Un-Real Tennis: the early history of tennis video games and how they helped shape the medium

The great Billie Jean King allegedly once described tennis as “a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility”. Whilst this speaks perfectly to the juxtaposition of on-court struggle and respectful, tradition-laden presentation epitomised by Wimbledon, it’s also a description that could be applied to many video game experiences. Indeed, the idea of sport existing as a peaceful substitution for battle is a notion paralleled in many video games, not least in how they can be used to sublimate frustration and anger. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the history of video games emulating sport, especially tennis, is about as long as the history of video games in general. In fact, despite a decided lack of great tennis video games, their impact on the history of the medium is quite monumental.

First game, opening set

One of the earliest examples of a computer game – if not strictly a video game – is Tennis for Two, a highly abstracted simulacrum of the sport created by physicist William Higinbotham in 1958. Though not the first game designed for a computer, it is allegedly the first designed for the purposes of entertainment rather than research.

Tennis for Two

The game was displayed from a side-on perspective on an oscilloscope (so technically no video signals involved), with the visuals comprising solely of 2 perpendicular lines representing the court floor and net, and a moving dot representing the ball. There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, no playing against the computer: in the true spirit of the sport, this was solely a player versus player affair. Participants used large metal controllers, pressing a button to hit the ball and using a rotating dial to adjust the angle of their shots. For two years, it entertained visitors (and, assumedly, several researchers) to the Instrumentation Division of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, before being dismantled so its components could be repurposed in other projects – it has, however, since been recreated many times thanks to its historical significance. Despite having little direct influence on the emergence of the industry, it no doubt spoke of the potential inherent in using computer technology to design games and entertain the masses.

The old masters

Magnavox Odyssey tennis documentation

Over the next decade, electro-mechanical gaming began to creep into arcades across the US and Japan, and come 1971, the very first cabinet video game launched in the form of Computer Space. The following September, the father of all home consoles, the Magnavox Odyssey, arrived in the US. It featured two tennis style games amongst the twelve included with it, titled simply Table Tennis and Tennis. Both were played from a top-down perspective, and were once again two-player only. Whilst Table Tennis had only a single line to suggest a net, Tennis featured a white outline of a court against a green background: this effect could be enhanced with an overlay for the TV screen that made it appear as if there were tennis-players on the court (see above). The actual players were also expected to follow the rules of tennis, though these were not a programmed part of the game design. Notably, the dots that represented the bats and racquets could be moved both vertically and horizontally, unlike a certain game that was soon to follow…

Just a month after the Odyssey’s release, Pong – the game that would change the face of computer entertainment forever – appeared in pubs and arcades. Engineer Alan Alcorn designed this classic under instruction from Nolan Bushnell, the co-creator of Computer Space who had just established Atari in order to corner the emerging video game market. Pong was remarkably similar to the Odyssey’s tennis games: a 1974 court case would later establish that Bushnell told Alcorn to design the game soon after seeing a demonstration of a pre-release Odyssey in early 1972.

Pong

Despite this resemblance in core gameplay, Pong differentiated itself with its simplified design. Larger paddles, balls that ricocheted off the top and bottom of the screen, an on screen score count, and vertical-only movement made Pong much easier to master than its Odyssey predecessors. In tandem with the social locales in which it was played, this increased accessibility soon made Pong the first mega-hit of video gaming. Such was its success that it actually drove sales of the Odyssey (though apparently not enough to avert the aforementioned court case) and led to a home-centric version a few years later – this in turn paved the way for Atari’s first proper home console, the 2600.

Improving form

Magnavox’s Tennis and Atari’s Pong spawned countless imitators, so much so that the industry was largely dominated by ‘Pong clones’ until the arrival of Space Invaders (1978) and Pac-Man (1980). When the second generation of home consoles arrived, all of them – from the Fairchild Channel F to the ColecoVision – had at least one tennis game. Some tennis titles began providing a more representative version of the sport, such as Mattel’s Tennis (1980) for their Intellevision, which featured stick-figure players and a crowd of pixel people in the background.

Activision Tennis

The Atari 2600 had two tennis games, the most significant being Activision’s Tennis (1981, shown above). It marked the first change from the top-down, side-of-court Pong perspective, instead presenting an overhead viewpoint facing the net, essentially mimicking the standard camera angle used in televised tennis. This provided a greater sense of spatial depth to gameplay, which was also surprisingly fast paced, appearing more fluid compared to many prior (and later) games. What’s more, it offered a single-player option if desired (though rudimentary AI likely made this hard to enjoy). Though still relatively simple in terms of game design, it was praised by contemporaneous pundits: the judges of that year’s Electronic Games Arcade Awards named it Best Competitive Game, stating “Tennis is as far removed from the primitive Pong-style games from which it derives as gasoline is from the dinosaurs”. Tennis was part of a slew of early successes Activision had on Atari’s system, along with the likes of Boxing (1980), Fishing Derby (1980) and Kaboom! (1981): the prestige they garnered through these fledgling game-design efforts helped to put them on the path to becoming the industry behemoth they are today.

Match Point

After the collapse of the console market in 1983, a few titles became sports game standouts within early PC gaming. Match Point (1984, shown above) for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum is regarded as one of the best of the era, and although it was aesthetically simple compared to some other contemporaneous efforts, it carved a special place into the hearts of British computer gamers looking for a good sports simulator. With responsive controls, solid game mechanics, and computer opponents boasting reasonable AI, Match Point was no doubt one of the most technically accomplished tennis games of the decade.

On Court Tennis

Activision’s effort from the same year, On Court Tennis (shown above) for the Commodore 64, provides an interesting contrast. Visually the game is more impressive, featuring for the first time avatars that weren’t mere stick figures, with discernible sportswear and hair. Indeed, each of the four selectable avatars was modelled and partly named after the ‘Big Four’ of the time: Jimmy, John, Ivan and Bjorn. It was possibly also the first game to allow players to chose different surfaces, with the options of Grass, Clay and Hard-Court. However, unlike all the aforementioned games, control of the avatar’s movements across the court was surrendered to the computer; instead, the player controlled the timing and nature of the shot. Whilst this may have made it more accessible to some, to the modern eye it seems a significant step back in terms of game-design. Though it won some high praise at time of release, its more sluggish pace and reduced player agency mean it hasn’t aged as well as its Spectrum rival.

And with that, the opening set of this history comes to a middling but promising conclusion. When the US Open rolls around in late August, I’ll detail the history of the genre from the mid-1980s until present day, beginning with the first forays of notable Japanese developers. Until then, why not get the old Wii remote out and waggle your way to some entertaining rallies!

 

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