Once upon a time, playing a sports game entailed opening a board that simulated the arena, throwing some dice or spinning a spinner and then looking at a chart to see what had happened. A lot of luck and not much skill.
Games have come a long way since then. With the advent of television’s role in this market, the screen became the playing field and electronic blips the players, which you controlled with levers and dials. Skill replaced luck for the most part, while interest improved with the imagination of the programmers.
This holiday season, the computer is king, at least in sports games. And the latest fad is computer games that are as small as pocket calculators. All you need are batteries in order to play any number of sports electronically, by yourself or against a real opponent.
Two of the best calculator-size baseball games are those put out by Entex ($46) and Pulsonic ($49.50). Simulation provided by these two comes through best where it counts: in the duel between pitcher and batter.
Pitches can be varied according to their speed, their placement and the way they break, with even a knuckler and a slider thrown in. On the other side, the batter has his own button, with which he tries to outguess the pitcher by waiting for the right pitch. Once the ball is hit, the computer figures out what has happened and tells you, by way of the scoreboard.
Mattel’s electronic basketball game ($35) uses tiny red blips for both sides, and the players take turns trying to maneuver one blip through the constantly moving defense. If a player gets under the basket and “shoots” within 24 seconds, he has 2 points. A degree of difficulty switch can speed things up. Coleco and Mattel have produced similar hand-held football computer games, called Electronic Quarterback ($30) and Football ($35), respectively.
You “pass,” “run” or “kick” a red blip down the field as the defensive blips automatically try to block the way. A scoreboard tells you the down, the yards to go for a first down, the time remaining and the score.
Golf looks better than it plays on the pocket-size game. One of the best products is that made by Pulsonic ($35), which imprints the course on a screen and then lets you take shots by pressing a button. This sends a blip toward the hole.
Still, the cleverest games — and the most expensive — are those you connect to your television set. Do you want an electronic keyboard computer with cartridges for 500 games? Then you pay $500 and ask for Apollo 2001, made by Enterprex. Or you can settle for a Bally Arcade Home TV Entertainment Center (about $300) or Atari’s Video Computer System (under $190).
Atari provides 20 game cartridges for its system (at $20 a crack), for a total of 1,300 variations and options. The baseball entry is called Home Run, in which you maneuver fielders into chasing the ball as well as base runners. You can also deliver a wild assortment of pitches. The batter has the choice of whether to swing and can make a runner stop at any case.
The Atari basketball cartridge is the prize winner in the television category, however. By means of a “joystick” and a button, you can dribble, maneuver, shoot, jump, block or rebound in a constant one-on-one contest. Playing alone, you challenge a computer opponent, which is programmed to play generally as well as you do, or better, and which has a personality that is sometimes quite amusing.
The Bally product, being more expensive, offers games that provide not only sports simulations, but also education, battlegrounds, gambling, brain-teasers and other competition. For sports fans, there are hockey, tennis, baseball, handball, football and a demolition derby.
Bally’s cassettes generally range from $20 to $25, but its Basic Cassette — the most unusual creation, with which you make up and program your own games — sells for $50.