Computerized football for the ATARI
Football seems to epitomize male competitiveness when there is no national war going on. American football is my favorite sport, I admit, and it captures my attention far beyond reasonable explanation. That's why I have looked for football simulations amid the plethora of computer gameware and chosen to single them out in this survey.
There are five products so far announced that really attempt to offer football for the ATARI, plus several others that derive from soccer, the "football" revered by the rest of the world. We'll discuss them all at least briefly, and discuss in detail the degrees to which the better ones succeed in delivering the football experience.
Certainly the best "action" football game yet made for the ATARI is Starbowl Football, by Gamestar. In this very complexe and difficult contest, the outcome depends, as it should, on varying your offense and defense to anticipate your opponent, and on doing the right thing in the right place at the right time.
Starbowl is so realistic it should hold a training camp to teach its rookies how to run, pass, and catch. There are 196 different play possibilities -- considering both offensive and defensive strategies -- and even then the outcome off each play depends heavily on the actions of the ball carrier and the free safety, who are controlled by the joysticks of the opposing players.
Two-player mode is probably best with Starbowl, even from the beginning; a fellow klutz will be much easier to defeat than the computer. In my first game against the computer I was whipped 96 to nothing. Against another human you will at least share the learning curve as you assimilate the patterns of joystick maneuvers that direct the behavior of the other five men on your team.
Each team has six men, and believe me, you won't want more! The three down-linemen on each side work as a group. On offense they can pass protect, sweep left or right (up or down, actually), or trap up the middle. On defense thet rush the passer, counter the sweep, or jam the middle. The center hikes the ball on signal from the offensive quarterback.
The offense has two receivers. Each can run one of four patterns each play: a fly, a square-out, a slant-in or a screen. Only one can catch the pass, and you must pick (in secret) the eligible receiver before the play starts. The single offensive back is the quarterback, who receives the ball from the center, and who can then run in any direction (under joystick control) or pass the ball to the designated receiver. To make a catch, the human controller must press the trigger precisely when the ball and the receiver collide. If this succeeds, the receiver can then run under joystick control until he is tackled, forced out of bounds, or he scores.
On defense the cornerbacks are programmed by the defending player each play to counter the patterns of the receivers, and if they are close when the ball arrives, the pass will probably be incomplete. The free safety, under joystick control, can move at will, and can intercept a pass if the fire button is pushed as the ball crosses his path.
If this sounds elegant, it is. It is also difficult, and reasonably good games require several hours of practice play to get the feel for timing, angles and the prowess of the opposition.
Starbowl is full of nice touches. All the standard football parameters are retained. The field is 100 yards long, and each yard is marked. The game has four quarters (periods of play) of 15 minutes each, and the direction of play alternates with each quarter. There is a 30-second play clock during which offensive and defensive signals are called. There are penalties for "encroachment","Interference,""delay of game," and fumbles are randomly inserted. Kickoffs and punts vary in length, and fieldgoal attempts are less accurate at greater distances.
The players are neatly animated little men - one side red, the other blue. The ball carrier is black, and has two special postures: one an ignominious sprawl when tackled, the other a victorious dance when he scores a touchdown.
If deficiencies must be found, I would complain about the fast pace of the game. It is played in "real-time" and deciding upon and programming an offensive or defensive play in 30 seconds was hard for me, especially against the computer that plays so very well. I found myself numbly repeating past plays just to get them in under the time limit. There is supposed to be a "pause" function separate from the official time-outs, but I couldn't get it to work. It also seems inordinately hard to complete passes that the computer, as opponent, never seems to miss.
Gamestar offers to enroll you as a Starbowl Allstar if you can beat the computer by 14 points. I think they'ed be safe offering a $10,000 prize for the feat. The game comes on cassette or diskette, requires 24K RAM, at least one joystick, and cost $31.95.
FOOTBALL by ATARI for the ATARI computers may also be available this year. It too is a six-man game played on a scrolling playfield of one hundred yards. In many respects it is similar to Starbowl, but has fewer offensive and defensive plays (fifteen offense and five defense). It is otherwise identical in its play features to Atari FOOTBALL for the 5200 game machine (see our Games Department this issue).
There are several aspects of Atari FOOTBALL that are attractive. It has a practice mode that allows you to become familiar with the mechanical aspects of game play -- especially passing and catching -- against a "lazy" computer. Unfortunately, the computer is not programmed to be a real opponent, so you will need a human one and two joysticks to play a real game.
The best features of Atari FOOTBALL are the passing tactics. Either of two eligible receivers may be selected after the ball is snapped. Each runs a pass pattern with a "cut point." Completion depends on the quarterback releasing the ball when the eligible receiver makes his cut. If this timing is right, the receiver catches the ball. This gives the human player a chance to maneuver the receiver immediately if the pass is comlete. It is much easier to learn this technique than the split-second timing of Starbowl.
The game clock runs twice as fast in Atari FOOTBALL as in real time, so a "regulation game" can be played in half an hour. There is also a "short game" that takes only about fifteen minutes.
Also, there is no 30-second clock as such. If the offense has not called a play within 30 seconds after the previous one, the clock stops until a play is called. Either player can pause the game between plays for any reason, which I frankly find helpful, but this removes one of the realistic aspects of football - time pressure.
Atari FOOTBALL, will be cartridge based, a significant attraction for all game players, and will sell for $49.95.
Another approach to computerized football focuses not so much on action as on prediction -- the coaching game rather than the playing. Gridiron Glory, front APX, is one such for the ATARI. Here an attempt is made to analyze the actual experiences of known teams to arrive at a likely outcome of a given play against a given defense.
Gridiron Glory uses the results of the1982 season of the professional National Football League as a data base for matchups between any two of these teams. Thirty different statistics were - selected by the authors, Mike Drury and Bob Graves, to govern the outcomes of individual plays. Some of these statistics are reduced to "power ratings" for each team, which the players can use to choose their plays.
Plays are chosen by joystick and keyboard, and are far less complex than in Starbowl. There are eight offensive plays -- four runs and four passes. There are six defenses: standard, short yardage, spread, short pass, long pass and blitz. A matrix of these reveals that some combinations of offense and defense strongly favor one or the other; some slightly favor one or the other; and some favor neither.
Each player chooses an offensive or defensive play in secret, the computer consults its statistics and determines an outcome. This is displayed by movement of the ball on the green strip of turf (21 for offense, 11 for defense) by scrolling at the bottom of the screen. No "cycling" through choices. No players or action are shown other than the figure of the referee, whose position indicates possession of the ball, penalties, and such.
Many Football occurances are figured into the game, and it's a shame that they aren't more graphically apparent. For example, a kick might be blocked, a pass intercepted, a fumble might occur, the quarterback sacked; yet only the result of the occurance is shown. The experience is like reading the report of a football game as it comes in on ticker tape.
This game varies some parameters from real football. It has eight-minute quarters, and a 25-second play clock. It is easier to learn and play than Starbowl and Atari FOOTBALL, if less satisfying graphically. In actual competition the main excitement comes from trying to discover the habitual weaknesses of your opponent's play-choice pattern, and that's a valid enough premise for a lot of fun.
Gridiron Glory must be played against a human opponent, comes in diskette only, requires 32K RAM and two joysticks. The price is $24.95.
Avalon Hill is reknowned for its strategy board games, especially combat simulations, and recently its Microcomputer Games Division has implemented Computer FOOTBALL Strategy for a variety of computers. It is available on cassette and diskette for the ATARI.
Like Gridiron Glory, CFS pits known teams against each other, but in this case offers seventeen great teams from the whole history of the NFL. I chose the San Francisco Forty-niners of 1981 to battle its arch-rivals, the then-Oakland Raider team of 1976. It isn't clear from program operation, or documentation, whether the computer actually consults statistics on these teams in order to calculate results, but this is implied. Once the result is calculated, the play is animated for you, though you can't affect its outcome. The animation is rather crude, but the action is clear and fun for awhile!
One player may challenge the computer, or two players can match up. In the two-player game each chooses a play(21 for offense, 11 for defense) by "cycling" through choices. The really interesting graphics in Computer FOOTBALL Strategy are in the scematic display of offenses and defenses, which change visibly as you cycle through them. Seeing the choices significantly assists in play selection.
Defense selects first, so the offense can see what it's up against. The offensive play can then be picked with greater care than would be true in real-life, and neither player can rescind a choice. The clock is running only during play, and time spent choosing plays is not measured or penalized.
After completion of a play, the result is displayed in writing, and the ball is spotted appropriately on the field. I was disappointed, when I scored against the Raiders, that my only visual reward was the written message "TOUCHDOWN - XP GOOD." There was no animation of that play, no victory dance. Nevertheless, I appreciated CFS's efforts to enliven the otherwise static contest with some animation. The game requires 32K RAM, at least one joystick (two for human opponents), and costs $21.00.
SUPERBOWL FROM NEXA
The blockbuster of computer football is scheduled for release this month, NEXA's Superbowl Football. It will have two diskettes and requires 48K RAM with joystick(s). The game was in development at the time of this writing, but I was able to see signifcant pieces of the project on company premises.
Superbowl Football comes closer to real football than any game yet developed for any computer. You will play it against the computer or a human opponent. It has eleven men per side, and each man is programmed specifically for each play - of which there are 1,000 each for both offense and defense. If these aren't enough, you can design your own plays with a "play editor." Each player selects 100 plays to be used in a given game "half;" these constitute the "playcard." Individual plays are called from the playcard by cursor-controlled menu selection. During play each programmed man carries out his assignment, while the human players control either the ball carrier (offense) or the free safety (defense).
Needless to say, every kind of play is possible - including laterals, double reverses, fake punts, and draws. All penalties and mishaps are possible, except injuries. Each man is invested with a degree of speed and power, which is used to determine the outcome of actions relative to another man. The ball, when thrown, goes to a programmed spot. The receiver must be there to catch it, or close enough to make a diving catch (via fire button). Tackles are not automatic, but computed based on the speed and power rating of the tackler(s) relative to the ball carrier.
Play is displayed on a split screen. The top half represents the full field of play, with colored dots indicating positions of players and the ball. The bottom screen animates all the players within a certain distance front the ball, an image similar to a wide-angle TV picture. Within the confines of the called play, the human player can vary the action, including selection among four possible pass receivers after the ball is snapped.
Actual play speed will be about one-half real time, which means that you have a minute for selecting each play, rather than 30 seconds. This also makes it possible to exercise more control over the joystick-controlled men.
Superbowl is the brainchild of Gilman Louie, whose young company has been working on the project for almost a year. He thinks it will be a classic, and it will sell for $49.00. I just hope it's not too hard to play.
Conceptually, soccer is a much simpler sport than American football, requiring one team to kick the ball into the other team's goal -- one point accruing for that accomplishment.
Computer implementation of soccer is simpler than for American football. The number of players can be reduced without damage to the game concept, scoring and time keeping are easy, and the playing period can vary. The most difficult programming tricks involve ball movement and player control, including "stealing" from the opposing side.
Thorn EMI has a marvelously well-detailed and animated game called SOCCER, that is on cartridge. It displays all eleven men on each team, as they course up and down the scrolling playfield.
The players on each team are programmed to play pretty good soccer. The computer can play against itself in a very impressive demonstration game. One, two, three or four humans can join in with joysticks to control a front player or a goalie of either team. You can pass the ball to designated members of your team, in four different ways, including shots on goal, which have extra speed.
The delicacy of design for Thorn's animated players, and the pace of the game are exceptionlly good. It is convenient to play and only requires 16K RAM. It cost's $44.95.
Gamma Software's SOCCER is a well-designed implementation of this sport - for two, three or four human players. Each side has four men who play on a field completely visible at all times (no scrolling playfield). Two of the men on each side are "smart," (programmed to play by computer). The goalie and the main player on each side are controlled by human players using joysticks. The four-player mode, with two on a side, is a tough competitive match.
Kickoffs and kicks from out of bounds are computer controlled. Once in play in bounds, the ball goes from player to player as directed by the joystick. Defenders can take the ball away by contacting the ball with a foot. All of the major features of soccor are replicated here, but you must have at least two human players (and two joysticks) to play. The computer is not programmed to be an opponent.
The game comes in cassette or diskette and requires 16K RAM. $29.95.
If all this complexity has got you down, perhaps Kickback by Thorn EMI is for you. It's a simple little soccer takeoff you can figure out without instructions. Pop in the cartridge and wiggle the stick. Eventually you will boot the ball and see it carom about until the opposing team gets it in your goal or vice versa.
Meanwhile, the ball turns black when you kick it and scores points for you. It turns blue when it hits your "by" line and takes points away. The object is to score as many points as possible before three goals are scored against you.
It's a one-player contest with the simple challenge of kicking the ball over your opponent's goal line, which is where all this monkey business started - on the playing fields of Babylon.