Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ballblazer For Atari 7800

Hi everybody! Mr. Glitch here with another classic game review.

It's the year 3097, and I, Mr. Glitch, am deep in a null-gravity nexus mid-space in the binary star system of Kalaxon and Kalamar. I've defeated every sentient species in the galaxy with my custom rotofoil, and now I'm gearing up for the final round of the Interstellar Championship of... BallBlazer! 

BallBlazer was released in 1984 by Lucasfilm Games for a whole mess of 8-bit computers and game consoles, including the NES, Commodore 64, Apple II, Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800. The Atari 7800 is the version I'm reviewing, as it looks and sounds much better than most others. It's essentially a split-screen first-person one-on-one game of soccer played on a checkerboard arena with goalposts at either end. Two people can play at once, one person can play with Droid 1 (novice) to Droid 9 (mercilessly hard), or two Droids can play each other if you'd prefer to just sit back and watch. You guide your personal hovercraft over the arena in pursuit of a hovering ball, called a plasmorb. You don't steer your rotofoil per se; your rotofoil automatically rotates in 90 degree increments to face the general direction of the ball, and pressing left or right moves you laterally. When you get close enough, your rotofoil grabs the plasmorb in its tractor beam, holds it in your field of view, and turns to face your goalposts. Pressing the fire button shoots the plasmorb forward and knocks your rotofoil back. If you're not in possession of the plasmorb, your rotofoil moves slightly faster, giving you a chance to move alongside your opponent and shoot the ball away. 

BallBlazer uses a fairly unique scoring system. You earn between one and three points per goal, depending on how far from the goalposts you are. The goalposts slide from side to side and move closer to each other each time you score, making long-distance shots progressively harder to pull off. You win by having the most points when time runs out, or by being the first to score ten points. Since there are only ten point 'slots' in the game, (represented by ten circles on the scoreboard) it's possible to come from behind and shut out your opponent by 'overrunning' his scores. 

BallBlazer's presentation really stands out as the best among 7800 games. The first-person graphics play fast and smooth, and the controls are tight and responsive. There's a realistic simulation of inertia that the rotofoils have to overcome when stopping or changing directions, and that makes lining up the goalposts & pulling off snapshots much more challenging. The background music is a catchy electro-funk chiptune that's generated by an algorithm, so the same song never plays twice. (The 7800 cartridge actually includes a custom sound chip that supplements the rather meager one inside the console.)

BallBlazer is a great-looking and great-sounding game, and it's a lot of fun in short sessions. However, the simplistic gameplay tends to make repeated matches rather boring. I believe adding additional gameplay modes or a tournament system would have helped a lot in this regard. The game can also be very disorienting, as there are no landmarks besides the goalposts, and it's easy to lose track of them when your rotofoil suddenly snap-rotates to face a new direction. These quibbles aside, BallBlazer looks and sounds great, and is lots of fun to play. If you want to show off the raw gaming power of your mighty Atari to your chump friends with Xboxes, BallBlazer should be on the top of your list.

Thanks for reading my classic game review. Next week, we go galactic dancin' in Galaga '90!

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