Saturday, November 07, 2009

Videogame Classics - Ballblazer

April 1 , 2003
Lucasfilm Games (Lucasarts)
Atari 800

When it comes to the videogame, I think there's something to be said for simplicity. This is a belief I have long held; no doubt, this is because I grew up in the 1980s, when videogames were a genuine pop culture fad. The allure of the video arcade, the computerized rush of adrenaline, the unique challenge of reflexes and cunning; all this could be had in five minutes or less.

Of course, I still enjoy all the modern advances of our modern computer age, and I wouldn't change it for the world. Yet, somehow in the days of Quake and Tomb Raider and The Sims and the like, we're losing that simple spark that made those games long ago so fun to play. Videogames are losing their immediacy. Every developer wants to make the next epic, 100-hour-long virtual movie. Sometimes, I wonder if the budgets drive the project, or the other way around.

Where's the instant quick fix? No software publisher would give ten seconds to any of the classic videogames if they were dropped on their desks. Too short, too simple, not enough extras or Easter Eggs. Maybe I am just imagining things. Maybe nostalgia and adulthood is creeping in. Maybe I'm more right than I want to let on.

I'm reflecting on the state of contemporary gaming as I play another quick round of Ballblazer on my Atari 800 emulator. Here is a true classic of the home computer era, so simple, so stripped-down, so honest of what it is.

Ballblazer is, essentially, a one-on-one soccer match set in outer space. You control a spaceship, and proceed to carry a glowing ball into your opponent's goal. That's basically it. The whole premise can be grasped in five seconds, and probably mastered in five minutes. It is the perfect Zen essence of the video arcade game.

This 1985 game was the second release from the newly-formed Lucasfilm Games. Their first effort was a clever space rescue game called Rescue on Fractalus, which immediately heralded a potent new voice on the scene. It has never been lost on me that Lucasfilm could have sold on the Star Wars name, and simply rake in the cash; they chose instead to prove themselves with unique, original work. They chose wisely.

Lucasfilm Games, later Lucasarts, became extremely successful with some of the most memorable computer games ever made, like Monkey Island and Sam and Max and Grim Fandango. By the time the Star Wars and Indiana Jones games finally arrived, Lucasarts was among the finest gaming studios. Is it at all ironic that the games based on their movies are so formulaic and uninspired by comparison?

But I'm getting away from the subject here. Ballblazer remains a brilliant example of a videogame at its most basic, while still offering an innovation or two. Flying across the playfield, your ship must fire the ball against moving goalposts; as you score more points, the goalposts shrink, making it harder to make those final points. Your opponent, on the other hand, benefits from a larger target. As an added challenge, each goal is worth one, two, or three points, depending on how far away from the goal you were when shooting.

The scoring is just clever. Each player has five points on each side, but victory comes from scoring the full ten. When you score your sixth point, you literally erase his score. There's a great tug-of-war at play in Ballblazer; if it seems there is heightened tension for both players, you'd be right. There were countless matches over the years where my friends or I could not score those final points and win the game - the other guy keeps clawing back, and we're both sweating.

There are no extra modes, or hordes of options; there are no leagues or different stadiums or celebrity endorsements. There is only a game that feels timeless, flows smoothly, and never grows tired. I have to admit that the game's first-person view, racing down that wonderful green chessboard, has not aged a day; if anything, I appreciate the visuals more than in the '80s. No home console could match these fast, smooth graphics for years (look at the awful NES version); in no small way a technical achievement in 3D.

And then there's the music. Who can watch Ballblazer for five minutes and not come away humming the theme song in their head? The signature song, a blazing bit of boogey blues improvisation, stands as one of the finest songs in videogame history. If ever a song perfectly catches the mood, this is it.

There was an attempt to bring Ballblazer into the modern era with a Playstation sequel in 1997, but it was all wrong. The sequel was overburdened with bells and whistles, at the cost of the signature gameplay. Who wanted color commentary in the first place? Ballblazer never needed to be "modernized," it was modern to begin with. It's just the pictures that got small.

Here is another wonderfully competitive multiplayer classic; is there any surprise that these are the most loved of all videogames? Lucasarts seems to have lost their way these days with their over-reliance on the movie-based games; they would be better served to remember their roots, and why games like Ballblazer are so good. If they had any sense, they would port this game to the Gameboy Advance in a minute - they would realize that games should still be games.

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