Monday, December 08, 2008

Baseball Videogame Memories: Chapter 1 / Mattel Intellivision MLB

All the cool kids in school had the Atari 2600. Which is why it made sense, in a cosmic sort of way, that I was the one kid on the block who had the Mattel Intellivision.

While the more popular and ubiquitous platform had the far superior game library and larger installed base (allowing friends to trade cartridges at school), my family opted to adopt the videogame platform whose spokesperson was an erudite 50-year-old man in a wool sportscoat and tie. Because what says "cool video games" more than 50-year-old men? Back in the days before E3, when companies figured out that scantily-clad busty women attract more men to booths than pipe-smoking pretentious pricks, it seemed reasonable that my father was compelled to buy the option that appealed to a higher level of consciousness.

Except that owning an Intellivision meant that one couldn't join the social network of Atari owners, trading games and developing aptitude handling one's joystick. Heck, even the Intellivision's controller was a foreign agent--a telephone keypad-like 3x4 matrix of puffy buttons, positioned atop a direction disc, complemented with two nubby buttons on the controller's sides. It was the kind of controller that was impossible to handle intuitively or smoothly, and required tons of practice, such that mastering the controller meant gaining non-transferable skills, sort of like taking German language in high school rather than the more useful Spanish or more romantic French. Intellivision owners were like German exchange students wearing lederhosen to class--they just didn't fit in.

The Intellivision game library wasn't as deep, and until the later wave of games that included some Activision games, Dungeons and Dragons, and early voice-replication technology, there were few standout cartridges. But the one that stood out among all others was Major League Baseball. As clumsy as that Intellivision controller was, MLB was the perfect game to adopt. The overlay (a piece of plastic that slid into a slot over the 3x4 matrix, assigning roles to the 12 keys) allowed one to switch to that defensive position with the touch of a button. The direction disc set up the pitches and also moved the defensive player being controlled. And the side controller buttons allowed one to swing or bunt without giving away the stroke until the last second.

And the graphics! For those times, in that era, George Plimpton was right. Intellivision MLB blew doors over the limitations of the 2600 based on both graphics (even if the defensive stance made each player look like a house). There was a real diamond on the television screen. Players ran smoothly with pixelated but effective animation. Add in an umpire screaming "YER OUT!", which wasn't really intelligible, but who the hell cared, it was a good sound effect. While other baseball games forced you to use imagination to envision a real game being played, Intellivision MLB was advanced enough to make the game recognizable (despite the fact there were no fly balls). It felt like baseball, rather than the feeling of someone telling you it was baseball, but only if you squinted real hard and looked through a straw. And my appreciation of the real-life sport grew as I played Intellivision MLB obsessively.

As MLB was only a two-player game, I played many a game against my brother until he just gave up, given I slaughtered him with regularity. Tricks like pushing "dead" (unused) buttons right before the pitch allowed one to hold runners on first (since the "click" noise would sound like one was about to throw to first rather than pitch). And there was one slow pitch with the right angle / speed combination that made it infuriatingly difficult to hit. But as I started to widen a playing gap over my brother, we had to resort to other handicapping techniques, such as having me look upside down at the screen, as I laid on my back on a couple of chairs and hung my head over the edge of the chair. This warped perspective served to put both of us on more equal footing, as my gameplay would deteriorate as the contest progressed and the blood rushed to my brain (much like a starting pitcher's strength deteriorating in the latter innings). But without a one-player option, I needed my brother to play ball too, so the upside-down state was worth it.

Because remember, there was no one else on my block with whom I could play.

(Addendum: as pointed out by avid SoSG reader Felix P., this image is from the second-generation "World Championship Baseball", which had among its added features "sliding" animations for runners stealing bases. Thanks, Felix!)

The postscript to all of this was a post-college discussion that I had with one of my college roommates, who revealed that he too was the town videogame pariah when his family bought an Intellivision rather than the Atari 2600. He grew up 3000 miles away from me, and yet his childhood videogame experience was eerily similar, even more so when I found out MLB was his game of choice for this platform.

Nostalgic talk with my roommate soon drifted into competitive trash-talk, and the next thing I knew, he had bought a used Intellivision console over ebay and had set it up in his office (his job at the time involved reviewing videotapes, so he was one of the privileged with a television in his office). We went into his work one weekend day for the showdown.

My roommate ended up being a pretty good opponent on Intellivision MLB, surprising in that while I continued on from Intelivision to be a rabid gamer, while he sort of drifted off the videogame circuit from there. One thing we did learn from playing MLB again, over a decade later, is that the home run function (triggered by any ball that reached the outfield fence, which would usually bounce off the wall and come to rest) appeared to be a random variable; I won the game in extra innings when a lazy slow-moving ball hit down the third-base line barely touched the wall, but resulted in a surprising home run. Apparently, that function was a random occurrence regardless of the ball's velocity; and this time, it was just random enough to give me the victory and bragging rights.

Intellivision MLB was not only the sole redeeming cartridge in the original lineup, it also helped spark my loves of baseball and videogames, both loves which I still have today. If baseball could be this much fun on even the most clumsy and bizarre platforms as the Intellivsion, surely there must be something inherent in the game of baseball itself (the real game, not the videogame) which makes it so special and intrinsically appealing.


Unknown said...

Great post. I hope that since this is only Chapter 1, it means that someone will be sharing their memories of the joy that was Little League Baseball for the NES. That game is a classic.

QuadSevens said...

I had an old Atari, but never had any sports games for it. I had games like Combat and Asteroids. The first baseball game that I remember playing over and over was Bases Loaded for the NES. That game was the time. I may have to get it for the virtual console on the Wii now.

Eric Karros said...

What about ColecoVision?

Felix Pardalis said...

Another set of props for the fine post. Intellivision had lots of great games that depended upon 2 players which was a problem if one didn't have a sibling handy. This was solved a few years later for some of the games when Mattel Electronics closed and INTV corp did the games. I enjoyed the advances of World Championship Baseball tho the machine wasn't a tough opponent.

Steve Sax said...

Great call on the WCB, felix...Anyone got an emulator handy?

Unknown said...

Coming to this very late, but I just coincidentally had a get-together with my brother and we played a few games of Intellivision Baseball for old times' sake. It was like riding a bike--even without modern graphics, it was a blast to play. You nailed it with the concept of self-imposed handicapping to make the game more interesting/competitive. Our rules included an automatic single if the outfielder fielded the ball; a double if it "boinged" off the wall; and a run if you did not adhere to the first two rules. Also agree with the randomness of the HRs. In fact a bunt could be a home run. We thought it was more likely to become a HR if you ran after it, but even standing still it would often be a HR, so I agree it was random. One glitch: I recall that a runner between 3rd and Home would sometimes start trotting home even after a third out. If he made it there before the fielding team exited the field, the run would actually count. Lastly, the "improved" version that your picture and mention added sliding, also added fly balls and one-player functionality. Thanks for posting (4 years ago)!