Play (virtual) Ball!

In honor of the World Series—go Cards!—I thought I’d take a look at a few ways the game of baseball has been translated into America’s other national pastime: video games!  There have been so many different adaptations of baseball that I’m limiting myself to a very unscientific survey of a few baseball video games I happened to already have in my collection (what, you expect research?).  If you want more, check out the link at the end of the article.

Intellivision Lives! gave me two opportunities to play that console’s baseball games, but they turned out to be very similar: World Championship Baseball was an upgrade of Intellivision’s original Baseball of 1978, reprogrammed to take advantage of the increased memory on the system’s later cartridges.  The original version only supported two-player games, so I played a few innings with both controllers in hand, pitching, hitting, fielding, and running the bases like a chess player taking both sides of the board.  The later version allowed one-player games, with the computer taking a side; it even allowed zero-player games, so I could watch the computer take on itself, endlessly running its routines, just like in WarGames. 

Intellivision Baseball

Intellivision Baseball

The superiority of Intellivision’s version to Atari’s was a cornerstone of Intellivision’s ad campaign, and it does look good: the entire field can be seen, and the players are recognizably humanoid, with little running legs (and a catcher’s squat when at rest).  If anything, the player is given too much control, down to the catcher’s responsibility to return the ball to the pitcher after a play, and with the entire field on screen, the player controlling the pitching team has to be able to switch control quickly from one fielder to another, while the runner has the advantage of a much narrower range of options.  Unsurprisingly, the batting side ran up the score quickly, but at least I could take credit for both sides’ performance.  (Playing with the Intellivision’s controllers surely would have helped: this was one of several games that came with inserts that could be placed over the number pad, so instead of remembering which number to press for a given play, you could press “Bunt” or “Second Base” or whatever was needed.)



Several different baseball games were available for the Atari 2600, from the very primitive (the inspiration for the parody box cover Every Sport Ever in Pong Form) to games that squeezed every last drop of power out of the console. An example of the latter is Pete Rose Baseball (1988, very late in the Atari’s lifespan; okay, a little research went into this) for the Atari by Activision, a company formed by Atari programmers who went off on their own when they became disillusioned with the inequality between Atari’s profits and their own small paychecks and low status within the company.  As soon as they established there was no legal or technical barrier to releasing their own third-party software they were off (incidentally opening the door to dozens of other companies flooding the market with games).  (I played the Gameboy Advance port, retitled simply Baseball for obvious reasons, found on the Activision Anthology.)

Pete Rose? Never heard of him

Pete who? Never heard of him.

A challenge for any version of baseball is the independence of the players on the field.  There are routines, and patterns, but not formations: each player has a role and must be able to execute it, and in addition to the challenge of computer A. I. there is the question of giving control of these independent actors to the player.  Activision’s Baseball (programmed by Alex DeMeo: crediting programmers with a byline was both part of the company’s marketing and a contrast to the anonymity of Atari’s practice) gets around this problem by not showing the entire field at once.  Six different “TV-like” views of parts of the field are shown, allowing close-up control of the pitcher and batter and limiting the fielders onscreen to only four at a time.  When fielding, the player can choose which team member to control by aiming the joystick and pressing the fire button: it takes a little getting used to but becomes automatic quickly, and strikes me as a reasonably elegant solution given the limited control scheme of the Atari.  The pitcher and batter have quite a few options, and the player has enough control that skill really matters: the first inning I pitched, the computer scored thirteen runs off me—suddenly I was the Dodgers, and the computer was the Cardinals.  (I should also note the sound effects: the game begins with the last few notes of the national anthem, and a square-wave “organ” periodically plays between at-bats; after a play, the “crowd” roars, actually modulated white noise similar to the countdown to Armageddon heard at the end of every Missile Command game.)  Over all, it’s not a bad effort for a console with well-known programming constraints.

Neither the Intellivision nor Atari games offer any variety in the lineup, just interchangeable hitters and fielders.  Jumping ahead a few console generations (I told you this wouldn’t be comprehensive!), the increased power gave players the chance to manage by assembling a dream team and maximizing the effectiveness of the batting order.  I wouldn’t call it realistic, but Mario Superstar Baseball for the Gamecube has both character and strategy in spades.  Like all the Mario sports spin-offs, it’s a somewhat simplified version of the real sport with Nintendo’s extensive cast of characters as the players, and with the addition of power-ups and hazards from the Mario platformers. For example, when Mario is pitching, he has the option to throw a fireball; Chain Chomps and Piranha Plants catch unwary outfielders, and so on.  In Exhibition Game mode you’re free to choose your roster from all the available characters, each of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses (as designated everyman, Mario is the best all-around player; “name” characters have their own personality and specialties, with goombas, shy guys and other background characters filling out the rosters.) In Challenge Mode, you start as one of five team captains (Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Wario) and play the other captains’ teams in succession: beating them gives you the option to recruit players from their line up, something that is essential to beat Bowser in the championship game. There are six different ball parks, reflecting the personalities of the team captains; only Mario’s could be considered “standard:” Princess Peach’s park includes floating question mark boxes which, if hit by the ball, reveal bonus stars (which in turn can be used for power-ups); Bowser’s park is set inside an active volcano, so outfielders can be thrown off by periodic earthquakes or follow a ball into open lava pits.

Donkey Kong unleashes his "Banana Ball" pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Donkey Kong unleashes his “Banana Ball” pitch in Mario Superstar Baseball

Unlike the other baseball games covered here, the outfield has an advantage, although the computer A. I. still sometimes makes baffling misdirections.  Just as in the real game, pitching makes a big difference in MSB, so I like to use Peach and Waluigi, the two best pitchers; they’ll even get tired if you keep them in too long, so you have the option to swap positions mid-game.  As you can tell, this is one I come back to frequently; it has a great soundtrack and they get the characters right, and the game is just streamlined enough, but the bottom line, I guess, is that I like my sports simulations to have a touch of fantasy.  Mario Superstar Baseball was followed by Mario Super Sluggers for Wii, and a sequel for the Wii U has been announced.

And if that’s not enough, here’s three and a half minutes of virtual baseball over the years:

Maybe I’ll get to some of them in a follow-up column; in the mean time, share your favorite video baseball in the comments!


Intellivision (or at least its software) Lives!

When I got my first Atari VCS (as I knew it back in the day, but now universally known as the 2600), it promised the incredible: an arcade in my own home!  It didn’t take long to learn that it wasn’t quite what I imagined, but it was still the source of many hours of entertainment.  I didn’t get much of a chance to play games on competing systems at the time, though.  I recently found a copy of the retro video game anthology Intellivision Lives! for Gamecube. I already have the Activision Anthology for Gameboy Advance, collecting all the games that company produced for the Atari, and several collections of Atari games and various classic arcade games ported to current systems.  I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this kind of collection, not least for the nostalgia factor in being able to play these old games on modern equipment.  Often it doesn’t take long to scratch that itch, and I remember why I was happy to move beyond the blocky Atari graphics into PC games, and why the Nintendo Entertainment System was such a revelation when it was released a few years later.  And sometimes the classics aren’t as much fun as I remember, or I’ve been spoiled by newer games that don’t have the drawbacks I had no choice but to put up with in the old days.

Intellivision Lives!

But!  There are few greater pleasures than revisiting something you had thought long gone, only to find that it is as good as—or even better than—you remember.  For me this is especially true of those action-arcade favorites that made up for lo-res graphics and repetitive gameplay with elegant simplicity, combined with expertly ramped up challenges.  Asteroids and River Raid are just fun, and while I don’t spend hours in front of the screen trying to “roll over” the score until my thumb is sore from hitting the fire button any more, playing these old games does take me back, at least for a while.

Intellivision Lives! is a little different, though: I had played plenty of Atari games and classic arcade games as a kid, but I never owned an Intellivision or knew anyone that had one. So the nostalgic impulse was more for an era than for a specific game, and it was an opportunity to fill in some gaps in my knowledge.  Also, the game was cheap.  I had been aware of Intellivision, of course: the Intellivision ad campaign, starring George Plimpton and featuring side by side comparisons of Atari and Intellivision games, was ubiquitous in the early ‘80s.  (Was there ever a more withering putdown of Atari’s disappointing Pac-Man adaptation than Plimpton drily commenting, “Blinky, you look pale”?)  That snooty ad campaign, and Intellivision’s home computer-like number-pad controllers, made it clear that Intellivision (short for “intelligent television”) was serious: they were the thinking man’s video game company, at least to hear them tell it.


The closest I got to an Intellivision in the ‘80s was during the brief period in which my local mall’s record store decided to branch into selling game consoles and had floor models set up to play.  If you weren’t a video game-hungry kid at that time, it might be hard to imagine how packed the store would be.  In those days you either fed quarters into an arcade machine or angled to get a home console of your own; there was little in between.  So I don’t think I got any closer than watching somebody else walk a Smurf around on the Colecovision (yes, one of Coleco’s exclusive properties was a game about the Smurfs; no, I don’t know if it was any good), and do . . . something . . . on an Intellivision.  It’s not just that my memory of events 30+ years ago is foggy, it’s also that it wasn’t always clear what was happening on screen when you watched someone else play a game in those days.  Sometimes it wasn’t clear even if you were the one playing!

To tell the truth, some of that head-scratching abstraction that was a hallmark of early console games came back to me playing Intellivision Lives!  Because of programming limitations, it was common for the instruction manual to do a lot of heavy lifting, explaining the premise, goals of the game, and even inspiring the player’s imagination with artwork that might have little in common with the virtual Lego bricks that appeared on the TV screen.  Luckily, modern game machines have plenty of memory, so these retro anthology discs can be padded out with on-screen instructions, snazzy menus (Intellivision Lives! features a virtual pizza parlor the player can “walk” around in, stopping at different arcade machines to select the games), and bonus materials like box art and video clips.  Still, the experience can be anything but intuitive: for starters, the complex Intellivision controls had been mapped onto the equally complex but different Gamecube controller, so games like Vectron were impenetrable, even with the instructions, and more ambitious simulators like Utopia (which, from what I can tell, really does deliver on the promise of an experience with the depth of a PC text game) I couldn’t even get to start properly.  Maybe when I have more time to study it.

Still, I did find some fun games that were obvious enough, like Astrosmash, a pleasantly chaotic mix of Asteroids and Space Invaders with space rocks and bombs falling with increasing speed on a ship at the bottom of the screen that tries to shoot them before they land.  There was also Thunder Castle, a truly impressive sword-and-sorcery-themed maze game that is unmistakeably a product of its time, but artfully so: with its beautiful pixelated graphics and chiptune rendition of themes from Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, and its continually changing, non-scrolling screen, Thunder Castle resembles the PC and Apple games of the time like Lode Runner or Conan more than either the late period of the Atari 2600 or the early days of the NES.  Considering it came out very late in the Intellivision’s product cycle (after parent company Mattel had decided to cut Intellivision loose, in fact: it was published independently), it’s not surprising that it didn’t have a big impact on the “console wars,” but it’s a game that’s worth rediscovering (and from what I can tell it has found new life in recent years as a downloadable PS3 and iPad title).  I will definitely be spending some more time with Thunder Castle.


BONUS VIDEO: I found this while searching for the “Blinky, you look pale” commercial.  I guess Intellivision wanted its own version of the famous “Mean” Joe Green Coke commercial, but it does take the 1980s “soft sell” approach to a comical extreme.  Yes, that’s Henry Thomas of E. T. fame.