08/03/2012

SUPER INTERNATIONAL CRICKET (SNES)

Ah, cricket: the sound of willow on leather, old men slowly making arcane hand signals, memories of P.E. lessons where cricket balls became lethal projectiles and the aim of the game was to cover as much of the batsman's body with bruises as possible. Cricket is as quintessentially English as the works of Shakespeare or fat, sunburned twats loudly calling waiters Pedro in Spanish holiday resorts, but can it be satisfyingly replicated as a 16-bit videogame? Let's find out with Beam Software's 1994 SNES silly-mid-on-em-up Super International Cricket.

Now, I'm not a fan of cricket but that's hardly important here, is it? I don't like golf but I like Everybody's Golf, I don't like tennis but I enjoy the odd game of Smash Tennis and I'm not a fan of performing emergency open-heart surgery but hey, Trauma Center is pretty good fun. Slightly more important is that the fact that, on a global scale, nobody really likes cricket: it's just England and the various countries we occupied at some point during the days of the Empire. This small market means you don't get many cricket games, which in turn means that there's none of the incremental improvements you'd find in something like the FIFA series. Hopefully Beam Software knew what they were doing and got everything spot-on first time out.

Some of you might not know how cricket works, and for a simple game it's surprisingly hard to describe concisely. It's part of the "hitting balls with sticks" genre of sports, and it's quite similar to baseball. Instead of the diamond you have the pitch, a strip of grass with a wicket at each end, the wickets being analogous to baseball's bases. Bowler throws the ball at the wicket and the batsman (hopefully) clobbers the ball, because if the wicket is hit he's out. The wickets are miniature Stonehenge-looking things consisting of three upright sticks (stumps) with two small bits of wood resting on top (the bails).

The batting team tries to score as many runs as possible, and just like in baseball they can get those runs by thumping the ball out of the ground. Being the prosaic nation that we are, we don't call this anything as interesting as a home-run. It's called a six. Because you get six runs for it. If you clear the boundary but the ball has bounced at least once, you get four runs. Care to hazard a guess what that's called? If you're not that good a batsman and you can't quite hit it to the edge of the field with your weak, noodly arms, don't worry: you can still score runs by running back and forth between the wickets like an indecisive dog presented with two large sticks.
You're out if the fielders catch your shot, if the bowler hits the wicket with his delivery or if the fielders knock the wicket over with the ball while a batsman is running toward it. See, it's all very simple. It just like baseball, in terms of both the rules and that fact that both sports are so incredibly tedious to watch that you begin to wonder if they weren't created as an attempt to find a powerful sedative that could be broadcast via television.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so negative about cricket - after all, it is a proud part of England's heritage, and indeed the game began as part of a sixteenth-century play about England's role as a shining beacon for all of Christendom. The three stumps represent the Christian values of faith, hope and charity, while the two bails perched atop them stand for King and Country. The batsman takes the role of Defender of Britain and must protect his wicket from the insidious assault of the opposing, "foreign" team. Indeed, the bowler was originally known as "the Frenchman" until the name was changed in an attempt to give the game wider appeal in countries that we hadn't previously conquered and "civilised".

Of course, I'll be playing as England. This is for patriotic reasons only and certainly not because they're a good team. If there's one thing we're better at than inventing sports, it's being worse at those sports than pretty much everybody else.

For a brief moment I was tempted to choose India, because their cobra badge makes them look like a motorcycle gang and suddenly my rose emblem looked a bit wussy by comparison. In fact, the only team with a wussier emblem than England is New Zealand and their fern. Even roses have thorns, man.

All right, enough stalling and on with the game. First up: batting! The interesting bit, if any part of cricket could be considered interesting. The most important aspect of a cricket game, indeed the most important aspect of any sports game where you hit things with a stick, is how satisfying if feels and sounds when you catch the ball just right. I'm happy to report that in this respect Super International Cricket acquits itself very well. Beam Software really captured the unique sound of a solid leather ball hitting a plank of wood at high speed. It definitely feels good to hit a ball for six - and these young ladies in the crowd seem to appreciate it, too.

Looks like I hit it so hard it left the cricket ground and landed in a bodacious early-nineties beach party.
The batting mechanics are straightforward, helped by an intuitive control system - the position of the button you press determines the direction of your shot, so pressing A hits to the right, shots made with the B button travel straight downwards and so on. Positioning your batsman with the d-pad allows for a fair amount of precision without ever feeling finicky, and there were only a couple of occasions when I swung straight through a ball I was sure I'd hit. It all works rather well, to the point where the controls feel precise enough to let you really aim for the gaps in the opposition's fielding positions rather than just trying to slug it for six every time.

And then there's bowling and fielding. This half of the game is not nearly as much fun. Bowling is straightforward, at least: you just place the cursor where you want the ball to go, press a button to start your run-up and press it again to throw the ball. The problem is, that's all there is to it. The different buttons supposedly produce different types of delivery but I can't say I really noticed much difference between them, other than that holding L and R seems to make you throw the ball a little harder. It doesn't really matter, though, because I played this for quite a while and I didn't actually see a single person get bowled out until I purposefully moved my batsman so far away from the wicket he might as well have been sitting in the crowd.

The deliveries are just too slow. Whatever else you want to say about cricket, the bowlers have mastered the art of throwing balls really, really hard, but all the bowlers Super International Cricket just seem a little disinterested, as though they've just realised they're wasting their lives playing cricket.
Then there's the actual fielding, the janitorial work of team sports, the part of the game that no-one is interested in. So, you've bowled a ball and the opposition batsman has hit it, but not hard enough to go for a six or a four. This means you've got to get the ball back to the wicket as soon as possible to stop the other team scoring lots of runs. Unfortunately, this means suddenly switching from controlling one player to controlling all the other players on your team.

I can't really blame Beam for this one - it was a challenge that all sports titles of this ilk faced in the early console days. What I can blame them for is the fairly long delay as the screen zooms out. By the time the camera's changed and you've got control of the player you want, the ball has rolled much further away than it could have and any chance of you running a man out with the speed and accuracy of your fielding is long gone. If I wanted to see twenty-two men wander arthritically around a field, I'd have watched an England football match instead. At least they only last ninety minutes - unlike cricket, which is one of the few sports that can go on for five days and still be a draw.

Clearly the most unusual thing about SIC's fielding is that not only do you have the ability to shout at the referee, but its use is mandatory to get certain outs. You see, the other way you can be out in cricket is by "leg before wicket" - that is, if the ball is stopped by your body when it would otherwise have hit the wicket. This rule prevents the batsman from using his Michelin-Man-style leg pads to stop the ball, forgoing the use of the bat to boot the ball as far as possible. This game never gives LBW decisions, unless you press the Y button to gaze deep into the umpire's soul and utter the dread phrase "howzat!"

Look, some helpful fans have used their own blood to paint this eldritch word of power onto a banner of human skin. What does howzat mean? Some say it's the true name of the demon that first granted mankind the ability to shape balls from red leather. Others say it's a contraction of "how's that?" Whatever the true meaning of the word, shouting it aloud causes the umpire to review his decision and might produce an LBW in your favour. Remember that, kids: always shout at the (usually elderly) official if you think there's even the slightest chance you might gain some advantage from it.

To borrow a cliché from a better sport, Super International Cricket is a game of two halves. The batting is fairly interesting, even for a non-fan like me, and it handles about as well as the technology allows. Fielding is less successful, although I'm not going to blame Beam for all the problems with it. It's partly just that cricket is a really, really boring game that doesn't translate particularly well to videogame consoles. It's not helped by the slow camera transitions or your players' occasional refusal to pick up the ball when it's right at their feet, go on, get it, it's right there pick it up you idiot, but the simplicity of the controls mean it's not a complete bust.
As far as the presentation goes, here's a free piece of advice: there's one music track that plays on an endless loop during the matches. Save yourself. Turn it off and play something more appropriate, like some Elgar or Slayer or the sound of an empty tin can rattling around in a tumble dryer.

The graphics, while hardly a riotous explosion of colour and movement that will nourish your withered soul, are not bad at all. There's a limit to how graphically interesting you can make a big green field, after all. Still, Beam did their best to liven things up with little animations that play after various important events. In the screenshot above, you can see a depressed-looking duck waddling away. This is because M. Tissera here was caught out without scoring any runs, and that's known as a duck. Ducks are notoriously shit at cricket.

Sometime the umpire will break into a sub-par Michael Jackson impersonation. This kind of behaviour is strongly disapproved of in the traditional world of cricket, but the umpire gets away with it because, as always, there's nobody watching.

My small reserves of cricketing knowledge run dry when confronted by this thing. It's the English team mascot, I guess? I'm just not sure what animal it's supposed to be - all I can see is a brain-damaged dingo with a blue mohawk, but surely that can't be right. India's mascot is a tiger, for fuck's sake. Once again, this is much cooler than England's.
Even the character portraits don't look too bad. Except for this guy, of course:

It's a face that really gives you an insight into its owner's life. Just look at that grin and tell me you're not convinced that when he isn't playing cricket, he wears nothing but denim dungarees and lives in a shack near the woods that the local parents warn their kids to stay away from. Of course, this being cricket he's probably just posh and not quite all there mentally - in either scenario, it seems likely that there's been some inbreeding involved.

There's not that much else to say about Super International Cricket. Bearing in mind that I really don't like cricket, I still managed to have fun with it. It works, simply put - problems with the fielding aside, it offers a fast-paced game of cricket that's easy to pick up and play. If you are a fan of cricket, I can definitely recommend this as a good arcade-style sports title that will fulfil your desires for a 16-bit standing-in-a-field simulator. Beam Software must take a lot of credit for taking a sport as tedious and complex (at least in terms of batting) as cricket and making it tolerable. Just make sure you turn the music off - I can still hear those steel drums now.

2 comments:

  1. wow an amazing post, great writing very well written and presented. You have a great website

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.

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