Sunday, November 24, 2013

Football on the Atari VCS

I played some old Atari 2600 games over the weekend and so was inspired to jot down a little post about it. I was once again struck by how much fun this ancient system of my youth can still be when played with an opponent. Yeah the solo play on an old-school Atari is still fun in short bursts too, but two-player head-to-head competition is where it really shines. And a few Founders Centennial IPAs down the gullet certainly didn't hurt any.

We played several oldies - including Bowling, Surround, Slot Racers, Combat (possibly my all-time favorite Atari game) and one that I recall playing with my little brother - Football.

Atari Football came out in 1978 and for you youngsters out there (i.e. anyone younger than 40 - God I'm getting old) the graphics will appear quite archaic, but you have to remember that just 1 year earlier when you looked at the screen of the cutting edge football game on the market you saw this:

So give it a break already.

I didn't realize it until I started writing this, but Football for the Atari Video Computer System (pre-2600 days) was designed by Bob Whitehead while he was still with Atari. Whitehead also designed several other personal favorites after co-founding Activision like Chopper Command and Stampede as well as two of my favorite sports games on the Commodore 64 - 4th and Inches and Hardball. So I'm a fan of his work.

Here is an advertisement for Football from a 1978 games catalog.

I can only assume this odd picture represents some sort of play action pass in the making - maybe a fake reverse. This ad came out before the game was actually published so I'll grant them some leeway, but either they were intentionally exaggerating the technical capabilities of the game or else they couldn't quite figure out how to make everything work because some of the bold claims proved to be false. "Bewilder the defense with a razzle-dazzle double-reverse." "Break tackles on your way to a 90-yard open field gallop". "You're up against cunning opponents, time limits, and crazy bounces.".  OK let's take these in order. 1) There is no way to actually run a razzle-dazzle double-reverse - or even a single reverse for that matter. You can call a running play if you want and reverse the direction in which you are currently running - that's it. 2) There is no breaking tackles whatsoever. Whitehead DID implement that nifty little feature 8 years later on 4th and Inches on the C64 but not here. In Atari Football once any defender touches even one loose thread of your jersey you collapse to the turf like a Matrixian Sentinel after an EMP burst. 3) There is a time limit, and I suppose you could even call your opponents cunning if you like, but there are absolutely no crazy bounces. If you touch the ball you catch the ball. If you don't you miss it. No fumbles or kickoffs or deflected passes or anything else like that that might constitute a bounce, crazy or otherwise.

But even with those broken advertising promises - this little game remains a gem.

There are 3 variations in the game but honestly I don't think I have ever even played any of them except number one. Just like with cock pushups - one is all you need. Before each snap you move your joystick to call your "play". I put the word in quotation marks because which play you choose is more or less meaningless - just basically tells your 3 lineman which general direction to move, but nevertheless there are 5 different plays on defense and 4 on offense plus the option to punt if it's 4th and long. But your chances of scoring on any given play are so good that I completely ignore the punt option. OK, I forgot about the punt option. But if I'd remembered it I'm certain I would have ignored it. Once you snap the ball you can either run it for a running play or hit the button and throw a pass. You really have to step carefully if you run the ball because one touch drops you immediately. But if you choose to pass - in a delightfully retro thumb in the eye of realism - you can remote control the pass after it leaves your hands. So you are able to move it left and right as needed to thread it between defenders. Yeah!

Now admittedly I had played this game as a child much more than my opponent Pungent Onion, so I probably had a bit of an unfair advantage, as evidenced by the final score of 154-35 or so. But even with the lopsided score this old game remained great fun. For me anyway. And Pungent acted like he was enjoying it too I think. And as high-powered as the offense was, it was the defense that really put us over the top. Interception after interception returned for 7 points. A touchdown scores 7 points automatically - there are no extra points or field goals. But you CAN score a safety if you are able to tackle your opponent in his own end zone - alas, I was unable to spread that icing on the football cake. And one more feature - the game indicates the first-down marker with a line across the field - same as television broadcasts do digitally, but first downs are not all that plentiful as more often than not if you make it past the first down marker you are likely well on your way to taking it to the house for 7. But still it is a nice little addition. One thing I wish they had been able to add would be the ability to speed up your players by rapidly tapping the fire button a-la Track & Field. Here everyone runs at exactly the same speed so once you get past the defense it's off to the races.

The graphics are admittedly weak - your blocky football players look like dumpy versions of the Berzerk robots. And the sound effects are pretty shaky too but you know, the 2600 games weren't exactly known for their kick-ass sound, especially in the early years of the system. Some white noise static for crowd noise, a beep for completions and a simple little bleep bloop song for a score. Geez the more I write and look at the picture I don't feel like I'm doing the game justice. I guess this is just a game you have to play to appreciate. But it is literally unplayable as a 1-player game so you gotta have a friend to play.

So if you are looking for a completely intuitive almost-as-old-as-it-gets-old-school football game that is perfect for playing while drinking beer and producing minimal brain wave activity then Atari Football is the game for you. Not at the absolute top of my Atari 2600 favorites list, but it's on up there.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter