Wednesday, June 15, 2011

At Random: Baseball (Odyssey^2, 1982)

Baseball is a sport that translates remarkably well to video games, and it has done so for a long time.  The basic rules are straightforward to program, and play is much more deterministic than a team sport like football, so even early consoles had enough horsepower to present the game credibly.  My latest random pick came up with Magnavox's Odyssey^2 Baseball cartridge, released in 1982, a few years into the system's lifespan.  So let's take a look at an early example of the American pastime in video game form.

As the game starts up, we select the single available option by hitting the 1 key on the Odyssey^2's keyboard.  Then we hear a horrendous attempt at playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, which somehow manages to mangle both pitch and rhythm.  The next thing we notice is that there is no baseball diamond displayed onscreen, but the positions of the batter (in blue to begin with), pitcher (red center figure holding a white ball), catcher (squarish red figure at bottom) and fielders (others in red) are clear enough if we know what the diamond should look like.  There are no play variations available, and the game requires two human players; there is no player-vs.-computer option.

The player at bat has only one available action -- hit the joystick's fire button at the right time to hit the ball when the pitcher throws it.  The animation is unconvincing, as the bat swings as though it's tied to the batter's wrists, but it works, and precision timing is important -- early and late swings tend to send the ball straight into one of the fielders' mitts for an easy out.  If the batter hits the ball so that it ends up in the outfield, he will automatically take first base; if there's a suitable opportunity, the player can try to steal a base by nudging the joystick while fielding is in progress. (The bat gets left behind at home plate after a solid hit, but the at-bat player can keep hitting the fire button while the bases are being run, apparently summoning the ghosts of ballplayers past to swing the bat in the absence of any human batter.)

The player whose team is on the field has slightly broader options -- the three outfielders can be moved around using the joystick, and pressing the action button causes the pitcher to throw the ball.  Once the ball is in flight, it can be steered until it is either hit by the batter or caught by the catcher.  (Oddly enough, if the pitcher throws the ball so far to one side that it gets past the catcher, it still gets thrown back to the pitcher from offscreen, presumably by a kindhearted spectator or peanut vendor.)

Per the standard rules, the teams switch after 3 outs are scored against the team at bat.  A home run occurs whenever the ball lands beyond the white lines at the top of the field, and the batter and any runners on base will run all the way home.

The player who scores the most runs is considered the winner after the traditional 9 innings (with extras if the score is tied after the 9th), although there's no acknowledgment of the winner onscreen; the players will just have to congratulate each other in person.

And that's about all there is to Odyssey^2 Baseball.  There are no weather conditions to deal with, no MLBPA player stats or rosters, no selection of pitches or classic batter-pitcher confrontation closeups.  These early attempts at video baseball were very basic, centered around pitching, hitting, running bases, and (in the most rudimentary possible form) fielding.  Later games would approach the sport with more sophistication; Atari 2600's flickery, simplistic Home Run was the only other title stuck in this particularly bush league.

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