Thursday, May 19, 2011

At Random: Volleyball! (Odyssey^2, 1980)

I've been enjoying revisiting the Magnavox Odyssey^2 library of late, so this week I reached randomly into the as-yet-unplayed collection once again, and came up with Volleyball!  (The exclamation point belongs to Magnavox, not me.  Most of the Odyssey^2 library was named using this built-in punctuation, perhaps in an attempt to trick the press into giving the system breathlessly enthusiastic coverage.)

Volleyball! was not one of the keyboard-equipped Odyssey^2 console's launch titles -- it came along a year or two later, in 1980, and unlike Magnavox's earlier sports contests, its 2K program manages to support one-player, two-player, and no-player exhibition modes, depending on whether anyone touches either joystick controller after the game's single option is selected for play.  Of course, the game still uses the system's standard "men" -- these built-in sprites conserved cartridge memory at the expense of graphical variety.

Unfortunately, Volleyball!'s gameplay is basically a dressed-up version of Pong, with a paddle made up of six players that move in unison, except when a team is serving or celebrating a point scored.  The player moves the whole team around as a block, trying to intercept the ball and knock it back over the net for the opposing team to contend with.  The players change orientation to watch the ball, in precise columnar unison; it's a nice little graphical touch with no real impact on gameplay. 

A few concessions are made to improve the game's resemblance to the actual sport -- the action button can be used to "spike" the ball, but all it really does is speed it up, which more often than not causes the ball to bounce off the solid net and sink to the bottom of the aggressive player's own side. The player can put "english" on the ball by intercepting it while in motion, which would be strategically useful if not for the fact that if the player is NOT moving when the ball is contacted, it's counted as a miss and the ball must be salvaged by a moving teammate as quickly as possible.  So the player really has no choice but to stay in constant motion, and hope the ball gets knocked somewhere where the other team cannot return it.

The biggest problem with Volleyball! is its odd perspective -- the net is not rendered as a line across the court over which the ball can pass, but as a solid barrier with a gap at the top.  The players hover and float on either side, and the effect resembles two six-member swim teams tossing a ball back and forth over a concrete wall.  The ball casts no shadow, so this mixture of 2-D perspectives makes the game more playable than it might otherwise have been, but it's still a visually jarring and play-limiting design.

One has to give Magnavox some credit for bringing a volleyball game to market before either Atari or Mattel, and for adding much-needed single-player support to this game.  But Volleyball!'s resemblance to actual volleyball is not much better than the "volleyball" modes of the early dedicated ball-and-paddle Odyssey units.  It's just too simplistic in the end -- something a whole series of exclamation points could not have disguised.

No comments:

Post a Comment