“Sports sports sports sports sports. Bart gets to sit in the front ‘cause he’s a good guy at sports.” – Homer Simpson.
RealSports Baseball (Atari, 1982)
One thing I’ve discovered since I started this blog is that Atari’s much-maligned first wave of sports games hold up a lot better than their reputation would suggest. Of those games I’ve reviewed so far, I only consider Football a total dud. Golf and Bowling are solid, while Home Run, Basketball and Pelé’s Soccer – while wacky – are surprisingly fun. None of them are pretty, but most of them are fun.
Meanwhile, I keep on finding that the RealSports series – which was supposed to be a step up from the disco-era oldies – can be disappointing in spite of superior graphics and supposedly deeper gameplay. And the worst of the lot has gotta be RealSports Baseball. Home Run was far from a realistic depiction of baseball but there was a surprising variety of pitches available and they actually worked. With RealSports Baseball my attempts to throw a fastball, sinker or riser almost always resulted in an accidental throw to a baseman, meaning my only option was to throw an intentional ball. Was this player ineptitude or poor control design? Your mileage may vary, but I’m thinking it was a combination of both, leaning towards the latter.
Batting is better, but not by much. Although it’s nice that you can actually hit the ball, your first chance at a run reveals just how utterly incompetent your CPU opponent really is. I swear there were times I scored a second-base hit just because of how lackadaisically the basemen or outfielders pursued the ball.
Aside from some nice animation, RealSports Baseball is just not very good. The sound borders on dog-whistle awful and the game itself is borderline unplayable. I guess I’ll have to see if Atari’s 1988 Super Baseball improves upon it, but until then it’s looking like Pete Rose Baseball may wind up being the only half-decent version of baseball on the VCS. D-
RealSports Basketball (Atari Prototype, Developed 1983)
In all honesty, you could pretty much read Atari Protos’ assessment of this prototype and it pretty much captures my own. It’s a good thing RealSports Basketball was never commercially released as is because it completely and utterly sucks. It doesn’t even have much reason to exist at all because it’s more or less a two-on-two version of Atari’s 1978 Basketball: like that earlier game, it still doesn’t follow the rules of basketball. The difference is that Basketball – with its wacky physics – is fun and RealSports Basketball is abominable. Third time being the charm, Atari would eventually, in the last days of the console’s existence, produce an accurate rendition of half-court two-on-two basketball with Double Dunk, although personally I still prefer the 1978 cart. As far as RealSports Basketball is concerned, I’m going to forego a letter grade as it’s impossible to tell if this is how its commercial release would have turned out. However, I do not recommend wasting your time with it.
RealSports Boxing (Atari, 1987)
When you look at the difficulty Atari had in producing even one playable baseball title, it comes as some surprise that the VCS is home to not just one but two decent boxing titles: Activision’s Boxing from 1980 and Atari’s RealSports Boxing, released in 1987. Although I still prefer the former, RealSports Boxing offers a largely satisfactory video boxing experience.
With a choice between four boxers and two levels of difficulty, RealSports Boxing puts you in the ring for seven rounds or until you or your opponent (computer or human) is knocked out. You can jab, perform body blows, upper-cut or cover by selecting the appropriate move with the joystick and pressing the button. Compared to games with similar mechanics (the 2600 version of Double Dragon comes to mind), these moves mesh pretty seamlessly and you’ll soon be able to perform a variety of punches and defensive moves quite easily. It’s particularly satisfying to land several jabs to your opponent’s face in a row.
RealSports Boxing is bright and colourful, although the crowd noises are the standard 2600 sounds you hear in many sports games for the console. My complaint is that it is sometimes hard to see which character is punching which – a problem Boxing, with its brilliant overhead view – didn’t have. Speaking of Boxing, I’m using the same criteria for rating RealSports Boxing as I did for that game. As a general rule I don’t care much for boxing video games, so if you’re a fan feel free to increase my conclusion by a full letter grade. C
RealSports Football (Atari, 1982)
This is probably the only video football game I’ve ever played in which NO ONE can catch. Even interceptions are taken right to the head, resulting in an unintentionally hilarious animation of your player biting Astroturf. RealSports Football has neither a passing game nor a running game – it’s almost exclusively a kicking game, making it a weird combination of American football and European football aka soccer. Want the ball out of your zone? Just kick the ball (yes, from the scrimmage) and you’ll likely gain a good 50 yards – no, it doesn’t matter if any of your players actually catch the ball or not.
OK, so RealSports Football plays pretty fast and loose with the rules of football, but that’s not unusual for an Atari 2600 sports title. The good news is that the graphics are at least a few steps up from its 1978 predecessor. You have a horizontally-scrolling screen, clearly-marked yard lines (no hash marks though), and the players are well-animated in a distinctly Intellivision-like way. Unfortunately, a lack of good AI makes playing the game a chore. Your receivers are absolutely useless – out of countless plays I was able to connect with a receiver precisely ONCE. Either it misses the ball completely or an opponent will intercept with its head, costing you possession.
RealSports Football looks good and looks like it should be fun, but it’s usually not. Of course, this review is based exclusively on a one-player experience, but let’s get real: how likely are you going to find a partner to play a mediocre 35-year-old video football game on a system that was rarely any good for team sports games anyway? Still, lacking information on its two-player experience, I’m going to give it the benefit of a doubt and give it a C.
RealSports Soccer aka Football: RealSports Soccer (Atari, 1983)
RealSports Soccer surprised me – I actually had fun playing it. Given what I’ve seen of the RealSports series so far, I was not expecting to like RealSports Soccer more than the graphically-maligned but enjoyable Pelé’s Soccer but the improved graphics and smooth playability won me over. It will probably be the only RealSports title I will ever be motivated to play again.
RealSports Soccer features three players on either side and difficulty levels of easy, intermediate and difficult. There is no goalie – it wouldn’t be an Atari sports game if it didn’t create its own unique version of the sport at hand – but I’m willing to overlook such omissions simply because I enjoyed the game. Passing is imprecise but relatively smooth and the player animation is rendered beautifully. There is supposed to be a “wraparound feature” (I’m thinking it was actually a glitch) in which the controlled player can run off either side of the screen and appear on the other side, but I haven’t looked into it yet.
I think the reason why fast-action sports like soccer and Ice Hockey work so well on the Atari 2600 is because they play to the console’s strengths where slower, more rule-intensive games like baseball and football do not. I’m just glad that there’s at least one game in the RealSports series that is actually better than its predecessor. B