The computer game environment in 1985 was changing. Society had moved through the various clones of Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Text adventures were slowly advancing to include graphics (leading to the high-water mark of Sierra games such as Kings Quest). No-one knew where it was leading, so everything was on the table.
A genre that emerged was the simulation genre. This was broken into three categories, as far as I could make out. They were mechanical sims (such as flight simulators or racing games), business simulators (I remember playing a stockmarket trading game for hours one night) and sports simulations. Occasionally, these would cross over (sports management sims were the outcome), but they generally kept to these three streams.
I was a sucker for the sports sims. And my sport of choice was baseball. So it would come as no surprise that I would find the Hardball! series before long. And since it was my first baseball sim, I never really looked at anything else – Out Of The Park or Tommy LaRussa never got a look-in. It was Hardball! all the way for me.
The Hardball! franchise started in 1985 with the release of the first game of the series. The screen we had was a CGA monitor, so we were left with these weird yellow and pink colour palette. But the game played well enough, and was an accurate representation of baseball. I loved that the view was over the shoulders of the pitcher, just like what was broadcast on TV.
Game play was by either keyboard or mouse. In two player mode, one player used the keyboard and the other the mouse. Pitch selection was based on a list of available pitches which changed from pitcher to pitcher (fastball, curve, etc) and a location (high, low, inside etc). Hitting was a case of selecting where in the strike zone to swing (high, inside, etc) and timing the swing to match the pitch arrival. If you could accurately determine where the pitch was going to be in the strike zone and time it correctly, you got a decent hit.
The Struggles of 80’s Sports Sims
Fielding was a different matter. The player nearest the ball was the one under control, and would blink to represent that. Using the mouse, it was easy to drag the player to the position of the ball. Once they had the ball, you chose where they threw it using the cardinal points – right would throw to first base, up to second, left to third base and down for home. This worked well, as once the ball was hit, the view would change to a view behind the catcher, so the bases were in the directions of mouse movement.
The problem with this system, though, was the sensitivity of the mouse, specifically during pitch selection or batting. You would want to throw a certain type of pitch to a specific location, but it was near impossible to work the mouse that finely to make the correct selection. Selecting a place to swing was a matter of dragging the mouse straight in the direction you wanted to swing. but if you stopped moving the mouse, it would automatically centre to the middle of the strike zone, so you were forced to keep dragging the mouse until you swung. If you went off that line, you would then hit into a different segment of the strike zone. And forget trying to hit a pitch right down the middle.
So I spent my time playing it via the keyboard. Yes, playing the field was more difficult, especially trying to run down fly balls, but the pitch control and swing control was more important to me (which I figure led to my philosophy of playing small ball in real life). I got pretty good at it, but not quite as good as Conor Lastowka with RBI Baseball ….
(If you have ten minutes, love baseball and love computer games, trust me this is worth it!)
Since then, many baseball games have come and gone, but by that stage I had moved away from playing computer games. Since starting the CARG project, I’ve taken to Hardball 5, as the improved graphics, ability to play as real players and Al Michaels’ commentary just make the game more realistic. Not as realistic as, say, MLB The Show, but whatever ….