Bowling (Atari VCS, 1979)
I was in a bowling league when I was in middle school. My team won the league championship two years in a row. I don't remember my average, but when I was 13 years old, my high score was 191. I don't think that's a great high score, (though I've never beaten it since ), and I'm certain my average wasn't very impressive, but it disturbs me to suddenly realize that I may actually be more qualified to talk about videogames based on bowling than videogames based on any other real world activity.
Damn, that's one crappy realization nobody should have to start their day with. Enough about me, let's talk about Bowling!
We've seen an interpretation of the great sport of bowling on four previous systems. (RCA Studio II, Fairchild Channel F, APF MP1000 and Odyssey^2) On each of those systems the ball would oscillate just in front of what traditionally would be the foul line. The player would have to time their release of the ball as it was moving back and forth. Atari decided on a less abstracted approach which allows the player to position a figure on screen that actually animates and rolls the ball. In an interview with Digital Press at CGE 2005, Larry Kaplan described this figure as the first multi-colored sprite in home videogames. I question the accuracy of this, as the Bally Professional Arcade appeared to feature multi-colored sprites in its built-in game, Gunfight, released in 1978. I'm no programmer and perhaps the term "sprite" is more refined than I thought it was, so your mileage may vary.
Regardless of the little multi-colored bowler being a "first" for Atari, Bowling for the Atari VCS is the best version of the game that we've seen so far. The ability to position the release of your ball is welcome, as is the graphical improvement of controlling a human figure which looks like it's rolling its ball. No scoring simplification is used; if you get a spare, your frame is totaled with the pins you knock down with your next ball, as it should be. The presentation of the scoring is good enough. Similar to the Fairchild version, you're only shown whether you spare, strike or leave a frame open while your total is displayed above it all. An additional touch occurs after rolling a strike or a spare, the player is given a little "way to go!" in the form of a palette flash for the bowler sprite and a celebratory audio cue
All of the above, while fine and dandy, are not what make Atari's version of Bowling the best I've seen so far. What does it for me is the simulation and visual presentation of the pin action; when the ball hits a pin, the resulting trajectory of the pin is displayed! I'm pretty certain other versions have simulated pin interaction, for instance, Fairchild's Bowling allowed me to pick up a split, but Atari's version is the first to provide visual cues for what's going on. Instead of the pins going from a "standing" state to a "knocked down" or simply a "no longer there" state, Atari's pins "slide off" the alley in a number of directions; towards the gutter, diagonally towards the back or straight back, depending on the angle of the ball. It definitely adds to the experience and helps the player decide how to curve the next ball.
I forgot to mention the curves! A standout feature of most of Atari's offerings is the variations of play on each cart and bowling has three variations to it in addition to allowing one- or two-player games. One variant allows the players to control the curve of the thrown ball, a gift I'm positive some bowlers think they have. If you've ever seen someone twist their body and wave their arms to try to redirect their rolled ball, then you know what I mean. Another variant allows the player to control when the ball begins to curve but after the curving starts, the player can do nothing. The last and most simple variation is straight shot only; line it up, throw and watch it go. (no lofting, please)
The only drawback to Atari Bowling on the VCS, and this is only a slight drawback, is that it supports a maximum of two players. I only mention it because Odyssey^2's bowling supported four. If I were to start having weekly chronogaming parties, I think I'd actually choose the Odyssey^2 version for the ability to support four players.
Also, and I'm not saying this is necessarily a drawback: I was unable to produce a 7-10 split. I tried hitting the center pin dead on, which is what produces the 7-10 in real life, but I couldn't get this evil split to show itself. Maybe, the game is better off! In my book, the 7-10 split is the Kobayashi Maru of bowling, so I didn't exactly "yearn" for it. It might've been excluded for gameplay improvement, but it seems doing so would "water down" the simulation. I don't know it isn't there for certain, I just know I was unable to produce such a split.
Oh, so the only reason I give Bowling merely a and not a is that I'd rather hit a real bowling alley with my kids. In fact, I think I need to do that soon.
Next entry . . . Canyon Bomber! 7995