Review: International 3D Tennis (Sensible Software)

ST Format Review

My 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.

The Verdict


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.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamesdatabase.org/Media/SYSTEM/Commodore_Amiga/manual/Formated/International_3D_Tennis_-_1990_-_Palace_Software.pdf

Review: Days Of Thunder

ST Format Review

My Review

Days Of Thunder is a brilliant fun film, pure 80s (yeah I know it came out in 1990, but it’s 80s). It’s basically Top Gun with fast cars. What’s not to like? Sadly I never watched it growing up, but I got to watch it later in life and loved it, especially after getting into oval racing courtesy of iRacing. Most of us Brits just don’t see the appeal but oval racing is actually incredible. It’s 200mph chess, such a tactical form of racing with constant tight battles, it’s insane fun in iRacing on laser-scanned tracks in VR with a proper wheel and pedals. Days Of Thunder won’t match that but will it still be fun?

It’s worth noting that these old games can be more accurate than you might expect in many areas. I had a crack at Microprose F1GP recently and was enormously surprised at how accurate Silverstone was (the layout has changed since 1990 but the bits that are still there were impressively on the money with everything where it should be – I’ve driven a Caterham R300 at speed there in real life so I’m reasonably qualified to say that). I don’t know the oval tracks quite as well, but hopefully there will be a similar level of accuracy.

The game features 5 oval tracks, Daytona, Atlanta, Phoenix, Talladega and Charlotte. In real life Atlanta an Charlotte are very similar, fairly standard 1.5 mile ovals. Daytona and Talladega are what’s known as superspeedways, which means they’re really massive and heavily banked to allow the cars to reach well over 200mph, and finally there’s Phoenix which is the shortest at 1 mile but is far from being as nuts as somewhere like Bristol or Iowa. Phoenix has an unusual dog-leg, and in general is a tricky little bastard.

Controls are fairly standard racing game fare for the time, forward to accelerate and backwards to brake, with gears selected by pressing fire and up or down, and steering done by moving the stick left and right. This is a fully-3D game, which means that you can watch the race from a variety of views which you can select with the function keys. With F10 you can see information about your current lap, and return will overlay a race summary.

Sound is restricted to a chip tune intro and uninspired chip burbling for engine noise. Visually we have a simple menu which is quite hard to read with the colourful background, and then go into the game at which point vectors take over. When driving there are some guages and dials on your dashboard which actually move, though I think only the revs and speed actually relate to anything, the others are more for decoration. In a way, the game is quite ambitious for a movie tie-in. It would have been easy to do the standard Outrun-style rolling road with stock cars on ovals, but the developers went full-3D and included different camera angles to give the option of a more cinematic experience. With detail turned up you can get a feel for what the developers were trying to achieve and in all honestly the idea wasn’t bad – a full NASCAR simulator with a movie franchise to help sell it to a wider audience. Not many British kids would have bought NASCAR Simulator ’90, but we would buy the game of the Tom Cruise film. It’s clever marketing.

Unfortunately that ambition doesn’t get us a good game. The cars actually look quite cool in a weird chunky low-poly way, but as we later discover in Microprose F1GP, the Atari ST and Amiga are both capable of better than this – the sluggish frame-rate with really very little in the way of detail, or slightly less sluggish framerate if you set detail to minimum (which makes the game look like it’s running on an old Spectrum) really don’t give a sense of the speed at which NASCAR racing takes place. At no point did I feel like I was doing 200mph at Daytona, and though it is perhaps unfair to expect that of a 1990 sim it does rather fail at its core mission. The track feels tiny which means you lose the tactical pack racing found in real racing, and with so few cars on track vs the real thing you don’t get the chaos that comes with it either. In reality if you’re racing at Daytona you’ve got your foot to the floor the whole way and you’re using the draft to jostle for position, be that side draft or in behind another car, or you’re bump-drafting (getting in the tow behind another car and ramming it to give it some extra speed to help you along) – there’s so much to NASCAR that is simply not covered here, and that’s in part because the tracks just don’t match their real-world counterparts. At Daytona you’re lifting heavily for the corners and have so little room on track that you can’t pass there and yet that’s where so much passing happens in real life. Even the straights don’t help as they’re so narrow.

As a sim it’s clearly trying, even going as far as to have the proper lap behind the pace car to start the race, with everyone having to stay in position as the pace car comes in and the lead car then sets the pace until the green flag. You can make pit-stops to repair your car and change tyres. The problem is that it just doesn’t nail the actual race experience. Even simple things like the difference in pace between cars is way beyond just wrong – in oval racing the differences in laptime between front and back are typically under half a second, and among the front runners you can expect them to be separated by less than a tenth. On the other hand I gapped the field by 4 seconds in qualifying, and even the CPU cars were a second apart.

There are other problems like not knowing where other cars are due to lacking working mirrors (which F1GP managed to get right). Now admittedly in a NASCAR your mirrors aren’t brilliant, but they do exist and can give you some indication of someone being behind you. There’s the option of pressing return to pause the game and see who’s in what position but that only shows lap number, not gap in seconds which might be more useful to know if you’re pulling away or not. Now this was never an issue because the difficulty being so low meant I could fly off into the distance anyway but if they’d got the difficulty right it would have been an issue. There’s little sense of achievement from winning either as it just dumps you into the next race without ceremony.

The Verdict

Days Of Thunder is a refreshing change from the kind of low-effort garbage that the likes of US Gold and Ocean consistently put out for movie tie-ins. Yes it’s absolutely fundamentally flawed, as a racing simulation it has significant structural weaknesses, but consider what we got. We could have had a side-scrolling beat-em-up with Tom Cruise kicking shit out of the other drivers, maybe beating up a car Street Fighter 2 style, or an Outrun rolling road game. The developers shot for the moon but ultimately didn’t have the chops to pull it off. Looking on Mobygames it looks like one of the devs had built the Spectrum version of Hard Drivin’ so perhaps they had an engine lying around and wanted to use it, or maybe they learned from that and wanted to take their skills up a notch with another project. It didn’t quite come off, that’s undeniable, but I’m glad they tried.


Resources
Manual: https://archive.org/details/Screen_Gems_Days_Of_Thunder_Amiga/_Manual_1200dpi

ST Format Issue 16 (Oct 90)

ST Format Issue 16 – Download

The World in October 1990

The World in October 1990
In UK news the pound joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precursor to the Euro. This would prove to be a mistake. Women finally got to serve on warships. There was wide acceptance that we would have a recession, though predictions were that it would be short. Tim Berners-Lee began working on creating the World Wide Web – this would prove to be a dreadful mistake.

The US news David Souter joined hte Supreme Court. The Ulysses probe was sent to study the sun. President Bush vetoed a civil rights bill that would have enhanced protection against job discrimination, arguing that it would lead to race and gender quotas – as the Netherlands steps closer to enforcing quotas we see that he was right. Evander Holyfield beat Buster Douglas.

Elsewhere in the world Rwanda entered civil war. East and West Germany officially reunified into a single country, and Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, two events which signalled the end of the dark days of the cold war. In South Africa segregation was eased with transport and public facilities opened to all races.

On TV we saw the debut of the Mary Whitehouse Experience. It was very 90s. Twin Peaks also made its UK TV debut, as did Keeping Up Appearances.

The film charts saw Ghost at #1 for the adults and The Little Mermaid at #2 for the kids, back when gingers were allowed in Disney films. Robocop 2 is a classic at #3.

The album chart sees the Charlatans debut at #1 though it was in the mid-90s during the Britpop movement that they truly shined. Still, The Only One I Know was an awesome song. The rest of the chart.. Status Quo, Michael Bolton and The Shadows. Old people were buying too many fucking albums.

The singles chart saw Maria McKee at #1 with Show Me Heaven which we can blame on Ghost. Status Quo were at #2 with the Anniversary Walktz, oh for fuck’s sake. Bobby Vinton at #3 with Blue Velvet for some reason – I have no idea. More positively at #4 we have The Beautiful South with A Little Time, at #5 we have LondonBeat with I’ve Been Thinking About You and at #6 there’s the Technotronic Megamix. The Pet Shop Boys at #9 with So Hard are also awesome.

The Magazine
Issue 16 came out in October 1990, and is proclaimed as the fattest issue ever, and it’s pretty damn chunky at 180 pages – that said, while this is the ST at the peak of its powers, the same issue of Amiga Format is 244 pages, a sign perhaps that the Amiga was already pulling ahead. The cover isn’t one of their more inspiring ones, focusing on ST productivity. The coverdisk carried a demo of Atomic Robokid, and more interestingly a demo of TCB Tracker (a music program using samples).

The news carried yet another example of Atari’s incompetence – the DMA chip in the new fancy STEs had a fault which could cause the data on a connected hard drive to be wiped. Atari as usual insisted only a small batch of STEs were affected and that it was only third party drives but this blase approach was just typical Atari with the likes of Gasteiner saying it was closer to half of all STEs and affected even Atari drives. The STE was far from an attractive proposition offering a miniscule upgrade over the STFM, incompatibility with many games, and another nail in the coffin, hard drives going kaput. In typical Atari fashion they didn’t provide specification sheets for the DMA interface.

Rumours began to surface of the Atari Panther, a machine with a Motorola 68000 CPU running at 12MHz, a 4096 colour screen from a 16 million palette, with 8-bit 4 channel stereo sound. This may sound interesting in theory, as vapourware as it was, but in reality a faster 68000 CPU would do little to compete with the likes of the Mega Drive, even with more colours, because Atari at no point in their post-ST history managed to come up with a decent chipset to go with the motorola CPU. There’s also a rumour about a machine between the ST and TT codenamed Jaguar – this looks like someone mixing up internal projects – it looks like maybe the Falcon leaked but they ended up getting the Jaguar name which would of course be the console that came out.

We had features on how to run a bulletin board and a shareware library, though some previous issues news reports suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t be letting kids run these kinds of businesses. There’s also a guide to DTP for anyone who wants to write their own newsletter or fanzine. There’s a little guide on how to become a programmer, though I can tell you it’s very very basic and includes no specifics on how to learn any language. We also get a feature on how the ST is used at the BBC in creation of Have I Got News For You.

In software reviews we have the Carebear’s TCB Tracker which gets a 93% Format Gold.


Previews
The preview section has a few mysteries for me – I know very little about Voodoo Nightmare, Mud Sports and Vietnam. Lost Patrol continued to be very exciting for those watching previews due to its digitised stills, promising my young and stupid brain something far beyond what the ST was actually capable of. Dragon Breed looked a dark and brooding shooter (so dark the screenshot was barely visible, while Spiderman looked like another shit film-license platformer. Outlands looks like an isometric adventure but I’d struggle to offer more than that as I know little about it. There’s some French fun with the quirky and insanely pretty adventure BAT and the similarly quirky Ranx from Ubisoft (from when their games weren’t just chasing icons in an open world) while Millennium were offering the brilliant platformer James Pond. We get a big detailed preview for Strider 2, which looks deeply uninteresting.


ST Game Charts

F-19 Stealth Fighter was at #1, that game sold absolutely shitloads of copies, probably because it was fucking brilliant. It’s good to see Rainbow Islands doing so well, as well as Battle Of Britain and Midwinter. However, seeing the utterly wonderful Damocles at #40 in the chart stings.

Reviews
Games reviewed this month:
Team Yankee (Shoot Things With A Tank – Empire – £29.99 – 84%)
BSS Jane Seymour (Dungeon Crawler In Space – Gremlin – £29.99 – 87%)
Fireball (Future sports in 3D – Microprose – £TBA – 70%)
Mean Streets (Detective Game – US Gold – £19.99 – 84%)
Captive (Dungeon Master Sci-Fi – Mindscape – £24.99 – 93%)
Plotting (Puzzle – Ocean – £19.99 – 72%)
Nightbreed – The Interactive Movie (Adventure – Ocean – £24.99 58%)
Loopz (Puzzle – Audiogenic – £19.99 – 58%)
International 3D Tennis (Tennis in 3D – Palace – £24.99 – 88%)
Loom (Adventure – Lucasfilm – £29.99 – 81%)
Ancient Battles (War game – Cases Computers Simulations – £24.95 – 54%)
Gold Of The Aztecs (Run and gun – US Gold – £19.99 – 71%)
Skate Wars (Future sports – Ubisoft – £24.99 – 63%)
Days Of Thunder (Full 3D Nascar Sim – Mindscape – £24.99 – 88%)
Space Rogue (Space Sim – Mindscape – £29.99 – 30%)
Future Basketball (Future Sports Again – Hewson – £24.99 – 81%)
Saint Dragon (Shooter – Sales Curve – £24.99 – 78%)
The Immortal (Isometric action adventure – EA – £24.99 – 87%)
Time Machine (Adventure – Activision – £24.99 – 83%)
Wings Of Death (Shooter – Thalion – £24.99 – 81%)
Hoyle’s Book Of Games (Card Games – Sierra – £34.99 – 73%)
Web Of Terror (Shit game – Impressions – £19.99 – 35%)
Mike Read’s Computer Pop Quiz (Golf Sim – £9.99 – Encore)
A Question Of Sport (Shoot-em-up – £9.99 – Encore)

There are some legitimate stinkers there but the games I can see myself looking at are Mean Streets, International 3D Tennis, Loom and Days Of Thunder. I remember hating the demo of Team Yankee back in the day, and the same goes for Captive, though I recognise that others see them more positively. It might be a review for me to hand over to someone else if there are any volunteers. I played International 3D Tennis on an Amiga 600 and enjoyed it – likely it’ll be faster on the ST. Mean Streets was the first Tex Murphy game and I always wanted to have a crack at it as the film noir thing appealed to me immensely and the art style shown in the review looked pretty cool. Loom is a game I know nothing about other than that a bloke in Monkey Island wants you to ask him about it, and Days Of Thunder (the game) was my first experience of oval racing, something which I’ve taken more of an interest in due to my time spent in iRacing.

For those playing along at home, I’ll be sourcing pirated releases from the TOSEC collection on archive.org. Here’s a list of releases, likely you’ll also find decent releases at AtariMania.
– Mean Streets – Automation 393A/B, SuperGAU 492/2, SuperGAU 810/1, Medway Boys 99A/B
– Loom – Automation 463A/B, SuperGAU 349/50, SuperGAU 821/2, Vecrtronix 738-740
– International 3D Tennis – no menu-disk release known – might be a challenge to get. There’s a version at http://www.atarimania.com/game-atari-st-international-3d-tennis_10958.html but that requires pasti which is Steem-only.
– Days Of Thunder – Automation 344, Flame of Finland 36A, SuperGAU 858, Vectronix 813

Reviews This Month

Review: International 3D Tennis (Sensible Software)

ST Format Review My 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…More

Review: Days Of Thunder

ST Format Review My Review Days Of Thunder is a brilliant fun film, pure 80s (yeah I know it came out in 1990, but it’s 80s). It’s basically Top Gun with fast cars. What’s not to like? Sadly I never watched it growing up, but I got to watch it later in life and loved…More