Thursday, April 14, 2011

At Random: Football (1978, Odyssey^2)

It's time for another random grab from the donated bag of Odyssey^2 cartridges... and I initially came up with K.C. Munchkin!, which I've already covered.  So I made a second foray, and produced Magnavox's interpretation of Football! .. which I included in a video podcast a while back, but haven't covered in specific detail.  So it's time to fire this one up and see what it tells us about video football game history.

The Odyssey^2's limited capabilities mean that there aren't even 11 players on the field for both teams combined -- we play a simplified game of five-on-five American football.  The players also appear to be naked, although the quarterbacks have heads that resemble something that might be taken to be a football helmet, rather than suggesting Atari's E.T.  And the ball is a short white 2-pixel dash, except when it's being carried by a player, at which moments it cannot be seen at all.

The game opens with the usual Odyssey^2 "Select Game" screen, but there's only one option to select, which we do by pressing the 1 key on the keyboard to start up a two-player game.  No fancy-pants AI opponents here!  There's an (invisible) coin toss, and one of the teams ends up with the ball.  (To tell which team has it, we have to look at the color of the yardage marker above the field.)

The human player whose team is in possession can control the current ball carrier using the joystick, and press the action button to pass the ball in one of the eight cardinal directions, which means the player can really only throw the ball in the same direction he's running.  The lack of precision targeting is exacerbated by the surprising speed with which the ball moves through the air, producing a lot of missed passes.  There's really no way to get the receiving player lined up intentionally -- all we can do is toss the ball and hope we shot it cleanly at one of our own players.

The human playing defense can control the linebacker and try to intercept the offense's passes, but given the difficulty of passing and the generally uniform speed at which the onscreen figures move, most players in possession will just make a run for the end zone.  Tackles are largely a matter of luck -- once possession is established, each player can select from a small set of pre-programmed plays, and can't really do much to alter their patterns beyond the dangerously tricky passes.  So if your play happens to hit a weak spot in your opponent's pattern, you may see positive results, but it's up to chance to some degree.

There's no "run" button - the players chug down the field at the same staid pace no matter what's going on.  Touchdowns are celebrated with a brief musical fanfare but no visual flourishes -- just the victorious player carrying the (still invisible) ball standing frozen in the end zone while the music plays.

Odyssey^2 Football! (the exclamation point means it's exciting!) is another case of an early video game where the concept was obviously suitable to the newborn medium, but proper execution would have to wait until the hardware was a bit more powerful.  By the time Madden Football came along on the 16-bit Sega Genesis, simulation of the sport would be a lot more full-featured.  But it's always valuable to know where we've been so we can appreciate where we are.

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