Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Game 25: Basketball

Developed some time in 1978 by Alan Miller, who also developed the VCS launch title Surround. This is the first and earliest sports game I’ve looked at so far, unless we count motorsports or very abstract games like Pong.

I never much liked sports video games, or watching sports on TV, and I’ve always found the year-round hype over pro sports utterly tiring. Playing sports can be enjoyable. It’s good exercise, it’s competitive, and it’s a convenient way to do these things, but I never saw the appeal of sitting down for hours and watching other people do it, especially when so much of that time is spent watching replays and advertisements. My gripes don’t all apply to video games, but I still don’t see much point in playing sports simulations when I could play a real sport instead, or play a fantastic video game. The common retort that only sports video games let ordinary players play on pro leagues doesn’t sway me, since I was never interested in the pro leagues to begin with.

But here’s Atari’s Basketball, an unsurprisingly simplistic take on the sport. It’s strictly one-on-one, your only defenses are jump-blocks and stealing, your only offense is two-point jump shots. Unusually for an Atari game, there are only two modes; player-vs-player, and AI-vs-player.

“B” and I played a few matches.

What really characterized the matches is that stealing feels very unreliable. In theory you steal the ball automatically by moving within arm’s length of the ball, but often this doesn’t work, and when it does work, the ball might immediately be stolen right back. Jump blocks work when timed correctly, but depend on anticipating your opponent; jump when your opponent isn’t shooting, and they can easily run around you can cruise to the net unopposed. Jump too soon and they can aim the ball at a high angle and score a basket over your head. A common and very frustrating occurrence was that I would anticipate “B” shooting and press the button to jump block, but my player would instead steal the ball and then immediately throw it.

I tried the singleplayer mode too, and the AI is actually competent, but also very predictable and kind of boring. It seems to play perfectly when it wants to, and makes stupid mistakes every now and then to give you a chance. Interestingly, the manual claims that the AI defense improves when you are leading it, which I can’t confirm to be true but I believe it. I still couldn’t quite figure out how to steal reliably, and if you fail a steal, then the AI will just beeline to their shooting zone ahead of you and make a jump shot before you have any chance to catch up and block. The manual recommended using the difficulty switch to slow down the AI opponent, but this didn’t make things that much easier. The manual also suggests that if you can beat the AI by over four points without the handicap, then you are a skilled player. I’ll consider that to be a victory condition, but it’s out of my reach.


  1. Could have done without that second paragraph, which just whines about other people enjoying something and has nothing to do with video games.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I actually disagree. I feel the same way as Ahab and the second paragraph is an important inclusion as it got me to read the rest of the article.
      My first reaction is; "Ugh, sports. Skip!"
      But after reading the second paragraph, my reaction is; "He understands and found something of value here anyway, maybe I should continue reading."

  2. Hey Ahab,
    I found your journey thoroughout the prehistoric era of gaming fascinating. Especially that it is a dark age for me as except a few playing sessions on arcade machines and the Pegasus console (NES rip-off) the Amiga 500 was my first computer.

    However, when watching your earliest recordings from 2p sessions I started to think that there is a lack of some info. I mean, I don't know which player is you and which is R, B or AI. Since you are not a sports fan it may not be obvious for you but this knowledge keeps the sport competition fans watching full matches. Otherwise, 30s excerpt would be enough to familiarize with the rules and decide whether the Title is worth a try or not.


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