Best Video Game with a Porn Name: Ballblazer

Apr
12

Best Video Game with a Porn Name: Ballblazer

Ballblazer

An unfortunately titled game on an ill-fated system remains imminently playable

By Fishbeef

 

Do you enjoy balls flying at your face?  Play this game.

Do you enjoy balls flying at your face? Play this game.

Ballblazer. Ball. Blazer. LucasFilm (later LucasArts) had to know how ridiculous this name was when they released their futuristic sports game on video game systems in 1984. The name practically screams out for prepubescent boys to mock it mercilessly, especially when the game’s instruction manual asks for those who are particularly strong players to be dubbed ‘master blazers.’ LucasFilm was in on the joke, right? Did they know that their new game was so bad ass that they felt they could get away with a masturbation innuendo? Did they know that they had created one of the simplest but most addictive 2-player competitive games ever made?

I was a rare commodity in the 80s; I was a child who did not own a Nintendo Entertainment System. My mother knew I wanted to play video games and so (bless her heart) she purchased – used – an Atari 7800 ProSystem and a huge lot of games, both 7800 and 2600 (the system is backwards-compatible). So instead of running Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom as a youngster I was racing the streets of Pole Position, attacking with my lance in Joust, and blasting asteroids in…Asteroids. The 7800 itself did not have many games, but those that it had were often strong. Desert Falcon, a 7800 exclusive, was an isometric shooter that felt like Zaxxon in ancient Egypt. Pole Position II reached near-OutRun levels of quality in terms of control and sense of speed (not in music, however). And then there was Ballblazer, the game that probably ate up the most of my time.

What’s so special about this ridiculously-named title that next to no one’s heard of? Let’s break it down:

I’m basing my review on the 7800 version, the one I’m most familiar with and arguably the best.

 

Theme

Ballblazer is an incredibly simple sports game, like most during this time. Like a futuristic one-on-one soccer game, the goal is to score points by firing a hovering ball called a ‘plasmorb’ through goal posts on one side of the field, known in the game as ‘the grid.’ To do this you pilot your ‘rotofoil’ across the grid at high speeds, collecting the ball with a force field surrounding your craft. The player who scores ten points first, or who has the most points at the end of the adjustable time limit, is the winner. There are no power ups, you can’t choose your pilot or type of rotofoil, and there are no bonus games or alternate modes for you to try. Shoot the ball, score points. That’s it. So why can’t I stop playing, nearly 30 years later?

 

Graphics

Okay, let’s be realistic. We’re talking an 8-bit system here. The graphics are rudimentary by any modern standard. But considering this, LucasFilm achieved some pretty amazing things here. Ballblazer is a fully 3-D, first-person game. You do not see the rotofoil you’re sitting in, only the ball hovering in front of you when you collect it. The grid where the game is played is just that, a grid. Tan and green blocks lie below you, and a featureless blue ‘sky’ rests above. The edge of the grid is marked by an endless red sea. Your opponent’s rotofoil (you always see both points of view, because even in 1-player mode the picture is split-screen) is an orange or purple triangular craft that looks like someone constructed it out of tangrams. But what the game lacks in detail it more than makes up for in a very palpable sense of speed. Ballblazer is an incredibly smooth game, where every movement as you glide across the grid feels fantastic. It might not be Mario Kart 8 speeding along at 60 fps, but it might as well be its 8-bit equivalent. It’s one thing to read about it, go to YouTube and see it for yourself (whatever you do though, don’t look for Ballblazer Champions, the hideous abortion of a reboot that was released for the Playstation).

 

It's kind of like a lava lamp on ice.

It’s kind of like a lava lamp on a checkerboard.  If I didn’t know better I’d say the programmers have been in my den!

Controls

The controls for Ballblazer are as smooth as the graphics. Your rotofoil moves across the grid like a puck sliding across an air hockey table. The foils have just the right amount of floatiness to the controls, but also a realistic sense of inertia as your craft initially resists the demand to suddenly throw it in reverse. What’s even more fantastic is that the ball responds to this inertia too. It’s held by a force field just outside your craft so when you pull hard to the right the ball will lean slightly to the left, and vice versa. You can use this to your benefit when screaming past the goal posts, putting what almost feels like some english on the ball when you shoot it.

This inertia also affects your sole defensive move in the game. The same energy blast used to shoot the plasmorb can be used to disrupt your opponent’s rotofoil, rebounding it away from you while also pushing you in the opposite direction (“Ballblazer proves Newton right!”). If you blast him at just the right time you can spin his craft out and even dislodge the ball from his possession and across the grid. The feeling of this energy blast when it connects is very substantial and satisfying, and you’d almost swear there’s a rumble pack somewhere in your controller (I highly recommend using a Sega Genesis controller for this game, btw. It fits right into the 7800 deck).

Finally, it takes a bit to get used to but the in-game camera assists you whenever possible in directing you where you should go. Your rotofoil will automatically point you in the direction of the ball, so that if you continue moving forward you’ll always be heading towards it. Your craft turns in abrupt ninety-degree intervals though, so be ready for some jarring shifts in perspective.

 

Strategery

The people who created Ballblazer spent some loving, tender care into making it. They caressed the Ballblazer, held it in their hands, massaged it until they were able to squeeze every gooey ounce of playability out of it. They also thought about what small mechanics, things that are actually doable in a 7800 cartridge, could beef up the strategy and replayability within it. For instance, let’s take something simple like the goalposts. Instead of remaining constant in size and position, the posts constantly drift left and right all the way to the far end of each side, and the space between them slowly shrinks during the course of the game. By the final thirty seconds or so, the scoring area is barely wider than the ball itself. And in a concept stolen from a little game called basketball, your distance from the goal when shooting affects your point total. If you are right up against the offensive edge of the field when you score, you get one measly point. A short to medium-distance shot gets you two. And if you are talented (or lucky) enough to score from near or beyond the horizon line, three points is your reward. You can eventually become good enough to be able to gauge the speed of the moving goalposts and the velocity and inertia applied to the ball when shooting to be able to make those tricky horizon-line shots on a somewhat regular basis.

Defense has its own unique strategy. You’ll quickly discover that a defending rotofoil is faster than the one carrying the ball, which is crucial because otherwise it would be nigh impossible to prevent goals. Hitting the attack button from behind has little to no effect on your opponent. If you really want to disrupt his offense you will need to get beside or in front of him. Attacks from the front will push the opponent far back, and on occasion will even spin him out. But for the best chance of stealing the ball away, attacks from the side are where it’s at. If you hit at just the right spot, the ball will be launched from the player’s grip, blazing across the grid and spawning a high-velocity chase for control (and sometimes the ball can even ricochet into one of the goals, but it’s rare). Learning to defend properly is absolutely essential in Ballblazer, especially when playing against another skilled human opponent or a computer-controlled Droid (yes, it’s Lucasfilm, of course they called them Droids) set around difficulty level five or higher.

 

Sounds

The Atari 7800 is not known for its prowess in sound production; in fact it has the exact same sound chip as the 2600, which is just inexplicable. It took a LOT of work to get good sounds out of this system but Lucasfilm did it, albeit with an extra sound chip installed in the cartridge. Ballblazer’s theme song is called ‘Song of the Grid’ and not only is it the catchiest dance tune of the 80s, it’s also a milestone in video game music. Peter Langston, who led the Ballblazer team, created an algorithm that carefully controlled the speed, volume, and assembly of 32 different ‘riffs’ that would randomly play during the theme. The melody, bass, and drums are all controlled in this manner, creating an endless, improvised tune that maintains a particular thematic structure. And it fucking rocks.

Sound effects are simpler but no less thoughtfully created. There are some very nice touches during gameplay such as changing the background percussion when the ball is held by a player and when it’s flying loose around the gird. An unobtrusive ‘swish’ accompanies any 90-degree turn of your craft, and the sound of the energy field reacting as the opponent nears your craft is a Lightsaber-like sound that feels right out of the Lucasfilm library.

 

Tender, Loving Care

Finally, something must be said for the charm this game contains, particularly in the instruction manual. It is easy to recognize while reading it that this is the same company that would go on to produce such personality-filled games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. There was no real need to create a richly-layered backstory for what ultimately amounts to a simplistic player-vs.-player sports game, but it takes but a quick read from the manual to understand what it adds to the experience:

‘The year is 3097, and the place is a null-gravity nexus mid-space in the binary star system of Kalaxon and Kalamar. Minutes from now, on the luminous surface of an artificial asteroid, the final round of the Interstellar Ballblazer Championship – the greatest tournament of all time and space – will begin, and history will be made. For the first time a creature from the planet Earth has battled through the countless qualifying rounds and eliminations, enduring and then triumphing, across vast parsecs, to win the right to compete for Earth’s honor and the ultimate title any being can possess: Masterblazer.’

I’d love to think that the Star Wars character Mon Calamari is from the planet Kalamar, but an internet search tells me he’s from the world of Dac. How disappointing.

 

At this point in its history LucasFilm could use hyperbole if they wanted to.  Who would argue?

At this point in its history LucasFilm could use hyperbole if they wanted to. Who would argue?

Legacy

Ballblazer is not mentioned much these days, and in order to learn anything about it you have to go searching for it by name on the internet. It’s a shame, because Ballblazer’s legacy lies not in the sports genre which has forever taken a back seat in terms of ‘most influential video games’ (except for Pong, I guess), but rather in the long and ever-popular tradition of first person shooters. No, really! Wait, don’t walk away, give me a chance!

I recognize the problems people might have with this comparison; there’s no weapons, obviously, or angry soldiers and hideous head crabs to kill. The environment has no irregular terrain or dangerous hallways to traverse. You can’t take damage and pick up health kits to boost your stamina. But Ballblazer does something significant that FPS games strove for years to accomplish: tactical, inertia-based gameplay with a palpable sense of speed and a silky smooth framerate. In other words, what Ballblazer did so well on 8-bit systems back in the mid-80s represents the backbone that players have taken for granted in their FPS games during the past decade. So if you happen to pop into your local retro video game store (there’s more opening every day) and see a copy of Ballblazer, you can still smirk at the ridiculous name but don’t discount it. You might just have more fun than you ever dreamed you could building your way up to a true, bonafide Masterblazer. And you can even do it in public.

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Fishbeef

Author at RoPo
Photographer, teacher, lover of fine wines. Video and board game enthusiast. My favorite gas is oxygen.

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