Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tennis (1989)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
2 out of 5 Game Boy launch titles were sports games.
I'm not sure what that says about Nintendo, but it does
make me wonder why every platform got so many.

So this is Tennis, the final of 5 launch titles for the Nintendo Game Boy.  The 2nd of 2 sports titles in the launch line-up, Nintendo of America must really have been banking on the popularity of sports games, because the launch line-up included 2 games, much like the Japanese launch included Yakuman, a mahjong game.  In the same way that every video game console ever released in Japan has likely seen a mahjong game (or thirty), every game system ever released in North America is generally peppered with sports titles throughout the console's life span.  The Game Boy was no exception, and it received both Baseball and Tennis.

It's a good thing they let you turn off the background
music, because there's only 1 track that repeats forever.

Of the 2 sports titles, I prefer Tennis, in part because it's a more fully realized game.  Baseball suffered from very little replay value, somewhat broken game mechanics, and a touch of unforgiving CPU AI.  Tennis, on the other hand, appears to be more fleshed out, in part because there are 4 different difficulty levels, and the gameplay just "feels" better.  Something about how tightly the game plays makes it a better game.  I realize that's difficult to quantify, but I'll do my best to explain.

There are 4 different difficulty levels. Each successive
level makes the game faster and more difficult. I'm not
sure how human beings can play the game at level 3 or 4,
given how fast the game, you, & your opponent both move.

For the uninitiated, the sport of tennis is fairly simple.  2 players face off on a court with a 3 1/2 foot net that divides the court equally.  Each side has lines painted to designate the entire play field, as well as two smaller sections along the net that show the serving area.  One player serves the ball by hitting it with their tennis racket to the opposite court, on the opposite side of the net horizontally.  In other words, they hit the ball diagonally to the player on the other side.  That player then returns the ball to anywhere in the serving player's side of the court, and they continue to volley the ball back and forth until someone misses a shot, one player hits the ball out of bounds, or the ball hits the net and lands on the side of the returning player.  The 1st and 2nd scores are worth 15 points, the 3rd is worth 10, and the 4th wins the game.  If each player scores 3 times, and they're tied at 40 points, a "deuce" occurs, and the players continue to serve and volley the ball until one player has scored twice in succession against the other player, so that they are 2 strokes or volleys ahead.  This particular tennis game consists of 2 sets, consisting of anywhere from 6 to 12 matches per set, depending on whether the players are winning multiple matches in each set or not.  If the 2nd set results in a tie, a sudden-death round takes place, and players volley until one player has scored 7 times, at which point they win the game.  Clear as mud, right?

As you can see, the view is pretty basic, but is perfect for
the game, because it's not cluttered by scenery or other
background noise that would detract from your ability
to just play the game of tennis, so it fits this game well.

The game's controls make for part of why I mentioned above that the game feels tighter and better than Baseball.  Holding up on the D-pad means you're hitting the ball toward your opponent harder/faster, and holding down means you're hitting it with less force.  Holding right or left on the D-pad when serving or returning a volley will make the ball veer in that direction, but be careful; sometimes you'll end up overshooting and the ball will land out of bounds.  Press A once to toss the ball in the air, and A again to serve.  The A button is your basic, straight-ahead shot, while the B button is a high, arcing shot where you essentially lob the ball up and over toward your opponent.  Start pauses the game, and that can be done at any time during a match.  Other than sometimes overshooting, and occasionally failing to return a volley if you're standing dead-center with the ball as it approaches you, the controls just work, and are pretty intuitive.

After every few matches, you change sides, as per official
tennis rules, though it doesn't really affect play at all.

It's not hard for a game to be more graphically impressive than the original Baseball for Game Boy, but Tennis is relatively impressive, as compared to its launch title sports brethren.  The character sprites animate well, and are reasonably good facsimiles of real people on a court.  The perspective above and behind the player is also just about as good as one could hope for, with enough view of both sides of the court to judge the distance, speed, and trajectory of the tennis ball.  The ball makes a subtle little circle animation on the ground each time it bounces, and the ball's shadow helps make it easier to gauge its relative position.  Mario looks like Mario, in his referee role, and while the crowd is pretty basic, at least there's an audience drawn in.  Overall, the graphics are fitting, and the animations work well.  There's also the nice little touch of your player bouncing the ball on the ground a couple times, if you take too long before serving the ball.  Also of note, all the original launch titles have special color schemes when used in the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and also the Game Boy Player for the GameCube.  The court is a nice green, the players have different color clothing, and it just looks very sharp.

Depending on the difficulty level, gameplay can get quite
fast and frenetic, with you and the CPU trading volleys in
rapid succession until someone makes a mistake.

Sound design is basic and utilitarian, but it works.  There's a basic ball bounce sound you'll hear a lot, as well as the sound when the ball hits the racket.  When a ball is hit high, it makes a familiar "arc" kind of sound, and when the ball smacks into the net, it's a good approximation of what that might sound like, at least as far what the Game Boy can produce.  The sound that plays between matches is goofy, and seems more like filler, but the "crowd noise" sound is decent, giving that sense of the audience cheering you on.  Music is basic, and like Baseball, the presence of only 1 music track means you'll get tired of it really quickly, but at least it's reasonably bouncy, catchy, and inoffensive, so until you tire of it, it won't completely bore you.  Once again, Nintendo gets the job done without the "wow" factor.

With enough practice, you can begin to get a leg up on
the CPU.  Also, you should win, because you have the
awesome, 80's-inspired headband on your player's head.

When I first started playing, I felt as though the game was quite difficult, because I found myself trying to beat the CPU by tricking it, using the right and left angled shots to send the ball where the computer couldn't reach it, only to be flabbergasted when it actually returned the ball in the same fashion I was attempting to do, and beating me handily in the process.  When I started to change up my strategy, alternating between fast and slow shots, and occasionally throwing in a "lob" shot, I started improving.  However, I found that there's a way to game the system, and give yourself a very good chance of winning.  If you stand at the back of the court, and hit the ball with a slow shot (hold down on the D-pad and hit A, just as the ball is reaching the back court line, you can shoot it just far enough to hit the top of the net and barely bounce over.  The CPU will not be able to return these shots, and usually won't try.  Occasionally, it will attempt to volley it back to you, but the ball will always hit the net on those occasions.  Of course, this technique becomes harder as you move up in difficulty level, so your level of precision needs to tighten alongside that shift.  There are other techniques more advanced that you can read about on GameFAQs, though strangely, none of the hosted FAQs mentioned this particular technique.  However, they all mention a bug in the game, whereby you swing your racket at the peak of your serve, then move your player so the ball bounces on your head and you win the point.  I can confirm their findings as well, as I tried it, and sure enough; it works like a charm!

It's good to know that, even after taking such a beating,
my CPU opponent isn't a poor sport, and will still shake
my hand.  Nintendo obviously didn't program in any John
McEnroe-esque temper tantrums in the game.

Unfortunately, since I don't know anyone else locally who owns a Game Boy, let alone someone who owns a copy of Tennis for the handheld, I was unable to test the 2-player mode at this time.  Based on what I've read, it's pretty fun, and you even have the opportunity to play doubles.  I would love to be able to try that, as well as competitive play against another person.  I quite enjoyed 2-player action on the Game Boy as a kid, and I still think it would be fun to have that kind of interaction today.  I suppose I could cheat, and try to play against someone online via an emulator, but I prefer the real thing.  There's nothing like hooking up a link cable, or lining up your Game Boy Color units for infrared to go head-to-head in a game like this.  Sadly, I can't test that side of the experience at the moment.

Ah yes, the triumphant walk to bask in the glory of victory,
as the audience cheers you on, feeding your narcissism.

Overall, Tennis on the Game Boy is a great little game, and one that I see myself going back to.  There are other tennis games on the platform, as well as titles that came out later on the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, so it will be interesting to see how those compare with this.  As it stands, I would say this ranks behind Tetris and Super Mario Land as a decent 3rd place contender within the launch line-up.  It has more replay value than either Alleyway or Baseball, has better control and game mechanics than the latter, and is just fun to play.  Even if you're like me, and not much of a sports (or sports game) fan, this is a solid, fun game that, given some time, might just suck you in and get you addicted to it.  Recommended.

The painful sting of loss is too much for your player when
you lose - he just walks off the court crying after the match.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Alleyway (1989)

Box scan shamelessly linked from Wikipedia.
Now Mario is piloting a suppository?  What's next?
Will he be the CEO of a major corporation?

Every game system that has ever existed has had a handful of lackluster or underwhelming games, either at launch, or during the "launch window", an indeterminate number of weeks or months following a console's relese, where games are released that are among the system's earliest titles.  Some of these games are still fondly remembered, or at the very least, are sought after because of collectibility.  In particular, I'm thinking of the Nintendo Entertainment System "black box" titles.  There probably aren't a lot of people who would stand up and say Clu Clu Land, or perhaps Gumshoe, are among the best early NES games, but they're still sought after as collectibles.

200 is a pretty low score, so besting the default high
score is a pretty easy task, even for the beginner.

Then you have console launch titles that aren't particularly well regarded or remembered.  There might not be anything inherently "wrong" with them, per se, but they didn't set the world on fire, so they tend to be relegated to bargain bins and priced to sell.  Mom & pop retro game stores might have 15 copies in their back room, but only 2 on the shelf, so they don't make it appear that there are as many copies in circulation, hopefully to help them sell a bit faster.  Shortly after they finally sell a copy, they bring out another to take its place, in hopes that they won't have 3 more copies traded in before they can clear some of the inventory out.  Alleyway exists in this space, perhaps somewhat unfairly.

Once you're down to the last few bricks, it can sometimes
take a while to get the ball to bounce where you want it
in order to take out those last few, which can be frustrating.

At its heart, Alleyway is a simplistic Breakout clone.  It offers very little in the way of features or exciting gameplay mechanics.  As pointed out in the excellent write-up Jeremy Parish did on Game Boy World, Alleyway is actually based upon an old Nintendo IP called "Block Kuzushi", which was one of a number of single-game consoles released in the 1970's.  I won't go into more detail, since Jeremy pretty much covered everything, but Alleyway plays more like a love letter to the earliest "paddle and ball" brick-breaking games than any of the more advanced games since, such as the excellent Arkanoid.  As a simple "paddle and ball" game, it succeeds and can be quite fun.

You can pause while the ball is in play, but not before,
which is quite strange.  If you hadn't started the ball, and
you accidentally press a button when you set your Game Boy
down, you will likely lose that life by default.

The setup of the game is very simple as well.  You begin with a basic stage, consisting of a grouping (or several groupings) of blocks, and as soon as you press a button, the ball is in play, and you're bouncing it off your paddle and up to bricks or against walls or other obstacles.  Once you clear that board, you're treated to the same level again, but where the brick grouping(s) will scroll to the right or left, necessitating a minor adjustment in strategy to get the ball to go where you want it to destroy all the bricks.  The 3rd stage offers the same layout again, but after every few times the ball hits the paddle, the screen moves down a bit, and the brick grouping(s) will begin to disappear, in favor of a 2nd grouping that will come down from the top of the screen.  After these 3 stage iterations, you're treated to a timed bonus round, each of which has a giant brick group shaped like a Super Mario Bros. character or enemy.  The bricks in the bonus rounds don't send the ball bouncing back down, and it essentially "collects" these bonus bricks as it passes through them.  If you collect all the bricks in the bonus round, you get an additional batch of bonus points.  There are also 3 types of bricks: "white" bricks garner 1 point each, "gray" bricks are worth 2 points, and the "black" bricks are worth 3 points.  For every 1,000 points you earn, you earn an extra life.  Also, when the ball reaches and touches the top of the playing field, your paddle shrinks in width by half.

All the bonus rounds have fun layouts like this Piranha
Plant, and they're all inspired by Mario universe characters.

Graphically, the game is almost as simple as it gets.  The paddle, though not a single shaded rectangle, like in the original Breakout, is very simple in design.  Most bricks have a basic outline around them, and there are some unbreakable bricks with a sort of "pyramid" look about them, with an "X" on the block and slanted, triangular sides.  Other than the ball bouncing around, the brick groups moving, the paddle moving left or right, and Mario jumping out of the paddle when you've lost your last life, the animation in the game is almost nonexistent.  Given the context of the era, however, and how previous handheld games consisted of LCD games, this can be somewhat forgiven, since this was a more fully realized product than those earlier games could boast.  Still, even for a launch title, it's a bit underwhelming.

Stage layouts become increasingly complex and varied as
the game goes on, forcing you to change up strategies.

Sound design is very basic.  The only time music plays is at the title screen, at the beginning of the bonus stage, and then during the bonus stage, once you press a button to launch the ball.  You also get a short ditty when you complete a level, or when you've lost your last life and the game is over.  Sound effects are mostly higher pitched beeps and things, such as when the ball hits various bricks, the paddle, the wall, unbreakable blocks, etc.  There is a decent explosion noise when the ball is lost, or when the time runs out in the bonus round.  In keeping with the inclusion of Mario in the game, you also hear the traditional 1up sound from the Super Mario games, each time you get an extra life.  Otherwise, the sound is underwhelming as well - it's just all very functional.

This Mario head-themed layout is a nice change of pace
from the more bland groupings of bricks in earlier levels.

There are 2 things that elevate the game above a standard Breakout clone.  First, the A and B buttons can be used to affect the paddle's speed.  Holding down the B button will slow the paddle's movement, and holding down the A button will speed it up.  I find that 90% of the time, I don't need those things, but on occasion, I'll use the B button to move the paddle ever so slightly so I can get a different angle of reflection on the paddle so the ball will go elsewhere, or will use A to speed the paddle up if the ball went somewhere I wasn't expecting it to, and I have to traverse most of the screen width to catch it.  That gives more depth and control than you'd get from a paddle and ball game without using an analog controller.  Second, the varied brick groups and level designs help keep the game from being the same rote exercise each time through.  True, you see each layout 3 times, but the way you interact with them changes a bit each time, so it helps to keep it fresh.  The bonus stages add a bit of fun, and the game does pose a challenge.  In all the years I've had this game, I've still never been able to beat it.  I always make too many mistakes about 2/3 of the way through the game's 32 levels, and lose all my lives.

Some later levels have a lot of bricks, so point scoring
opportunities increase quite a bit, which helps you earn
more lives to offset the ones you'll likely lose due to the 
more difficult layouts you'll have to contend with.

I feel like Alleyway sometimes gets unfairly panned, simply because it's not an outstanding title, or because it's not that memorable.  It's true, the game is very basic, and only hints at what the Game Boy was truly capable of doing, but to any kid just buying his or her first real handheld gaming system, it was still far more impressive than that Castlevania: Simon's Quest Tiger handheld they might have received the year prior.  The game doesn't do anything remarkable, but then, it doesn't really need to.  It's the perfect kind of game for a system like the Game Boy, because it's a pick-up and play sort of game, that you can play for a bit and put down, but there are enough levels and challenge that you can continue to play and it gives enough content to keep coming back to it for a while, until you complete it.  Once you've beat all the levels, there's probably not a reason to play it again, unless you're in the mood for this type of game, but then, lots of games are like that.  I'll give this one a casual recommendation, because loose carts can be had for $3 or $4 usually, and it's worth that much to experience it at least once, to get perspective on what the launch library was like, compared to what developers could get out of the hardware just 2 or 3 short years later.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baseball (1989)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
"Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd..."

I'm not a sports guy.  Truth be told, I never really have been, though I did have some relative interest in sports as a kid.  I was sort of into football, I was sort of into basketball, and I had a passing interest in a couple other sports.  The sport I was most interested in, like many other red-blooded American youth, was Baseball.  Yes, America's pastime was my preferred sport, in part because of the strategy, and in part because that's what my dad was into.  My team was the Kansas City Royals, in part because of their proximity to where we lived, and my favorite player was the pine tar king himself, George Brett.  Needless to say, as a chubby nerd of a kid, I played exactly one summer of little league and played poorly enough that I didn't feel like playing a 2nd year.  Once the player strike happened, I quit collecting baseball cards and pretty much lost all interest in the sport.  I guess I had no sympathy for guys who made more money in a month than my dad made all year, and them whining about not getting paid enough.

I like how the baseballs and bats are incorporated into the title screen.

So while I haven't followed the sport in well over 20 years, I still understand the basics, and have played and enjoyed a handful of baseball games over the years.  The classic RBI Baseball on the NES was a hoot, and I had a little fun with Bottom of the 9th, an arcade classic that had semi-realistic (at the time) graphics and physics.  I even had some fun with Baseball on the Atari 2600, until the joystick stopped working.  But I never purchased a baseball game for any home console, because I'd rather go throw the ball around outside than play the game inside.  My first official baseball game purchase ever is Baseball for the Game Boy, a launch title.

"Swing, batter batter, swing!"

As baseball games go, this is pretty bare bones.  There are only 2 teams in the game, The W-Bears and the R-Eagles, and you choose which team you want to be based upon whether you want to hit or pitch first.  You can also choose between "USA Mode" or "Japan Mode", but as far as I can tell, the only difference between the 2 modes is the names of the players, which are all generic, save for Mario and Luigi.  The brothers don't appear to look like their more famous plumbing counterparts, however, as the player sprites are all quite generic.  The game mechanics are extremely simple as well.  If you're looking for a deep sports game experience, this isn't it.

"That's a mighty fast pitch ya got there, son."

Graphically, it's a pretty simple setup.  The view is the same, whether you're pitching or hitting, which is a view from behind home plate, as if you were the umpire.  When the ball is hit, the view switches to a more overhead perspective, and zooms out quite a bit so you can see more of the field and the players.  As expected, the player sprites are simplistic and have very little animation to them.  The graphics don't have to be fancy, given the need to see the field lines, bases, and players, so one wouldn't have to expect them to be anything more than what they are.  The animations are also a bit goofy at times.  While the pitching and batting animations are solid, and look quite good, the running animation is strange, especially when the pitcher runs to the mound at the beginning of each change-over.  The screen animation following a hit is also very jerky, and can be a tad distracting.

Here's me, throwing to 1st base instead of home because,
even with the game's intuitive controls, I keep wanting to
throw to 1st base for some odd reason...

Sound design is very basic as well.  The little tune that plays at the beginning of the game, as well as the one between rounds, will get stuck in your head, because they're catchy.  The song that plays during the game loops forever, and it's the only long-form track in the whole game, so if you don't choose to turn the music off (thankfully, that's an option), you're a better person than I am.  Sound effects are all appropriate for the game, and only the "pop fly" sound began to grate on me after a while.  At this point in the Game Boy's life, Nintendo wasn't experimenting too much with the sound hardware, and it shows here, because nearly all the sounds are pretty standard high-pitched "boops and beeps", much like what you would hear in early NES titles, before creative developers like Sunsoft started to push the envelope.

Each time you change players on the field, they do this
goofy thing where they all put up their hands when the
pitcher reaches the mound.

Gameplay is quite simple, mostly intuitive, but actually quite difficult.  When batting, you can move your player around in the batting box, and hit the A button to swing the bat.  Similarly, when pitching, you can move the pitcher left or right on the mound, press A to take a stance, then A again to throw the pitch.  Holding down on the D-pad makes the ball go faster, holding up makes it go slower, and pressing left or right will make the ball curve in that direction.  Fielding is semi-automatic.  When a ball is hit, your fielders will run in the general direction the ball is travelling.  If it's a pop fly, generally the fielders will run to where they can catch it, assuming it doesn't move too fast for them to catch up.  If it's a ground ball, often the fielders will scramble and run to the ball to try and intercept it before it goes outfield.  If so, you can try and quickly throw the ball to a base to get a runner out.  This is where part of the intuitive nature comes in to play.  If you're pitching, you can press Start to call a timeout, then press Start again to bring up the list of pitchers so you can substitute by selecting a pitcher and hitting the A button.  You hold the direction on the d-pad to the base you want to throw: right for 1st base, up for 2nd, and left for 3rd, as well as down for home.  Then you press the A button to throw in that direction.  Similarly, when you're the hitting team, you use the B button and the corresponding direction to steal a base, or run to one in times when the ball is hit and your on-based players don't automatically run.

Nothing like the satisfaction of catching a pop fly for an easy out.

That brings me to one of the game's somewhat broken mechanics.  There's apparently a trick with stealing bases, documented on GameFAQs, where you can begin to steal a base, as the pitcher is beginning his throw.  If you can pull it off, even if your batter hits a foul, or hits a pop fly, you can often steal the next base.  However, it doesn't always work correctly.  In conjunction with that, there are times you'll hit the ball, and the runner on first won't move, so you'll have to manually advance him to the next base, only to occasionally be thrown out because you didn't notice until your batter was halfway to first base.  Also, if you attempt to steal a base and you're in danger of being thrown out, you're supposed to be able to backtrack to the base you just crossed, but I couldn't ever get that mechanic to work.  On top of that, sometimes when you steal a base, it doesn't count for some reason, and that runner gets thrown out at their previous base.  It doesn't quite track with the rules of the game, and can be frustrating when you're trying to exploit the base stealing mechanic.  The batting mechanics have been documented as well, but I never found any great consistency in where I was going to hit the ball, based on where I connected with it on the bat.  Speaking of connecting, I found the most luck when I moved the batter to the bottom of the batter's box, versus in the middle or top.  Similarly, I struck out batters as much throwing straight pitches as I did trying to throw curve balls and the like, so the game's AI is severely lacking in that respect.

The game also seems highly unbalanced when it comes to the hitting and fielding.  The AI for the semi-automatic fielding seems to work better for the CPU than for you, and because the computer's team doesn't have human hands controlling it, when an infielder catches or fields a ball, they can instantly throw it to the corresponding base, and throw our your runner and/or batter.  I found that I could never react fast enough to throw them out with any consistency.  The computer sometimes seemed to be able to really hit major curve balls and score home runs, and even grand slams, scoring anywhere from 2-4 runs at once.  I could never hit with any kind of consistency.  Thankfully, the game institutes a Little League styled 10-run rule, so if you're losing by 10 points, you automatically lose the game, and don't have to suffer the continued humiliation of being annihilated by the computer.  When you lose the game, and you will, your team lines up on the field so the audience can throw objects at you, which only furthers your sense of shame.  I played some 20-25 games in total for this review.  I lost via the 10-run rule 3 or 4 times, and lasted the 9 innings the rest, but I was never able to win a game - not even close.  The game's somewhat unforgiving AI made it very difficult to get anywhere near enough runs to claim victory.

You'll be seeing this screen a lot, but unless you can get
skilled at the batting & base stealing mechanics, don't
expect it to be you generating this screen much, but the
opposing team will often get a number of these each game.

All in all, it's an interesting period piece.  Baseball was and is America's past time, and in 1989 when this game was released, the sport was at peak popularity, so even a relatively weak game like this would sell, especially given the more powerful nature of the Game Boy hardware, compared to previous LCD or LED-based handheld baseball games of yore.  The game's simplicity is both a strength and a weakness.  There are so few options that you can't get bogged down in them, you just pick up, play a quick game, and you're done.  But for the more serious fan of the sport, there are no other options other than a single game.  No season or campaign mode, no tournaments, nothing to give the game more replay value.  The only way to pause the game is to call a timeout, or substitute a pitcher or hitter.  If you need to walk away when you're pitching, you can - there's no penalty for just standing there on the mound forever.  But when you're batting, you have to sacrifice a timeout if you have to stop for some reason.  It adds an unnecessary, real-world element in a game that throws most of those conventions out the window.  Still, I had fun with it, despite all of its flaws.  There's a weird sort of draw to the game, because I kept going back to it, hoping I would eventually figure out the batting enough to win a game.  I have to believe that subsequent baseball outings on the Game Boy are more full-featured affairs with better AI, so here's hoping.  In the meantime, there are worse ways you can spend $4, but don't pay much more than that for a loose cart, because you probably won't spend much time with it.  For serious baseball nuts and collectors only.