Once upon a time, long before they were bombarding us with no end of mediocre Star Wars titles, LucasArts were responsible for a handful of groundbreaking titles on a variety of 8-bit platforms (primarily the Atari XE/XL and Commodore 64). We’ll discuss each of them in greater detail during the months to come, but for now I’d like to draw your attention to a rather nifty futuristic sports title by the name of Ballblazer.
Don’t worry if the name doesn’t immediately set any bells a-donging. It’s a good quarter of a century old (ouch) and although critically championed it remained one of those titles that everyone attached to their wishlist but never quite got round to buying. Even those who bought it found it a tad esoteric too.
I can understand why Ballblazer left many gamers bemused. While futuristic sports titles were ten a penny back in the mid 80s, those that presented the game in a first-person perspective were the exception rather than the rule. While not a 3D game in the strictest sense of the definition, Ballblazer nevertheless required a slight more advanced understanding of spatial awareness from its players than the average 2D game, not least because much of the game’s playing field (and the actions of the opposing player) existed beyond the player’s immediate field of view.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s take a step back and consider the basics of the game.
Ballblazer is a minimalist hybrid of football (that’s soccer to you North American heathens) and basketball. Each player takes control of a Roger Dean-esque pod called a rotofoil that glides above the surface of a rectangular field of play. A glowing sphere is ejected onto the playing field, whereupon the rotofoils made a bee line for it, hoping to capture it and blast it between the opposing player’s goal posts.
Did I mention that the goal posts are constantly moving along the goal line? Not only that, they get closer together each time a goal is scored. It’s a pretty nifty device for ensuring that two evenly-matched players remain closely tied throughout the duration of the match, leading to some rather intense brawling as the countdown timer threatens to bring the game to a halt.
Another major concern for the offensive player is that their rotofoil slows down while in possession of the sphere. Not significantly, but it’s a subtle enough distinction that the defensive player always has the upper hand. The offensive player needs to decide if he wants to risk maintaining possession of the sphere as he charges towards the goal, or release it by blasting it further down the pitch to gain some speed back. Either way there’s a strong chance an experienced opponent will be able to regain possession.
To help simplify the controls and prevent players from getting completely lost on the relatively large playing field, the rotofoils always snap round to face the direction of the sphere. Keeping pushing forward on the joystick and you will eventually find the sphere, regardless of where you are in relation to it. A useful aid for players who are aware of the feature, but for the uninitiated gamer the constant viewpoint shifting is bewildering and disorientating, which may explain why some of my friends threw their joysticks away in frustration, claiming they just didn’t get it.
Matches last three minutes or until someone scores ten points, whichever happens first. Two points are scored for a regular goal, three points if the goal posts are beyond the player’s field of view. Games are quick, fast and often dirty. Two player games provide the most entertainment, although the computer AI presents a significant challenge.
Ballblazer was certainly technically impressive for its day. On screen clutter was kept to a minimum to ensure a snappy framerate; the playing field itself was rendered as a flat checkerboard, serving to enhance the illusion of speed. Sound effects were sparse but always provided sufficient cues as to what was happening on the field of play. Most other sports games of the day, traditional or otherwise, would often attempt to throw too much detail at the player, thus slowing gameplay down to a crawl. Lucasfilm Games quite rightly sacrificed detail for speed and were able to deliver a more compelling, competitive experience as a result.
Ballblazer remains one of those 8-bit titles that’s still worth playing today. Its frantic, kinetic pace is a good fit for the modern gamer’s sensibilities and the three minute matches ensure the game never outstays its welcome. Ideal for a quick “pick up and play” if you’ve only ten minutes to spare.