Memories: If you need a “before” and “after” picture to see how far video basketball has come, Atari’s Basketball – one of the earliest games published for the VCS – is an effective “before” snapshot. Atari had previously included a Pong-style basketball game as one of the selections on its dedicated Video Pinball console, and compared to that, Basketball is a quantum leap forward: the players are now represented by stick figures, not paddles, and there’s a very early attempt at an isometric 3-D representation of the court, possibly one of the very earliest 3-D perspectives attempted in home video games.
So what’s missing? So much of the heart of basketball. Basketball has no fouling, no three-point shots, no free throws, and even the boundaries of the court are more of a physical restriction than something which demands its own set of rules. The closest Basketball comes to the real unpredictability of the game is in the mad free-for-all when the ball gets loose, and the occasional ball steal. Otherwise, in most respects, Basketball is so simplistic that it’s barely basketball at all.
Strangely, while Atari bettered most of its early sports games in 1982-83 with the RealSports series, it never quite got around to issuing a new and improved basketball game; RealSports Basketball was stuck in development limbo and was never released. Furthermore, Atari’s chief adversary in the race to produce realistic sports games, Mattel Electronics, never issued a 2600 basketball game via its M Network “label”, despite the fact that a basketball cartridge was available for the Intellivision. It’s as if no one else could figure out how to do it any better within the VCS’ severe memory limitations – and yet this is easily the most playable of the early VCS sports games.
Basketball can be a fun diversion for a little while, but it’s by no means a definitive video basketball experience.