Saturday, September 22, 2007

Football From the Age of Dinosaurs

Continuing along today's football kick, I figured I should show some of the early videogame football titles, games from the late 1970's and early 1980's. For those too young to have played these games, you'll probably be amazed...that anyone ever wasted their time with 'em. I can't really blame you if that's how you feel. If it weren't for personal nostalgia, I'd probably avoid them as well.

But it's important to remember gaming's roots, and note how early developers tried to capture the essence of sport. Remember, these were the days when a game cartridge only offered two or four kilobites. That's 4K or less. We're already in the age of terrabytes. It amazing that such complicated sports could ever have been translated into such a microscopic space at all. The fact that many of them remain playable is nothing short of miraculous.

So, then, let's take a short look at some games, shall we?

Odyssey 2 - Football

Ugh. The Odyssey 2 was the sad system. While all the other kids had Atari, and a few lucky ones had Intellivision, there was always one poor kid whose parents sacked him with an Odyssey. You'd always feel sorry for that kid.

I can't say that I've played their football game, but it's a pretty sad system, and all the games were poor hand-me-downs. The Odyssey 2 was the Goodwill of video games. To be fair, this game does look nice. You have several players, you have a decent gridiron. A game from the ;ate '

Atari 2600 VCS - Football

Now here's a classic. Well, sorta. I kinda enjoy this, but for probably all the wrong reasons. It's a fun game in spite of itself. Then again, this game is 30 years old. I'm amazed you could fit this much onto a 2K cart. You can run or throw a football, and scoring only comes from touchdowns or safeties. One key feature is the first down line, which was a smart way of marking the field.

The scribbling, white-noise sound effect during that supposed to be the crowd or the players? I always thought it was the players, since they looked a bit unworldly and spooky. They flicker like ghosts, so maybe this is a football game from beyond the grave.

Atari Football actually plays pretty good, although it's really only the barest aspects of football. Still, I think it's a good example of design, of working with limitations, and it was clearly better than any other football game from 1978 or before. This really was the first playable football game, and, strangely enough, it winds up being the best ever made for the Atari 2600.

Atari 2600 VCS - RealSports Football

In the early '80s, Atari remedied their severe lack of quality sports games with the RealSports series. These games were meant to compete against the monster classics on Intellivision; games which, frankly, were cleaning Atari's clock. For the most part, Atari's new attempts were spotty, but at least they did cover most of the major sports.

RealSports Football certainly looked more like a real football game, but it somehow played weaker than the 1878 Football cart. How is this possible? I don't know. Once again, only the barest aspects of the game are present, and aside from kicks, there's no progression from the older game. Running and passing is a bit of a bad joke, and tackles are instant to the touch - a major weakness of all those old football games before Madden.

This game has more animation, and the graphics are a step forward, but when it plays so poorly, who the bloody hell cares? I never did, and neither did my peers. But then, to be fair, most of Atari's best talent had left for greener pastures by 1982. Well, at least RealSports Tennis was good.

Atari 1600 VCS - Super Football

Atari's third attempt at a football game on the 2600, Super Football was one of the late titles. It was actually programmed in 1988, well into the NES era, when the Tramiel-run Atari Corp. tried to return the company to former glory. They turned to their star designer, Douglas Neobauer, who helmed the excellent Solaris - a title that pushed the 2600 to its absolute limits.

So, how how is Super Football? Well, I fired up the Stella emulator and played half a game. It really isn't half bad. Of course, by the time this game was released, Tecmo had unleashed Tecmo Bowl on the NES, a system that was light years ahead of the poor old VCS. So that's probably why this game is seen as little more than a novelty or a pretty graphics demo.

On the graphics front, Super Football is excellent. It uses an overhead 3D view that would Park Place Productions would use for John Madden Football many years later. It's really amazing how well it all looks. You have some good animations, five players per team, players running formations, kicks, extra points, yadda yadda. The game also employs an extensive playbook, which is utilized simply. There are a number of different formations, although running plays are limited to the quarterback running with the ball.

For my Atari sports fix, I'd probably stick with the original Football, since its iconic nature ensures fast and exciting games. But anyone who has the means should give Super Football a chance. If only it were made at the beginning of the '80s, instead of the end.

Atari 5200 - RealSports Football

The Atari 5200 was a joke of a games console, and never let anyone else fool you. This really was the point at which Atari lost themselves. How they could have gone from an immensely popular system, to a throwaway piece of plastic - literally a stripped-down version of their stripped-down computer - is beyond me. But it seems to happen to everyone in this business. See: Nintendo, Sega, Sony.

RealSports Football was slow and chunky on 5200, despite its graphical improvements over the 2600 version. There are some nice features, like the details on the field and the number of players. You can see all that on the screenshot above. But I never remember ever having fun with it. This quickly became another Atari sports game that you put away for good within five minutes. Ah, well, maybe you could be more forgiving and patient. Eh, no you won't.

Atari 7800 - Touchdown Football

Touchdown Football is a translation from the home computers, where it appeared in 1985 by...Electronic Arts. Surprise! This was the very first EA football game. As such, it's an interesting little document of their earliest ideas which would later bear fruit with Madden.

At the time, I was always impressed with the title screen, but less thrilled with the game, which was somewhat slow. This was surely never a very attractive videogame, looking very much like a Commodore 64 title from the mid-'80s. If you give it a little more time, I think you'll find a lot of depth and strategy. You are in charge of a wide number of formations, and have to direct the strategies for nearly all your offensive players. Heck, you even have to move your kicker on extra points. I found that one out the hard way, after getting piled on by defenders.

There are little extras that would become EA hallmarks, things like endzone celebrations, cheerleaders, and refs. And the game itself, while still slow, plays well. You can run and pass with relative ease, and it's a cinch to pick off passes against the computer. Probably too easy, in fact, but these games were always meant for playing against friends, anyway.

Touchdown Football was getting dated by the time it appeared on the Atari 7800. It certainly paled against the flashier, faster Tecmo Bowl, which is a bit of a shame, because it's actually a deeper game. And you can play it on the MESS emulator if you don't have access to a 7800. I was really surprised by this one.

But there still aren't any late hits. Boo.

Intellivision - NFL Football

Now here's the real deal! Everything else is just a warm-up exercise for the main course. Intellivision was the home to sports games during the classic era, and no other classic game except Madden could really compete. Heck, I'm tempted sometimes to think this NFL Football may be the definitive sports game.

NFL Football was created in 1979, and immediately became the gold standard for the next decade. Thanks to the Intellivision controller, which more closely resembled a telephone, you had access to a wide variety of plays and formations. Gameplay included multiple speed options, out-of-bounds, safeties, field goals, extra points, touchbacks, timeouts, yadda yadda yadda. See that screenshot above? The players huddle. Remember the memory size of these early games. NFL Football was only 4K. The programmers didn't have enough room to include a computer player, but they could afford details like huddles. That's a level of ambition unheard of for its time.

The number of plays and options available were downright daunting back in its day. Heck, I'm still indimidated now. This is why emulation is so difficult where Intellivision is concerned. You really do need all those extra buttons for this game. Pity the controller is so hard on the hands.

Fortunately, there's an excellent retro package available called Intellivision Lives! It's a excellent compilation that manages to capture the whole retro experience. It's the next best thing to owning one of those old machines, which I suppose you could find somewhere. Actually, there's a shop right by my apartment that stocks videogames, from Nintendo Wii all the way back to Atari. I think they may have an Intellivision in stock. Hmm...if only I weren't completely broke.

If you're going to play only one classic football game, make it this one.

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