Thursday, March 31, 2011

At Random: Bowling (Atari 2600, 1978)

There are a lot of bowling videogames on the market, and the sport has made a bit of a video comeback in recent years -- both the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft's XBox 360/Kinect system count motion-controlled bowling as a major attraction.

But it all started out very simply, with Atari's 1978 Bowling cartridge for the 2600 console.  There were also bowling games for the 2600's contemporaries, the Mattel Intellivision and the Magnavox Odyssey^2, and they all boiled the game down to basics.  My most recent random grab into the collection came up with the Sears Tele-Games edition, so we're going to take a closer look at it this week. 

I have to show you the cover art from my well-worn copy -- it's the late 1970s, for sure, with afros and shaggy combovers in vogue:

The gameplay is schematic -- there's a single male bowler available (despite the game's packaging), a chunky elliptical ball, and some smaller square pins, all clustered in an existential void:

On the 2600 we only have a joystick and one button to work with, so there's no fancy footwork involved -- we move our bowler up and down to get into position, hit the button to throw the ball, and (through the remote-control magic of videogames) nudge the ball as it rolls down the alley, trying to take out all the pins per standard bowling rules.

The Atari version manages to provide most of the critical features of genuine bowling -- it scores strikes, spares and open frames for 12 rounds of bowling, with scoring box symbols and a running point total onscreen.  As was usually the case with 2600 games, the packaging promises an impressive"6 GAMES," noting in smaller print that it actually "CONTAINS ONE CARTRIDGE."  The six variations in this case are derived from just a few options -- one or two players, multiplied by three degrees of control over the ball once it's thrown -- single-nudge in one direction, full-steering down the lane, and no post-throw control.

The graphics aren't bad by 2600 standards -- there's nothing obviously missing, at least, and the bowler even has a color table applied, so that his head is a different color from his shirt, a neat trick on the 2600 and fairly rare among the early cartridges.  (The 2600 could not display a single object in multiple colors on the same television scan-line, which is why it appears he has pulled his shirt sleeves over his hands.)  The sound effects aren't convincing -- the bowl thrums heavily down the lane like a bulldozer, and the pins sound like they're going down in a hail of Star Wars laser fire.  When the bowler gets a strike or a spare, the score and our hero's shirt flash briefly as he jumps up and down in excitement, which is actually not a bad little reward after trying for several minutes to get the ball into just the right position.

There isn't much more to say about 2600 Bowling -- it's another one of those vintage cartridges that provided hours of fun back in the day, perhaps because there was nothing more sophisticated available.  But it delivers a passable game of bowling, and in two-player mode I'm sure it supported its share of healthy living-room competition.

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