Thursday, May 28, 2020

Unsealed: Chaos May Cry

This week's Unsealed video is up! 

It took longer than I had intended to get to opening Chaos Legion, but I'm glad I did... since I had sold off my other copy earlier this year in anticipation of opening the new one. 

The game for next week's episode is going to be a Twitter's Choice situation. I'll narrow my selections down to four games, and then Twitter will decide which one gets opened. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coin-Op Time Machine #3: Champion Baseball

Summer is almost here, and my thoughts this time of year often go back to one of my least favorite activities that I was forced to endure as a child: camping. You see... I'm not the outdoorsy type, and yet my mom's parents were in the Boy and Girl Scouts, and my mom followed suit in the whole camping thing. Me? Back in the 1980s, I wanted to stay home, watch MTV, maybe play some Commodore 64 games, and leave the bees, bugs, and dirt for someone else.

And yet... most weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day-- and sometimes during the week-- my mom loaded myself, my siblings, and essentials into the car for a trip to rural Whately, Massachusetts.

That's where White Birch Campground was (and still is). My maternal grandparents had a seasonal site there every year until they died, complete with a camper for them... and a musty old tent for us. Lovely.

It was somewhat easier to handle as a young kid. It got harder as a middle school kid and a high school student. None of my classmates came here. I sure wasn't bringing a computer, and my mom frowned on my taking electronic games on the trip. The pool there was fine in small doses, though I got an ear infection after swimming in it during the summer of 1985, which caused my ear to bleed. The pavilion sometimes had a makeshift DJ on Saturday nights, but there wasn't much music that I wanted to hear playing.

Of course, it wasn't the campground's fault that I didn't like camping. The staff was nice enough when I was there. They called me by name, and often chatted me up if they drove by on their golf carts. I generally saw them in the rec hall. The rec hall sold candy (and other, more essential goods), plus it had some soccer balls and lawn darts for us to take out and try to pass the time. It was a place to hang out when it was raining or when it was a little too hot in the sunlight.

I loved the rec hall because it also had arcade games inside. They weren't top of the line, mind you. The Missile Command cabinet had exposed metal that would sometimes give you a little shock if you leaned on it the right way. The Aquarius pinball machine had carbon buildup on the table, slightly blackening the colorful playfield under the glass. Battlezone was okay, but I stunk at it and rarely wanted to waste one of the precious quarters that I had to continually beg my mom or her parents to give me on it. Galaga was there, too, but I never appreciated the game back then like I do now as an old man. Mr. Do's Castle was a cool game, and I had rarely seen it in arcades. I liked watching others play it more than playing it myself.

There was one game that always got at least one quarter from me, even though it was set up to steal your money quickly. It's a game that, even more than 35 years later, I still can't play very well. It's a game that helped to fuel my early interest in sports video games.

Champion Baseball commanded my attention the first time I saw it... or, rather, I heard it. The game has speech, notably umpire calls that are clear and authoritative. I watched someone else play it first, taking turns between batting and pitching, trying to outscore the CPU or at least keep the game tied after the bottom of each inning. If the computer opponent takes the lead before the third out in the bottom of an inning, the game is over. It is possible for the game to end before a full inning is played, by the way. Losing a credit in less than three minutes was frustrating.

Let's back up for a bit and talk about how the game is played. After inserting a quarter and pressing START, a Team Select screen appears. Each team is loosely based on Major League Baseball counterparts, but with generic city names, player names, and stats. While there may be better teams to select than others, it becomes quickly apparent that the earned run average stats are only there for show. Pitchers with ERAs under 2.50 should not get knocked around after a third of an inning, but it often happens here.

Once a team is selected, the computer picks an opposing team and takes the field. Having the first at-bats of the game allows players to perhaps build a lead out of the gate and provide a cushion for their hapless pitchers later. The pitcher versus batter showdown plays out in a vertical window on the left side of the screen. The rest of the screen shows the fielder and any baserunners. Stealing is an option after getting on base, but computer-controlled catchers are extremely accurate-- so it's critical to steal only once in a while. Pitches move down toward the batter, and can be curved left and right. It's a weird top-down but level perspective, but it works. Batting is as simple as timing the swing to make contact and moving the batter left or right to account for the break on certain pitches.

After making contact, some of the game's problems become apparent: the computer-controlled fielders have amazing arms and can sometimes throw out runners at first base after what looked like an easy single. However, for runners that get on base, and for players who become adept at the game's baserunning controls, it's unfortunately possible to goad the rudimentary fielding AI into making boneheaded throws to the wrong bases, thus turning many hits with runners on into RBI opportunities. It's not quite cheating, per se, but it is taking advantage of the computer and thus leading to dozens of runs scored. In this case, it's possible to outslug the computer and win games after a combined 40 or 50 runs.

Any and all runs that the player's offense can score are going to be needed, because the CPU's offense will heat up and plate runs of its own. Pitching is a simple concept, at least. Left and right break can be added to pitches after release, and it's possible (especially early) to paint the corners with just the right amount of curve. CPU batters even strike out in early at-bats against pitchers who change speeds and locations... but this is usually resolved after the first inning or two.

Once batters starting connecting with a player's pitches, the game's automatic fielding often turns defense into a nightmare. Players can only control where to throw the ball to once it's fielded. Defensive positioning is, unfortunately, automatic... and far less than optimal. Fielders take weird angles to ground balls, or they sometimes don't react well to line drives. Fly balls can sometimes take fielders by surprise as they play too shallow, leading to extra bases and/or runs scored against. Fielders cannot dive or make plays against the wall. In short, after players make their pitches, they must rely on the computer to put their fielders in the best positions to make a play.

As with most arcade games from this time period, success in Champion Baseball is measured by a player's point total. Points are accumulated through many actions, including putting the bat on the ball on offense, touching each base as a runner, scoring runs, registering outs on defense, and more. It's possible to get a Top 5 score even if a player only makes it to the second or third innings. It's not quite as satisfying as beating the CPU in a complete nine-inning game, but getting to register your initials for everyone else to see who plays the game afterwards was a nice bonus.

When I think back on Champion Baseball now, it's fair to believe that I dropped well over 100 quarters into the game over the course of about six summers. I made it to the fifth inning once, but that was as far as I ever got. Playing the game recently to get screens for this piece, I was able to get to the third inning a couple of times, but always got beat by an opponent who suddenly knew how and where to hit the ball so my fielders couldn't do much.

When I was a kid and money was tight, I'll admit to getting frustrated at the game a few times-- and I even let out a string of expletives one time that I'm sure the campground manager overheard. Now, though? I'm not bothered by it. Granted, I'm not spending money on the game anymore, but I'm also older and wiser. I'm also cheered by the memories that playing the game brings to the front of my mind. Sure, I hated camping-- and still do-- but that rec hall was my place to get away from getting away from it all... and I'm glad now, years later, that my mom insisted on taking me to White Birch every year. I never would have had these memories, and probably wouldn't have really given Champion Baseball a chance at my local arcade, if not for that place.

The 4-1-1: Unsealed Continues, Twitch Begins, and... a Retirement Ends?

There's been a lot going on outside of the website over the last few months-- aside from that virus thing, of course-- but it's time to catch you up on what's happening. 

For starters, the Unsealed show on YouTube is still continuing... and it's approaching its 150th episode! I've opened up some interesting games, including new copies of Tobal No. 1, Zone of the Enders, NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, and more. The show will complete its third and likely final regular season by the end of the year, but may continue with a few spot episodes if I am able to get more sealed games. It's been a fantastic run, and easily my most consistent project ever. I thank those of you who have been checking out episodes of the show, and hope that you will continue to do so. 

Next up is Twitch. I recently moved over to Twitch from YouTube for PS4 streaming. I primarily run arcade games, with some other retro stuff and a sports game here and there. It's a fun way to share experiences and memories from my younger days and maybe set a few personal bests along the way. I'm working on trying to set a regular schedule of 2-3 streams a week, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 11pm Eastern. Drop in and say hello, if you'd like! 

I will also soon be starting a new contributor role for an upcoming video game guidebook. This project will be a lot like the Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library project that I worked on, but covering a different console. I'm anticipating that I'll be covering a fair number of sports video games again, but a lot fewer than the 80+ that I reviewed for the last book. I honestly didn't think that I'd be doing this again, but the project manager is hard to say "no" to. Work will begin this summer and last for about a year. Once the book info goes public, I'll talk about it more here. 

Finally, speaking of sports video games... I'm going to try bringing The Retro Referee out of retirement. This time, the project will look a bit different than I originally thought it would, as it will primarily be driven by social media and entries here on this website. I may make a few YouTube videos to go with it, but that's a bit further down the road. Retro sports games are a definite passion of mine, and I've often thought about giving this idea another chance. I think it's time to see how it goes. 

It's good to stay busy, especially with everything in the outside world that's currently going on... and I'm looking forward to doing as much as I can. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Coin-Op Time Machine #2: Berzerk


When nine year-old me first heard that voice while looking around at the arcade machines at a Norwich, Connecticut bowling alley back in 1981, I was freaked out. Who said that, and how did anyone else know that I had two quarters in my pocket? The voice came from an arcade game called Berzerk, and that immediately caught my attention. I needed to play this game-- it talked!

I put my quarter in, and was greeted by a maze-like room with robots in it. They were just kind of standing there, so it was easy to destroy them by firing my laser. It was kind of creepy, though; there was no music-- just the sound of laser fire and exploding robots. Then the voice boomed again:


It sent a chill down my young spine. It was me or them. I tried to quickly dispatch the robots. It was weird that they were just standing there, but I didn't want to take any chances. As each robot exploded, my score increased by 50 points. Destroying all of the robots gave my score a nice boost, too. After eliminating the last enemy in the room, I left via the right exit. "This is pretty easy," I remember saying to myself.

The next room had a different layout, and the robots were a different color. Unlike the last room, the robots were firing at me this time. Their shots were slow and easily avoidable. One robot shot another in trying to take me down. Two others ran into each other. I was a bit more methodical this time, being careful not to eat a laser beam. With one robot left, that voice sounded an ominous warning:


Huh? What was this? Emerging from the left side of the room was this bouncing ball with a smiling face. "Bonus points!" I thought to myself, as I charged at the grinning sphere-- but that was a mistake. Laser fire did nothing as the thing happily bounced toward me. I turned to run, and wound up banging into a wall-- which zapped me dead!


I made it through another pair of rooms. The robots got faster and more accurate with their gunfire. In trying to zap all of the robots in a room, that bouncing ball would show up and chase me down. It bounced into me and zapped me in one room, taking my last extra life. In the next room, in order to survive, I decided to flee when it appeared. The decision to leave any robots surviving elicited trash talk from the disembodied voice:


I lost my final life in the next room, thanks to not seeing a laser beam shot at me diagonally. I got to put my initials in for a high score, and I became a fan of this game for life thereafter. This never-ending battle for survival against the machines and the creepy voice received more than several of the quarters that I would have during my year or so living in this small Connecticut town. Since the bowling alley was within a short walking distance from where I was living, I would sometimes walk down there and just hang out, hoping to find quarters in the coin return slots or maybe get to watch someone else play the game.

Berzerk, on the surface, is a very simple game with three key objectives: Destroy robots, navigate each room's pseudo-labyrinthine layout, and survive as long as possible. It's got a simple control scheme, too, using just a joystick and a fire button. It's easy to learn, and the gradually-increasing difficulty succeeds at drawing players in with early success...  only to humble and humiliate them before too long. This is, after all, an arcade game-- and the mission of any arcade game is to separate a player from that player's coins. Getting more than 5 minutes out of one credit is a pretty good run. Heck, in revisiting Berzerk for this piece, I was only able to manage 8,000 points twice-- and never scored 10,000. If you get to a room with silver robots (more than a dozen screens in), the laser fire is nearly impossible to avoid because of its speed and frequency. You almost have to anticipate where shots will come from and hope that a few robots off each other to stand a chance.

The game's simple graphics still hold up today, nearly four decades later. The robots change color after each couple of rooms, but the sprite remains the same. There's something about Evil Otto-- the indestructible bouncing ball of death-- mostly because of that unchanging smile as it bounds toward the player. It's just a simple sphere with a smiley face, but Evil Otto is unforgettable once it chases you down. The animation of the player is pretty good, too. All told, that visual simplicity allows Berzerk to be a timeless classic that can be enjoyed by any player of any age, from any generation of video gaming.

The sound-- particularly that robotic voice-- is what makes Berzerk memorable for me. Voice in arcade games around this time always got my attention. Not too far away from the Berzerk machine at this bowling alley was Gorgar, a 1979 pinball machine from Williams that also utilized voice. Across the street from the bowling alley was a diner that had a Vanguard machine, which had some digitized voice included. Wizard of Wor and Gorf are also up there for me when it comes to voice in arcade games. That said, it was that one line about a coin being detected in my pocket that grabbed my attention... and the rest has been history.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Coin-Op Time Machine #1: Capcom Bowling

Bowling has been a favorite hobby of mine for decades. One of the coolest non-electronic birthday presents I ever got was a set of plastic bowling pins and a ball for my ninth birthday in 1981. I would bowl along with TV shows like Bowling For Dollars or telecasts of the PBA Tour every Saturday. A few years later, in 1986, I joined a youth candlepin bowling league... then, during my adult life, I began ten-pin bowling in 1993. The ten-pin bowling league was really a front to get into the good graces of my then-girlfriend's parents, who were league bowlers. I even bought a $200 ball, a pair of shoes, and a bowling bag to try and fit in. In time, I learned how to bowl okay, and learned how to "hook"-- or curve-- the ball from right to left like the pros do. I bowled in leagues on and off until 2001; I tried to get back into it last year, but this 47 year-old body isn't built for the rigors of 50-60 hard-cranking throws of a 15-pound ball anymore.

"What's your point?" you're probably asking.

Well, arcade games and bowling alleys go hand in hand. Bowling alleys introduced me to coin-ops that I've forever enjoyed since, like Berzerk, Gorgar pinball, Street Fighter Alpha, and more. One such game is Capcom Bowling, developed by Incredible Technologies and released by Capcom in 1988. Virtual bowling in a bowling alley? It's just crazy enough to work, and I sure dropped a few quarters into that machine either at the bowling alley or in my favorite mall arcade during that time. It's a rather no-frills kind of experience; aside from a high score leaderboard, there's no stat tracking, characters to pick from, or even a bowler displayed on-screen. It's your ball, ten pins, and a wooden lane between them.

To quote the great Al Bundy: STEEEE-RIIKE!
The best part of Capcom Bowling is its simplicity. Using a Trak-Ball controller, players roll the ball toward the pins and aim for the "pocket"-- the space between the front (head) pin and either pin just behind it. Finding the right speed is important, too; launching the ball down the lane doesn't allow the pins to react and often leaves nasty splits. There is an option to hook the ball either slightly or more severely, but I honestly never use it since a straighter trajectory works just as well in most situations. Like real bowling, the biggest challenge is being consistent with your shots every frame. Slightly slower speed or missing the target by even a little bit can mean the difference between a strike and a split. Whatever you do, be sure to watch the hourglass! If time runs out on your turn, it's a foul!

The presentation is laid back and amusing. After most spares or strikes, a short cutscene will play. It's fun to see how many you can watch during a game or two. Cows, kangaroos, animated bowling balls, and more will pop up to compliment your performance. Rolling the ball between pins of a split, much like kicking a football through the uprights, will sometimes trigger a funny field goal scene. Electronic bowling alley scoring these days employs the same kind of fun animations after each frame, so perhaps Capcom Bowling was a bit of a trendsetter!

This is the one cutscene you don't want to see.
Playing the game alone, as I often did (and still do), means a pretty quick experience. Solo games can be completed in just a couple of minutes. It means competing against the leaderboard for the right to enter your initials for other players to see. Adding up to three friends, usually for only a quarter per player, makes the experience a lot more competitive and fun. It's especially fun at a bowling alley or a bar, where you and your friends can just hang out, talk a little playful trash, and have a few drinks (or Pepsis, in my case).

Speaking of drinks, there's an alternate release of this game, called Coors Light Bowling, which came out a year later. Much like Midway's Budweiser-branded Tapper coin-op, Coors Light Bowling is loaded with Coors Light cross-branding in the game's presentation. The cutscenes are different here, with shots of the Coors Light logo or characters from Capcom Bowling holding beer cans instead of bowling pins. Rolling a strike in the 5th frame will earn players a "Beer Frame" cutscene, featuring a mug of (what else?) Coors Light. A few of the cutscenes are a bit more... adult, as well. If you see the bowling pin with the Mary Hart legs, you'll know what I mean. Obviously, this cabinet wasn't found in most arcades; you had to find this one in bowling alleys or bars. If you've played Capcom Bowling, though, you've played Coors Light Bowling.

Strike in the fifth frame! Virtual Coors Light for everyone!
One last note to make here is that Incredible Technologies, the development team behind the game, would quickly go on to make a game called Golden Tee Golf in 1989. You might have heard of that one before. Much like Capcom Bowling, Golden Tee uses the Trak-Ball controller; pull the ball back to set the backswing, then hammer it forward to let it rip. Golden Tee Golf eventually replaced Capcom Bowling at many bowling alleys as the de facto arcade game of choice.

I have a lot of fond memories of Capcom Bowling, and playing it definitely takes back in time. It's not the deepest game, it's not the most fully-featured game, and it's not the hardest game around... but it's what a classic arcade game should be: easy to learn, difficult to master, and fun to play. It makes me long for mall arcades, chicken tenders and Pepsi at the local bowling alley, and the days when I could bowl fifty frames without getting sore knees or other pain.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perspectives: In Defense of the Atari 2600

Cosmic Ark is still one of my favorite 2600 games.
The Atari 2600 came out in 1977. I was all of five years old back then, and didn't play it at that time. I was still fiddling around with the APF TV Fun unit that my dad had brought home a year prior, and honestly... that's probably all that I could've grasped at the time. A dial was enough of a challenge for me, though (according to my mom), I was still good enough to beat my dad pretty consistently. 

My first Atari 2600 experience came in 1980. My mom wound up taking us to live with her parents after my mom could no longer live with my paternal grandparents, who had taken us in just after my mom an dad had split up. I wasn't a fan of this arrangement, but the purchase of an Atari 2600 by my maternal grandparents lessened the blow a bit. This thing was awesome. Combat was a bit simple, but playing Space Invaders without going to an arcade was really cool. Adventure tested my skills and patience as an eight year-old. Bowling was a lot of fun. All told, having video games like these in the house was mind-blowing. 

Yes, that's Donkey Kong. Really. 

"Okay," you're probably thinking, "but what's the point here?"


I was fortunate enough to be alive when the Atari 2600 was the new thing, the in thing. We only had arcade games to compare the experience to. If you liked video games, as I did, the Atari 2600 was awesome at this time. The games were a mix of arcade-style games, traditional games (like sports or casino games), and experimental games. The arcade games were my favorites. Playing Berzerk at home wasn't that far from playing the coin-op, aside from the missing voices. Frogger was a decent approximation, even if the animation wasn't smooth like the game that I sunk a few quarters into. The experimental stuff, like Pitfall!, was neat to play because there was nothing else like it. Multiple screens and timed gameplay? Wow. 

Berzerk is still a lot of fun, and holds up well on the 2600.

What I find now is that some of today's content creators who cover retro video games tend to take a big ol' dump on the 2600. They wonder what the heck we were thinking back then. They criticize the graphics. They lament the simplicity. They tend to view these games and the platform on the whole through a narrow lens, missing a key layer of understanding... which revolves around comparing the games to what we had at the time. That perspective is important. 

I get that the graphics are simple. I know that the sound effects are limited. I understand that the games aren't that deep. Many games are unbeatable, as they revolve around scoring instead of an end goal. That's how things were. Arcade games were similar. You didn't "beat" Frogger or Gorf. You tested your endurance and skill, shooting for the highest score. There were some games you could beat, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even the unfairly-maligned E.T... but these games are hard to grasp for players who didn't grow up with them. 

So many people give E.T. a bad rap, and unfairly so.

I just played some E.T. prior to writing this. Memory and experience quickly kicked in, and I remembered what I learned when I played it originally. I'll grant that falling into pits is annoying, and happens a bit too much; however, the basics of the game are simple: Find the communicator parts, "phone" home, and wait to be picked up. The instruction manual (Remember those?) told us the "how"s and "why"s. I knew what the arrows and other symbols meant because I took a few moments to read the manual back then. I don't think many people in this day and age give a second thought to looking at an instruction manual, let alone take time to read it. 

I won't argue that the Atari 2600 is the best video game platform ever made. It's not even in my Top Five. As technology improved, so did the home video game experience. Having said that, I can also recognize why the Atari 2600 is so significant. It was the "in thing" for a few years, and that's due in no small part to the fact that it was-- for its time-- an impressive platform with a ton of games that delivered hours of fun to families everywhere. 

You don't have to like the console or its games, but I firmly believe that it deserves some respect and put into a proper perspective. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Retro Referee: Bad News Baseball (NES)

Bad News Baseball isn't necessarily one of the games that comes to mind when thinking about NES baseball titles. Most players will instinctively think of RBI Baseball, Baseball Stars, or Bases Loaded... but this game absolutely deserves to be added to the conversation when considering some of the best baseball games for the console. It's easy to play, has plenty of replay value, and incorporates Tecmo's then-trademark cutscenes to spice up the experience.

Pitchers can change speeds and add a measure of break, but their skill in these areas is dictated by stats that managers can look at before each game. Some pitchers are fireballers, reaching speeds of over 100mph. Others can curve inside and outside, painting the corners with efficiency. Holding the D-pad up while pitching turns the pitch into a forkball that falls onto the plate and can fool certain hitters. Unfortunately, pitcher stamina is very short. After just a few fastballs or forkballs, pitchers lose a lot of velocity, making their deliveries easier to make contact with. Careful management of pitcher stamina is a requisite, even for teams that hold significant leads.

There's no doubt that offense is the star of the show here. Home runs come in bunches, with teams occasionally stringing together three or four round-trippers in a row. There are some seeing-eye grounders that can take defenses by surprise and speedy runners can sometimes turn these into extra-base hits. Computer-controlled pitchers are often always around the plate, so timing and an aggressive approach are favored over patience and taking pitches.

Fielding is decent. Players must react and move fielders at the ping of the bat, ranging deep on fly balls and ranging left or right depending on the batted ball's flight path. With some practice, fielding becomes fairly reliable; however, errors occur randomly and can sometimes be the difference between a 1-2-3 inning and a crooked number.

Games move at a quick pace, even in blowout situations, and full games can be played in 15-20 minutes. Cutscenes occasionally pop up during close calls on the basepaths, and always play after home runs. There are several different homer scenes, based on situations like solo shots or three-run jacks. They're reminiscent of a Little League game, with lots of team interaction and poking fun at adults-- like sleeping coaches in the dugout. Particularly long drives have a cool outer space scene that's seemingly pulled straight out of Baseball Bugs. These cutscenes add personality to the overall game while not being obtrusive or annoying.

Replay value for solo players revolves around trying to beat each team in the game. Difficulty gradually increases with each successive matchup. Don't expect to blow out later opponents after winning by the 10+ run "mercy rule" early on. Unfortunately, the passwords to resume play are lengthy, and it's recommended that players take snap photos of these if needed instead of writing them down. A battery save would've been really nice here.

The visuals are generally quite good, especially during the cutscenes and the pitcher/batter matchup. Players are nicely detailed and animate well through their swings or pitching motions. When the camera zooms out to a fielding perspective, players all look the same. One unique animation is that, when offensive players are called out, they fall to the ground with stars dancing around their heads. This gets old fast, though. Sound is fueled by catchy theme music for each team and occasional digitized voice calls from the long-eared bunny umpire. It's a decent audio-visual package overall that performs well and doesn't have too many drawbacks.

Bad News Baseball may be lacking features that the more prominent NES baseball games have, but it's not lacking at all in the fun department-- and that's what counts the most. Whether you just fire it up for a quick game or two, or whether you want to see what happens when you beat all of the teams, this game is worthy of a place in your NES library.