Basketball, Arcade

This is the 1979, black and white arcade game, Basketball, as developed and manufactured by Atari Inc. It had two trackballs on the cabinet – one for each player.

Atari Basketball is a one-on-one game with ridiculously simple controls and objectives. For a single coin you got a three minute game, and either played against the computer or a second player. Adding more coins gave you more time, and the aim was simple: score baskets; score points; be the highest scorer.

Compared to video games now Basketball looks a bit ridiculous, but – believe me – when this was in arcades in 1979 it was pretty dazzling stuff. In fact, this was one of the earliest video games I remember playing, and I also remember hurting myself on the trackball by nipping the skin on my hand between the trackball and the cabinet! It hurt a lot, which is why I remember it so well after so long has passed (40 years ago!)…

Atari Basketball was also one of the first two-player games I remember playing – against both my brother and my dad (my dad used to play basketball so this game was attractive to him). It’s definitely fun two-player, for a short while at least.

While this is nothing like the basketball games of today, it was an early, important seed in the genre. It was the first basketball game to use the side-on, high-angled view of the court, which you see all the time now. It wasn’t uncommon to see Atari Basketball cabinets in video game arcades up and down the United Kingdom in the early 1980s and it almost certainly had an considerable influence on other video games that followed it. Even if it does look a bit lame by today’s standards… 🙂

More: Basketball on Wikipedia

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Atari 2600

This notorious 1982 release for the Atari 2600 was – at the time – the most expensive movie license ever acquired by a video games company ($35 million dollars it apparently cost), and it also undoubtedly hastened the demise of Atari Inc. as a company (as it was back then), and was also a major contributing factor in the video game market crash of 1983.

Yes: pumping out games as bad and as cynically-rushed as E.T. was created a significant fall in consumer confidence – particularly in North America where the effects of the crash were felt most strongly.

And none of this was the fault of the programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, who took some persuading to actually take on the project in the first place. Warshaw was given only six weeks to create a finished game from scratch, when normally an Atari 2600 game would take between six to twelve months to program. But complete the game he did, and it was then marketed by Atari some six months after the film had been released (ie. late; when people where starting to become fatigued by the film). Also, Atari suits at the time inexplicably decided to manufacture six million E.T. cartridges in anticipation of high sales. And – while E.T. did sell more than a million copies initially – a lot of the people who bought it were not happy and returned the game for their money back. Ultimately  – after returns – Atari sold less than ten percent of the cartridges they manufactured for E.T. and infamously buried hundreds of thousands of them in the New Mexico desert in an attempt to hide their embarrassment.

Throughout the decades there have been numerous instances where upper management at a video games company have made calamitous decisions, but those made by Atari management in the case of E.T. must rank as the greediest, most cynical, and most stupid of all time. Again: no real blame can be placed on the shoulders of the programmer, but the people who pushed him to make the game in six weeks; and the ones who thought that $35 million dollars was an acceptable price to pay for the E.T. video game license, are nothing but fools. Fools who brought the video games industry to its knees with their blindness and greed.

As for the game: it’s dogsh*t, of course. Of little or no redeeming value. It bears little resemblance to the film, or the characters in it, and few people who play E.T. have got anything positive to say about it.

E.T. on the Atari 2600 is an interesting story, but unfortunately one that highlights the very worst of the video games business.

More: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on Wikipedia

Star Raiders, Atari 400

Doug Neubauer‘s 1979 release, Star Raiders, is a very important game indeed. Predominantly because it was so hugely influential on many other games that followed it. Some people even point to it being the spark that started the first-person shooter market, but that is probably going a little too far.

Star Raiders is a simple cockpit shooter at heart, but with subtle and engrossing gameplay. You fly a ship against the evil “Zylon” aliens, trying to get them into your crosshairs and rid them from your home system.

The game gives you forward and reverse cockpit views in which to do your shooting, a galactic map (for moving between sectors), a long range scanner/radar (for local enemy positions), and battle and tracking computers (which aid you during combat).

One thing unique to Star Raiders at the time was that the game would continue – in realtime – while you were looking at other screens. If you bring up the galactic chart while under attack you will remain under attack while you’re looking at it – the action does not pause when you access information screens. Nowadays we don’t even think about things like that, but back then it was a first.

In Novice mode Star Raiders is simple enough to beat. I did it in ten minutes. But the harder difficulty levels are a real challenge, which makes Star Raiders good enough to play even now.

A sequel – Star Raiders II – was released in 1986.

Note: Star Raiders loads into just 8K of RAM, so will run on any 8-bit Atari home computer, including the Atari 400.

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Raiders

Combat, Atari 2600

Combat was designed by Atari, Inc. and first released for the Atari 2600 in 1977 and was the pack-in game for the system until 1982 (meaning: you got a Combat cartridge with the console, upon purchase).

It was one of the first home video games I ever played (probably the same for millions of others) and it enthralled me. Yes, Combat is very simple by today’s standards, but in 1977 it was a revelation.

As a two-player game it is up there with the best of all time. Tanks, jets, biplanes – each player took control of one of these and chased each other around a single screen, in order to blast them with bullets. With tanks you are placed in a maze; with planes you fight it out in a cloudy sky (look at those clouds…). Various skill settings allowed you to choose things like bouncing bullets, or more planes, or different mazes. In total there are 27 different types of screens in Combat.

Combat has also been re-made numerous times for different systems, and also has a sequel, Combat Two, which remained unreleased until 2001, when somebody put the completed prototype onto a limited number of actual cartridges.

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_(1977_video_game)

Neverwinter Nights 2, PC

The 2006 sequel to the hit RPG Neverwinter Nights was created by American developer Obsidian Entertainment and published by Atari, Inc.

In many ways Neverwinter Nights 2 improves on the original game, and uses a new game engine (actually a suped-up version of the previous engine), this one called the Electron Engine.

Gameplay is essentially the same as before: a mixture of third-person, real-time and turn-based adventuring with a multi-character party system. The version currently available (time of writing: September 2018) features a main single-player campaign, plus three add-on campaigns (one of them – Mask of the Betrayer – being considered a classic); multiplayer mode, and the toolset for making your own quests/graphics/scripts/games.

There are some subtle but fundamental changes to the game, though, which makes playing Neverwinter Nights 2 somewhat different to the first game.

For starters: companion AI is much more complex, creating a bit of a mire in the process. What I mean by that is: a “mire” of options, which you can switch on and off to activate/deactivate certain behaviours. You can have companions be full AI controlled, custom AI controlled, or ‘Puppet’ controlled – puppet control being full manual.

Also different to the first game is the fact that you can now have up to three party members with you, making a party of four. In the previous game you just had one companion. It makes this sequel much more involving, and probably a lot more interesting. Actually, it is a much more ‘well-rounded’ game, this sequel, although not without its problems. Initially I struggled to get the camera to do what I wanted it to do, and almost gave up, but carried on in the hope that it would get better. It did, with some practise, but it took a while for me to get used to the interface (not to mention quite a few deaths).

Overall: Neverwinter Nights 2 is a fine, tactical RPG. It looks great; plays like a dream (now most of the bugs have been ironed-out), and is a worthy follow-up to a great title. It’s definitely worth a look if you like RPGs but have never played it, so look out for it in the next GOG.com sale.

More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neverwinter_Nights_2
GOG.com: https://www.gog.com/game/neverwinter_nights_2_complete