Thursday, May 5, 2011

At Random: Bowling! / Basketball! (Odyssey^2, 1978)

In the early days of video gaming, when everything was experimental, sometimes two weak ideas were combined in hopes the result would be as marketable as one decent game.  My random pick this week came up with Magnavox's 1978 Bowling! / Basketball! for the Odyssey^2 console, and the title contains two more exclamation points than it should.  Neither contest is exactly full-featured, and the entertainment possibilities can be exhausted fairly quickly.  So let's take a quick look and be done with this one.

From the initial SELECT GAME menu, options 1 and 2 are both Bowling! games -- version 2 is simply meant to be more challenging than version 1.  Both versions support 1-4 players, with the system's two controllers being handed off as needed.

There's no strategy required here, and no direct way to line up a shot.  The white bowling ball simply shuttles left and right across the lane, and when we hit the joystick's action button, it speeds off straight toward the pins.  The joystick doesn't come into play until the ball is in motion, at which point we can use it to hook the ball once, left or right.  And while we can send the ball careening toward where the gutter would be, there isn't really a visual or audio indicator that we've thrown it into the gutter.

So this "bowling" game is pretty much just a matter of timing, and even then, it's hard to get a strike -- we can hit the lead pin dead-on, and still end up with two stragglers on opposite sides of the formation.  And while version 2 moves the ball more quickly while the game waits for us to launch the ball, once it's in motion it crawls along at the same speed as in version 1, without any additional force that might knock more pins aside.  The scoring is kept as a simple running total -- there are no frames presented, and the result is ultimately more of a target-shooting contest than a real bowling game.

The Basketball! experience is similarly limited -- it requires two human players, both of whom are required to move left and right at ground level, in hopes of obtaining and throwing the ball into the stylized baskets at the edges of the screen:

The gameplay resembles Pachinko more than anything else -- the ball (at least it's orange!) drops into play, then one player or the other grabs it and tries to pop it into a pocket.  There's no player animation to speak of -- they just glide left and right across the court with their arms permanently held in the air -- and almost no offense or defense at all; while stealing the ball is possible, it can only happen if the player in possession throws the ball while the other player is touching it, or when the eight-second shot clock runs down.  When a basket has been scored, the new ball drops onto the playfield and the whole process repeats until the five-minute game clock runs out or (more likely) the players decide to turn this off and do something else.

There is some randomness to the players' throwing speed and angle, which helps to keep the game a little more interesting than it would otherwise be, but the ball physics seem to operate in the vertical dimension only; rushing forward or backward with the ball while throwing seems to have no effect on its ultimate trajectory, and so once again most of the outcome is fairly random. 

Bowling! / Basketball! for the Odyssey^2 delivers what it promises, but just barely; even as a two-for-one deal, many customers must have noticed that the slightly-more-capable Atari 2600 was presenting more convincing renditions of both of these sports.

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