The Say Hey Kid Willie Mays. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Sadly, a mix of genetics, which kept me short with a stick figure physique, and a startling lack of hand-eye coordination ensured that I would never join the ranks of these baseball immortals. Heck, I couldn’t even attain the heights of an Oil Can Boyd. Fortunately, I had the world of video game sports to help fulfill my frustrated athletic ambitions.
The first sports game I remember owning was HardBall! Originally released by Accolade in 1985, the game was a hit for the Commodore 64 and was later ported to the Sega Genesis. I owned the Genesis version of the game. The cover was bright orange and featured the upper torso of a ballplayer. You couldn’t see his face, just his chest and a pair of roided up arms with bulging veins and vice-like hands that gripped a wooden bat.
Bob Whitehead designed the game. In the 1970s, he had created Home Run for the Atari, but HardBall! Introduced a whole new level of control and graphics which elevated the genre. The game was unique, in that gameplay was shown from behind the pitcher’s mound. It also featured a mini-window which displayed a top down view of the baseball diamond, so that players could keep track of base runners.
Players in the game were fictional, as were their statistical strengths. However, this primarily applied to batting and pitching. Fielding decisions like outfield alignment could be made, but players were more or less equal in their abilities. Because batters and pitchers had built in strengths and weaknesses, you had to learn how to make managerial decisions throughout the game. You could also analyze player statistics when coming up with things like your batting order.
HardBall! also included some audio, such as the umpire shouting, “Strike!” Though it seems like a small thing now, it so astounded reviewers at the time that one wrote, “When you first hear the umpire yell S-T-R-I-K-E, you’ll think you’re at the ballpark. The graphics were also considered groundbreaking for their time. Another earlier reviewer noted, “The pitcher’s windup is smoothly sequenced, and the behavior of the chosen pitch is thrillingly accurate….Most impressive is a hit ball’s almost unlimited number of trajectories. Line drives zipping down the left or right field foul line may be foul or fair by a hair.”
I remember struggling with the game during my earliest attempts to play, but once I got a knack for how to pitch and hit, I was able to destroy the computer. Rather than making the game boring, it became a thrill to see just how much I could run up the score.
There was no chance I would ever find my way into Cooperstown, but give me a digital ball and a controller and, dang it, I could be the Sultan of Swat.