so this game just isn’t going to do anything for me. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Saying that, I do remember playing this game back in 1992 with a friend and quite enjoying it. But only for a short while. It wasn’t a game where we played through the whole Olympics and then said, “Let’s do it again!” 

Dave Stead is late off the starting blocks. Will he make up time? Probably not.

Presentation-wise, the idea of using the scoreboard to drive navigation through the menus was quite good, and was probably quite novel in its day too. In Europe, the game was sponsored by Coca Cola, so in between each event, the Coca Cola blimp sometimes goes past. That isn’t too bad, but what is annoying is that the “Always Coca Cola” jingle plays each time. I don’t really have anything against in-game sponsorship providing it doesn’t take over the game, but the tune just grates. When the game was originally released though, I thought it was amazing. I couldn't get over the fact that a video game had a familiar brand logo and jingle in it. I wet my knickers when I played James Pond: Robocod and there were Penguin chocolate bars on one level. Strangely enough, the American version of Olympic Gold didn't feature sponsorship. 
Wanna take a ride on my pole? Fnar fnar

Graphics are functional and purposeful, but aren't really very nice to look at, appearing quite basic and somewhat 8-bit in style. In the events, each competitor is identical to each other. The only way of recognising your character is that you wear a different coloured outfit, a bit like when you forgot your PE kit at school and had to wear something from lost property. Sounds are average too. I've already mentioned the annoying Coca Cola tune, plus the rest of the in-event music is nothing to write home about, not that I've ever written about music that I've heard when I've written home. I don't think I've ever written home actually. Maybe I sent my mum and dad a postcard from Gran Canaria when I went on my first non-family holiday, although I doubt I wrote about the music there. If I did, I would probably have mentioned that DJ Otzi's Hey Baby (Ooh, Aah) song seemed to be on repeat play. One whole week of listening to that non-stop every afternoon around the pool. It drove me crazy it did. It was no wonder I had to keep wandering over to the all-inclusive bar for a drink. So, yes, the music in Olympic Gold wasn't up to much, playing away in the background as you hammer the life out of your control pad. Nor were the sound effects which were limited to short bursts of white noise to simulate crowd noise and a few other sounds. That said, they don't really intrude in the game's goings-on, and I don't really think they would have made the game any better even if they were amazing.

Baby I'm a firework! One of those cheap ones from Asda
that they begin selling two months before 5th November
Olympic Gold wasn't an awful game, and there is a certain amount of fun that can be had with it, especially with multiple players. The controls are responsive, but as the game sort of dictates that buttons need to be pressed as quickly as possible or in a certain order, it means that it isn't really that enjoyable to control. The seven events chosen for the game aren't the best or most varied, but when playing them through, you kind of want to get the event you're on over and move onto the next. In a way, you're wishing the game away. There really isn't any incentive to master the events so there isn't much replay value in it. Olympic Gold doesn't have any long-lasting appeal, and it's short term appeal is also limited too. Fortunately it doesn't take long to get through the whole thing, and then it's back in its box, or wherever it came from. Nowadays it's something to look back at more out of curiosity than as a game. Still, it was better than the next game based on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.    

Presentation – 78%
A digital scoreboard is pretty much all you see through most of the non-gameplay sections. But it's effective and works quite well.
Graphics – 77%
Fairly bog-standard graphics which don't really stand out in any way. Would have been nice to see a more diverse mix of competitors. 
Sound – 72%
Although the game features plenty of music and sound effects, the tunes that play in the background of each event are forgettable and the sound effects are rather lacking in quality. In European versions a horrible rendition of the Coca Cola jingle plays between each event which is nothing but an annoyance.
Playability – 73%
The game feels like it's going to be quite good at first, but the button-bashing nature of some events and memory tests of others soon reduce the fun factor. It's not too bad with multiple players though.
Overall – 72%
Not a terrible first entry to the official Olympic Games series of video games, but not great either. The variety of events is limited, and the game just isn't something you'd have much desire to master. There isn't really anything to it to make it appeal. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Tennis Games on Atari consoles - Wimbledon Special: Part Two

In the second part of our Wimbledon special, we look at more digital versions of tennis. Today we go through the games that appeared on Atari's consoles, from the Atari VCS all the way up to the Atari Lynx. We tee off by revisiting the Atari VCS.

Tennis Games on the Atari VCS/2600

Atari's wooden box played host to hundreds of games, most of which bore little resemblance to, um, anything. Still, it attempted to replicate tennis and the sport featured in three games. It probably featured in more, but I don't know what they are. Here are the three games that I do know.

Video Olympics - Atari (1977)
Video Olympics was one of the launch games for the Atari VCS. It was basically Pong on a cartridge, with 50 variations on the theme which apparently mimicked such sports as football, basketball, ice hockey and, of course, in its simplest original two-bats-and-one-square-ball mode, tennis. Tennis without a net but with bouncy walls. At the time, there were countless consoles that played clones of Pong, with switches and dials and stuff to change the parameters of the game. Video Olympics was probably a way of Atari ensuring that its new VCS console was at least able to offer whatever was already on the market in one tidy package, providing pretty much every variation of Pong conceivable. The problem was, even in 1977, Pong and its many mutations were already old and dated. This game will provide some nostalgia value for, oooh, two minutes. Then you'll wonder how the video game industry ever got off the ground. Still, it's not too bad with two players.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Deep sounding beep. Who needs sound effects when you can have subtitles?

Tennis - Activision (1981)
This is the first game on the Atari VCS to look like a real tennis game, getting released two years before the next one. It's fun at first but gets tedious very quickly. You can't swing your racket, meaning that it's a simple case of getting your player to be in the same place as the ball in order to return it. Unless you are able to catch the ball at the end of your racket, it ends up going straight back to your opponent which results in endless games. A good first attempt to bring tennis to the masses, but it hasn't stood the rest time. You can play it for yourself in your browser through The Internet Archive's online console service

Pink is beating blue. Gosh.

Realsports Tennis - Atari (1983)
Atari attempted to recreate tennis using a viewpoint which is still favoured today. They also even attempted to give you the ability to influence the kind of shot that you were trying to pull off, not that it really worked that well. This is actually a fairly fun game but like a lot of VCS games today, it gets boring pretty quickly. The graphics are quite good, although the music sounds a bit like somebody has been pressing random keys on their Casio keyboard. It is quite surprising that it took Atari until 1983 to release a tennis game for their console, five years into its life. Realsports Tennis is easily the best tennis game for the Atari VCS, but that's not saying much seeing as there are only three, and one of those is Pong.

Those rackets look like the player's arms have come out of their sockets

Tennis Games on the Atari 5200
So, fans of tennis weren't too well served on the Atari VCS. What about the console's successor, the Atari 5200 Super System? Well, things got worse. There was just the one tennis game released for it. And that was.....

Realsports Tennis - Atari (1983)

This game is called Atari. No, Tennis. Realsports Tennis
In addidtion to its release on the Atari VCS/2600, Realsports Tennis also appeared on the Atari 5200, a game designed to make use of the console's "fantastic" controller. You controlled your little man using the joystick, but aimed your shots using its number pad. Needless to say, the game is pretty much unplayable. You could ignore the keypad and just use the joystick. This just results in you having a playful knockabout with your opponent with never ending relays. Not quite as exciting but far less frustrating, although it's unlikely you'll ever win a point.

This looks like an exciting game

Tennis Games on the Atari Lynx

Oh well, seeing as nobody actually owned an Atari 5200, the fact that Realsports Tennis was so bad wasn't that significant. The Atari 7800 did even worse. It didn't even have a tennis game. Nor did the Jaguar. The Lynx did though. In 1993, Jimmy Connors popped up on Atari's rather splendid little battery guzzler.

Jimmy Connors Tennis - UBI Soft (1993)

Hey Jimmy. I still don't know who you are
Jimmy Connors's Tennis on the Lynx wasn't a bad little game. It lacked a lot of the realism of the SNES equivalent, opting for simplicity and accessibility instead. There are some frustrating elements to the game. Missing your serve results in a fault and you never get to serve from the far end. Not great, but not major criticisms. The graphics are good and the game also features some nice sampled speech. Of all of Atari's consoles, this is easily the best tennis game for them. That's not saying much though.

Not too sure what that yellow square is but it looks out of place on a tennis court.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Tennis Games on the Super Nintendo - Wimbledon Special: Part One

It's that time of year when the world's greatest tennis players gather at the All England Club in London to take part in the most famous bat and ball tournament of them all - The Wimbledon Championships. I quite like tennis, but unfortunately I'm not very good at it. It's highly unlikely that I'll ever find myself on Centre Court at SW19 in my PE kit with my racket and balls. But, I don't want to feel left out, so my plan is to partake in a few games of tennis from the comfort of my settee. Oh yes, I'm going to play a few tennis video games. All on one machine to compare and contrast. And the machine on which its tennis games are going to be rigorously compared and contrasted is the good old Super Nintendo. And first to the bat is Andre Agassi.

Call me Andre
Andre Agassi Tennis - Tekmagik (1992)
Agassi was one of tennis' biggest stars in the 1990s so it was inevitable that he would pop in a video game based on the sport. Andre Agassi Tennis was released on the SNES in 1992 and is quite a simple version of the game. It all looks a bit plain and feels a bit rough around the edges. Gameplay comes to a sudden stop after each point is won and the controls could have done with a bit of refining. It's a functional version of tennis, but a bit dull.

New balls please

Nice motion blur effects there. Just lovely
David Crane's Amazing Tennis - Absolute (1992)
How do you convince the public that your game is worth playing? Why, call it amazing of course. That'll trick them. Just like Sega and their "Great" sports game series for the Master System, most of which were turds. Despite what the titles says, David Crane's Amazing Tennis isn't amazing.. It looks and sounds fantastic, and initially it seems to control ok. But, it has one major problem. The court is viewed from a low perspective. Although this does immerse you more in the game, it makes it difficult to judge the depth of the court and to know where the ball actually is, especially when you're on the far end. You also don't have full visibility of the width of the court, which makes it hard to make use of all of it. Sometimes, your player isn't even on the screen as the camera follows the ball, not the player. It's nice to see developers attempting something different, but there's a reason why most tennis games use a more traditional angle.


Starring a little person on his lonesome
International Tennis Tour - Taito (1993)
Another game which uses a low perspective, although not quite as low as David Crane above. The court is also viewed from a distance, which gives better visibility of the gameplay, even if it makes the court look tiny. This is actually quite a fun game, and is much more forgiving than other tennis games, perhaps a little too forgiving. You somehow manage to pull off shots even though it clearly looks like you've missed the ball. The ball also seems to float over the net which makes things a bit easier. Worth having a look at if you're after an arcade-style tennis game.

A close game between Carter and Iston

Is it bad that I've never heard of Jimmy Connors?
Jimmy Connors Pro Tennis Tour - Ubi Soft (1992)
If it's realism you're after, Jimmy Connors Tennis is the game for you. You can perform all kinds of shots with the many buttons available on the SNES controller, although I'm not too convinced that you're fully controlling what's going on. It isn't the most attractive of games to look at, but it plays a good game of tennis and has a surprising amount of depth. To get the most out of this game though, you do need to invest time and effort into it. It's not immediately accessible and getting to grips with the controls isn't easy.

Whoosh! 113 MPH!! You can really sense the speed in this screenshot

Super. Just Super
Super Tennis - Nintendo (1991)
The earliest tennis game on the Super Nintendo, and easily the best. Super Tennis shows off some of the then-new console's 3D abilities, but these don't interfere with the game. The controls are responsive and the multitude of shots that you can pull off with the variety of the buttons feels natural. The game doesn't bog you down with statistics and options and suchlike. Instead, it just plays a great fun game of tennis. Super Tennis probably remained untouched as the best console tennis game until Virtua Tennis hit the Dreamcast ten years later.

Quick! Run away from that ball!