ST Format Review
International 3D Tennis is an intensely ugly game. It is absurdly ugly. The players are literally stick figured with triangular bodies and triangles for heads. I shit you not. It’s also very slow, as many 3D polygon games were at that time. In general 3D games were fine for things that didn’t require twitch reflexes, games that were perhaps a bit more simulation-oriented, like F-19 Stealth Fighter or the Midwinter games or Damocles, but you generally didn’t want to use 3D for sports outside of a few rare exceptions. On one hand Geoff Crammond managed it with F1GP, on the other hand you have monstrosities like I Play 3D Soccer.
A bit of background to the game, something I didn’t remember was that this was a Sensible Software game. It seems that this was their last game to be released on the 8-bits, and I have managed to find videos of the game running on the Spectrum and C64. They’re actually pretty admirable efforts, albeit the 3D is in wireframe on the Spectrum and the C64 has a solid court but wireframe net and players. What’s surprising about the C64 version is that the speed the game runs at is actually slightly faster than the ST. The ST is a little more ambitious with filled vectors but it does leave me pondering – is this an impressive effort on the 8-bits or a poor effort on the 16-bits? Note that the ST and Amiga versions are visually identical albeit the ST version runs a little faster due to the ST’s faster CPU, but the Amiga has better sound. While both versions use samples the Amiga’s ones are of higher quality.
I actually had this during my brief spell of owning an Amiga 600 back in something like 1994 or 1995, when the local dodgy computer shop would sell old unlabeled floppy disks which might mysteriously contain something useful. I remember having a good time with it, so it’ll be interesting to see if it holds up.
One quite nice touch if you’re a Brit is that the game opens with quite a nicely-sampled rendition of the music the BBC used to use for their Wimbledon coverage – it really takes me back to the days when we were shit at tennis and didn’t even have Tim Henman to give us false hope, let alone someone as brilliant as Andy Murray.
So back to the point about it being slow and ugly. It’s ugly, and presumably that’s the only way they could get it running as fast as they did. Looking through the Sensible Software catalog I don’t think they did any other vector 3D games – indeed their next game with any 3D in it was Sensible Soccer 98 which as far as I know went down like a cup of cold sick. I get the feeling they never really got to grips with 3D though it’s hard to guage the performance of Sensi 98 without being able to get my hands on typical hardware of that time.
Now this is where it gets weird. After moaning about Days Of Thunder being slow, I’m going to tell you that International 3D Tennis being slow is a good thing, and you’re going to call me a hypocrite. So here’s a thing – driving a fast car around an oval, actually isn’t too hard in the scheme of things, provided you know what speed you can get away with on the corner. You have control over speed and direction, and the walls aren’t moving, so it’s within the capabilities of most people to navigate not necessarily at the same speed as the pros but you could probably jump into a race car and feel comfortable enough doing 180mph instead of 200 at Daytona. Tennis is a different matter entirely.
Let’s take the current world number 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic. The fastest serve he ever hit was 136mph (219km/h for you Europeans). His career average is 114.5mph. That is clearly slower than a racing car. However, that is a small object moving at that speed at an unknown trajectory. If you were to get on a tennis court with him you would not even get near the ball, and if you did the ball would either hit you and you’d be in agony, or it would bounce off the racket and you’d have no control over where it went. Even the guy at 100 in the world would still be really hard to return. Now compound that with your means of control being a microswitched (and thus digital) joystick with 8 directions and a single fire button. You’ve got to move into position, then time your shot perfectly and finally choose where to send the return shot. You’ve got absolutely zero chance of getting anything back if we don’t slow it down and add some assists. And that’s precisely what the game does. Pro Tennis Tour and Tie Break are fast, so fast that I simply can’t return a damn shot. International 3D Tennis is slow, but slow enough that I can actually return shots. It lets me move my player around the court while the ball’s travelling to my opponent and then when the return is struck it adjusts my position on the court leaving me to focus on timing the return. Tennis needs these assists when playing with just a joystick. Just as Geoff Crammond has assists built into F1GP, so a good tennis game needs some assists to make it playable.
So the question is do those assists work? Well yes they do. Unlike my previous, notably terrible, attempts at reviewing tennis games, I managed to get some rallies in. In a way it’s closer to a game of Pong than being on a tennis court but then again Pong was originally intended to symbolise tennis so that’s fine. The thing is it’s fun. It’s curiously addictive, you get better slowly as is the case with any good sports game, starting out having your arse handed to you and growing in skill to become a better player, progressing further in tournaments and having more fun.
So here’s the thing. I had a lot of fun with this. The match I played to get the screenshots took bloody ages, in part because I lost points trying to get screenshots, but in part because the rallies were lasting a good while and games would often go to deuce with multiple advantages back and forth. Honestly I had a blast. The game is full-featured with a range of tournaments and an enviably complete season mode with pretty decent presentation and progression around that. It works, it feels complete in the way we expect modern sports games to do but which older ones often didn’t. Now that aside, the game’s big feature is that it’s in 3D. It’s in the name. Does it work? Well, it slows the game down so in that regard it does, but the speed of movement of the ball could have been achieved in 2D. Do the extra camera angles bring anything? Honestly, not really. Most tennis on TV focuses on a single shot with good reason – it allows you to understand the play a lot better than any fancy close-up shots or moving the camera around. I ended up picking the closest to that angle that I could, which means the 3D aspect was a gimmick which didn’t serve much purpose. It didn’t even help me to guage where the ball was because rendering a shadow was too expensive, meaning I actually had LESS 3D in a way. The same game with the same controls and the same speed of ball and movement but a superior framerate and better graphics could have been achieved if the game had been 2D. It’s great that they tried something new, I suspect it was a way to learn 3D for future projects which never materialised, but fundamentally it’s a good game which could have been a better game in 2D. Still, International 2D Tennis doesn’t quite have the same ring.