Backgammon (Atari VCS, 1979)
Two games in a row from which I expected very little and yet found so much!
Backgammon on the Atari VCS is one of the best videogame versions of the 5,000 year old board game that I've seen to date. The APF version worked well enough, but typing in the moves via their keypad was painful. Atari's solution is so appropriate that I'm tempted to call it elegant. The paddles are the perfect controller for this game. Press the button to roll the dice, turn the paddle to select your pieces and where they land. The only improvement I'd like to have seen is maybe a noise to indicate you've rolled a piece over a point while you were moving it, as it may have made it easier to count as you move your piece. The way it is, silent and smooth, allowed my son to keep overshooting where he wanted to move because he'd lose count going over the bar or losing count. Obviously, more experience with the game eliminates such a problem but I could tell it was frustrating for him (and me) to keep hearing the "buzz" of an illegal move when we'd thought we'd counted correctly.
Other than that small complaint, I've got no complaints.
In addition to the elegantly functional interface, the screen is colorful and the red and white pieces are both easy to distinguish from the board and each other. I'm no Backgammon player, so I wasn't shocked when the AI beat me on the easy level, but it the AI did seem to have a consistent strategy, and wasn't just rolling and moving like the AI for the APF's Backgammon seemed to be.
Atari's version includes a "doubling cube" which is a way of making the game a little more interesting if there's a wager at stake. A doubling cube is like a dice, except it has a 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 on the sides. The player that "owns" the cube can choose to offer to double the wager, if they think they are going to win. If the other player disagrees with their opponent's assessment of the game, believing they have the advantage, then they can accept the doubling, and take ownership of the cube. However, if they decline, then they are admitting they will probably lose and the game ends, and the wager remains at multiple amount shown on the cube (i.e. 8 times the original wager). Wikipedia explains it so much better; go there if you still don't get it. The doubling cube is a nice feature and players of the board game will be glad to see it.
The orientation of the backgammon board was vertical. This is different from how most of the players of the board game would see the board, but I think it worked well for the same reason I'd prefer videogames of Chess and Checkers to be oriented horizontally instead of vertically. It comes down to offering both players and equal footing on the perspective from which they view their pieces. When one plays Chess, one is used to seeing their pieces closer to themselves, moving away towards the enemy, who approaches. In a videogame version of chess, putting a single player on the bottom of the screen-moving up, while the computer opponent's pieces start at the top and move down makes sense. However, add a second, flesh/blood player to the mix, and that player has to play the game "upside down". It would be fairer if player one could move pieces from left to right and the other player from right to left. Yes, it's different from how it is usually played, but both players have to deal with the difference.
In Atari's Backgammon, orienting the board vertically accomplishes the same thing. Player one is used to looking across the board at their opponent so a horizontally oriented board would work, but only for a single player game. In a two player game, orienting the board vertically forces both players to play the game "quarter-turned".
Yeah, I've probably thought way too much about this, but I really did like how they chose to present this game.
So, Happy Face for Backgammon! If you like the game of Backgammon, this is a good version to play with another person. I'm so not qualified to talk about the AI, but that seemed solid enough as well.
Next entry we'll look at Video Chess.