The Game: Batter up! Take charge of a team on the baseball diamond for a practice round, or a game lasting 3, 6 or 9 innings. And if you think being behind a joystick will save you from hearing from the umpire, think again. (Atari, 1983)
Memories: In 1979, the mainstay of home video gaming was space, not sports. That’s hard to imagine these days, when you have giants like Electronic Arts dropping the equivalent of some small countries’ gross national debt to lock down entire professional sports leagues. Sure, there was sports games in 1979, but they were at such a primitive level that they just weren’t a match for Space Invaders and Asteroids; the most realistic sports simulations still lived in the arcade. In 1980, Intellivision changed the playing field, literally and figuratively, as Mattel introduced sports games that actually bore some resemblance to their inspiration. A surprisingly aggressive marketing campaign for a relative newcomer to the video game field put Atari on notice: take sports games seriously.
Atari’s RealSports series was a two-pronged response to Intellivision. The Atari 2600 titles under the new sports imprint were there to redress the balance and convince gamers that Atari’s older system could compete. The RealSports games on the newer 5200 platform, on the other hand, were an unabashed attempt to blow Intellivision off the map. Worse yet, RealSports Baseball trumped Mattel’s Major League Baseball to an innovation that could have been Intellivision’s.
As a game, 5200 RealSports Baseball is a solid hit straight up the center. Not quite out of the park, but definitely a step up from the same title on the 2600 (which, technically speaking, really isn’t the same title – neither version is a port of the other). It incorporates some of the strategic options of Intellivision’s Major League Baseball and gives the game a finer visual grain, and it’s a decent game of video baseball. But RealSports Baseball‘s real home run is technical: it’s the first home video game to feature speech synthesis using only its console’s natve hardware without a specialized speech snythesis add-on. The umpire says “You’re out!” and “Play ball!” – sure, nothing earth-shattering, but in an era when console manufacturers were using expensive outboard voice modules as a major selling point, it shook things up a bit.
And ironically, Mattel’s game designers had planned on doing the exact same thing. If you listen carefully to Major League Baseball, you can hear that the “You’re out!” sound is almost a guttural speech synthesis version of that phrase. Major League
Baseball was intended to steal this particular base, delivering console-native speech synthesis…but the well-meaning marketing wing of Mattel Electronics cried foul – they wanted speech synthesis to be an external-hardware feature for which consumers would need to pay extra.
RealSports Baseball for the 5200 isn’t the best baseball game ever, but it did score an impressive hit early in the history of the sports game. And perhaps it was a signpost to the future as well: rather than innovating with game play, the sports games of consoles yet to come would pile on audiovisual innovations instead.