It’s that time of year again, when strawberries increase in price, barley water is consumed in vast quantities and yellow balls are bouncing on usually empty courts. It’s Wimbledon fortnight, and a nation’s thoughts turn to how soon the British hopefuls will lose. Of course, tennis in video game form has a long and impressive history.
Some of the earliest games and games machines were built around the ability to play a game based on tennis. Two bats (or racquets) knocked a square ball back and forth over the net trying to beat an opponent, whether human or sadistically controlled by the intelligent computer. Table tennis analogies soon gave way to tennis courts, either through an on-screen overlay (such as with the Philips Videopac) or the console itself (such as the bright orange Grandstand’s TV Games machine with six exciting variations on Pong).
When home computers and consoles came along, the background became green grass, the lines stayed white and the ball began to get rounder. One of the earliest successes in the field was Psion’s Match Point, popularising what would become the standard view for many tennis games. Viewed from the baseline behind one player and with the lines closing in via perspective, many players had trouble playing at the far end. Match Point tried to introduce forehand and backhand, but with only one button it was tricky to get good control. Accolade’s Serve & Volley had a unique “strobe-o-scope” view of a shot, requiring the player to press fire at the right moment to sweetly time a shot.
A surprise contender for most unusual tennis game came from Sensible Software, more famous for their shoot ‘em ups and football simulations. International 3D Tennis appeared through Palace Software, and included a brilliant rendition of the BBC’s tennis theme music created by the late, great musician Richard Joseph. Its most innovative idea was the polygonal players, drawn in wire-frame outlines on the C64 and semi-filled polygons on the Amiga. This also allowed more versatile camera angles, from a zoomed-out overhead shot presumably provided by a blimp to a side-on angle that favoured neither side. The players themselves had real character, from walking out to bobbing back and forth on the baseline waiting for a serve to the match-concluding handshake. With four difficulty levels and a world of tournaments to enter, there was an impressive level of depth there too.
Another step forward was Codemasters, licensing the dominant Pete Sampras for their Megadrive game. This came on a J-cart, adding two extra ports on the front and allowing a great game of doubles between four humans. Another Megadrive license was Davis Cup Tennis, most notable for allowing players to dispute calls and swear (in censored speech bubbles) at the umpire.
It was Sega who put the fun back into tennis, with the arcade and Dreamcast incarnations of Virtua Tennis. Graphical power gave great likenesses of leading professionals (despite the yawning chasms of their square-toothed mouths) and the control method was designed to make things easy and yet still be strategic. An inspired add-on for the Dreamcast conversion was the World Tour mode, where tennis-themed minigames help the player improve their stats. Although Sumo Digital tried hard with Sega All-Stars Tennis, the combination of Sega mascots and power-ups did not gel as well as the Nintendo 64’s excellent Mario Tennis game from a few years previously.
As the players become more lifelike and the graphics more detailed, it’s important not to lose sight of one thing – the playability. After all, it’s what got so many people into playing video games in the first place, hitting those pixels back and forth…