Thursday, 10 July 2014

Great Sports on the Sega Master System

Fairly early on in the life of the Sega Master System, Sega released a series of sports simulations to entertain armchair atheletes. In the order of the alphabet they were Great Baseball, Great Basketball, Great Football, Great Golf, Great Ice Hockey, Great Soccer and Great Volleyball. Of course, claiming that anything's great usually means that it isn't, with the obvious exception of Great Britain, which is great. And possibly Great Yarmouth. As for Sega's "Great" sports games, it would have been much more truthful to call them Not-so-great Baseball, Bloody Awful Basketball, Absolutely Shite Football, Below Par Golf (see what I did there!?), Pucking Unplayable Ice Hockey, Crap Soccer and Terrible Volleyball. But doing so might have hampered sales somewhat. Even so, Sega did sometimes mix up the names a bit. Some games were apparently "Great" in one country but not in another, or games went under the same title in different countries, but were actually different games. Join us as we look back at this not-very-famous series of games to remind ourselves of why some games are sometimes best left in the past, and also attempt to make some sense of their names.

Penalty! Referee! Oh, wrong sport.
Great Baseball
To be fair, Sega's version of America's favourite bat and ball game wasn't that bad. It's certainly not great by any stretch of the imagination, but is at least moderately fun for a short while. Getting into a game is nice and quick, perhaps a little too quick as before you know it, somebody is throwing a ball at you at 100 miles an hour. There's no need to faff around with options and team selections, parameters, preferences and all manner of crap like many sports games of today require you to do. You simply choose a team from the A or the N league, whatever they are, pick a pitcher and away you go. As per the rules of baseball, you take it in turns to bat and pitch. Three strikes and you're out. Oh! So that's where the saying comes from! Well I never. The view when pitching and batting is from behind the pitcher, and looks quite impressive too. When the ball has been batted into whichever random direction it wants to go, the view switches to an overhead one, allowing you to see the playing field, and the little players running around the bases. There are actually two modes of play, one which allows you to control the fielders, and one which doesn't. Things get a bit fiddly when trying to control the fielders, so it's best to let the computer do that so you can concentrate on throwing the ball back to the bases, and to each other, and back again. The game is peppered with little samples of speech, some of which sounds like it is actually based on real words. The crowd noise sounds like a jet engine taking off though. Little tuneful ditties break up the action, and give a jolly feel to the game. The graphics are also quite good. I'm not sure if pushing the d-pad in any direction when pitching or batting actually has any effect on the ball, but pressing it anyway makes you feel like you're contributing some skill to the game.

This version of Great Baseball was released in Europe and the USA. An earlier game also called Great Baseball was released in Japan. It was a bit slower-paced and didn't utilise the behind the pitcher viewpoint, but it was fairly similar otherwise. Japan also receive a modified and much improved version of the European/US Great Baseball, which was known as The Pro Yakyuu: Pennant Race.

Rounder! Rounder! Rounder! Rounder!

Great Basketball
So, we've had rounders. Now netball. As with most of the "Great" games, there is minimal setup required to get you started with a game. In Great Basketball, options are pretty much limited to choosing whether you are playing by yourself or with a chum, and then choosing a country or countries to represent. A nice little national anthem plays for each nation you pick. Gameplay is arcade-style in, er, style. It's fairly easy to score points, and the game is quite fast-paced, but it's just lacking in variety and any sense of excitement. The ball feels a bit floaty and there is no real skill involved in throwing the ball. It's also too easy to foul other players. Sometimes you can manage it without even pressing a button. A tune plays throughout the game which isn't actually that annoying, although it sounds like the snippets of speech have been sampled from some extra-terrestrial species. They definitely don't represent anything heard on this planet. Graphics are colourful although it's often difficult to make out who's who. Again, like Great Baseball, Basketball is fairly fun to play for a short while, and is quite enjoyable with two players, but not necessarily because it's a good game. It's one of those so bad it's good kind of games.

There were no weird naming shenanigans going on here. Great Basketball was Great Basketball everywhere, apart from Brazil where it was Great Basket.

The USA are beating URS. URS? Ursula? Oh! USSR.

Hut hut! Twenty-eight! Fifty-six! Time out!
Great Football
This is Sega's attempt to bring American Football to owners of their 8-Bit box of tricks. They really shouldn't have bothered. It's terrible. There's a choice of what are probably made-up teams from the good old A and N leagues again, and that's about it. In one player mode, you only appear to be able to play in offence, and picking your tactics is a case of waiting for the formation selection screen to scroll through each formation, stopping it when it highlights the one you want. That's if you can figure out how to stop it. I can't, so I just have to wait until it gets to the last one. Surely it wouldn't have been difficult to program some sort screen with manually selectable menus. Gameplay itself is limited to either running with the ball, or throwing it to somebody else and letting them run with it. Okay, that's pretty much what American Football is, but in reality the sport is usually much more interesting than it sounds. The problem is, this version of American Football just isn't much fun to play at all. The sport itself is very much stop-start, but there's too much stopping and not enough doing anything in this game. Oh well.

The same version of Great Football under the same name was released worldwide. Poor world.

Looks like a load of firemen in a field of sheep.

Great Golf
Probably the best of the Great series of games, which isn't really saying much. Great Golf is a fun, if simplistic, round of the Royal and Ancient game. It features two modes of play, Stroke Play and Match Play. Stroke Play is your typical get-around-the-course-in-as-few-shots-as-possible mode, whereas Match Play, which requires a minimum of two players, sees the winner declared based on who wins most holes. There's also a club selection screen. Graphics and sounds are average, with the viewpoint from behind the player taking a short while to display, and sound featuring a few effects, short tunes and the odd bits of sampled speech. Gameplay itself allows you to check the wind direction and speed, set your club, stance, direction and power. That's about it. The ball appears a bit floaty, and if you're playing solo, things get dull quite quickly. Incidentally, this was the very first Master System game I ever owned other than the built in Hang On and Safari Hunt, and I have fond memories of playing this with family and friends. Great days.

This version of Great Golf is the version released in Europe and the USA. An earlier game with the same title was released in Japan, but failed to make it out of Rising Sun land. It was an isometric version of the sport. The European/US version of Great Golf was released in Japan as Masters Golf.

Enough of this shit. Get me to the nineteenth hole.

No it isn't.
Great Ice Hockey
There's not a lot I can say about this. It's only compatible with Sega's crappy trackball controller, the Sega Sports Pad. If you don't have one, and probably 99% of Master System owners didn't, then this game was useless. Apparently it's not much better even with the correct accessory. Things don't sound or look that bad, although you can't really go wrong if your task is to draw ice. But how it actually plays is anyone's guess although I'll bet our cat on it that it doesn't play well. It mystifies me why somebody didn't think to make the game work with the Master System's standard controllers, you know, the ones that came free with every console, therefore the ones that everybody owned. Bizarre.

Fortunately, Europe were spared of the horrors of Great Ice Hockey as it failed to get released there. It did get a release in Japan and the USA.

Where the puck's the puck? Oh, who cares. I can't even play this game.

Lots of effort went into designing this title screen
Great Soccer
Sega managed to turn the Beautiful Game into something quite horrible here. You control your players up and down a pitch and attempt to tap the ball into a goal using a terrible aiming system. Your players move slowly and are unresponsive, and they don't seem able to keep control of the ball. As accurately as this reflects England's 2014 World Cup team, it just isn't much fun at all. Like all of the Great games, getting into the game is quick and easy. But having simple and accessible menu screens does little to redeem things. Graphics are depressing, the sound will offend your ears and you'll be turning this game off within minutes of turning it on. Do I not like that.

Again, there were two versions of Great Soccer. This time around, Japan and Europe received the vertically scrolling Great Soccer game mentioned above. The USA's version of Great Soccer was equally as bad, but scrolled horizontally. It was released in Japan and Europe as World Soccer, and released again in Japan as Sports Pad Soccer, compatible with the Sega Sports Pad.

He shoots! He scores! He wants to play something else!

Nice colour scheme here
Great Volleyball
I really wish I hadn't chosen to try to play through these games. The best of the bunch probably was Great Ice Hockey, but that's only because I couldn't get it to work so didn't have to play it. Fortunately, we've reached the final game, Great Volleyball. Unfortunately, it's just as unplayable as the rest. Things sounds ok and look nice and cartoony, but it's hard to control what's happening. I'm never really sure what player I'm controlling, and he just seems to do what he wants, rather than what I want him to do. You have a team of six players, but sometime you are controlling three of them, sometimes one. And the rest of the team that you're not controlling doesn't appear to want to help out. It's confusing and, once again, not fun. The worst thing is that these games would have originally retailed for about £20 each. Maybe more. The complete set would have set you back £140. That depresses me.

Great Volleyball was the same game in all markets. It was crap everywhere.

Spot the ball

It's not great. It's super.
Anyone for Tennis?
This series of games seemed to represent a number of major sports, but Sega don't appear to have served up anything for tennis fans. Or did they? Well, yes, there was apparently a game called Great Tennis. However, this was only in Japan. Great Tennis did make it abroad though. It was released in countries elsewhere on the planet as Super Tennis. Just the same as how the Great games weren't great, sticking Super at the front of something doesn't make it Super. Except for Super Gran  Unsurprisingly, Super Tennis was a simplistic version of tennis. It's a bit fiddly to control, and the ball seems to be quite floaty, but it's not too bad.

You cannot be serious! We've got another 14 years to go until Virtua Tennis comes out?

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