Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Super International Cricket (1994/SNES)

Yearly editions of sports games are some of the biggest moneyspinners for the likes of Electronic Arts, and the bane of used game stores. Wandering through the shelves (well, wandering past the shelves, readers should recognise that the author is a dignified and respectable shopper) for used Playstation 2 titles in the late 00s gives you an idea of what doesn’t last. The later and greater titles in series are much harder to come by (SSX 3 took several visits to find), whereas some staples could almost be assured of a place in any sizeable display of used PS2 games. Poor Lara Croft was very much a victim of her own success, and the Legend and Anniversary editions, enjoyable as they are, found themselves presenting Ms Croft as the femme fatale of the discount pile. Given that the PS2 market was very much in its death throes, you could typically pick up any given title for a fiver, even less if a bundle or bulk deal was thrown into the bargain. The sports games, on the other hand, had their own separate box. It wasn’t a shelf. It didn’t need to be a shelf, because you already knew what was in there. Mountains of blue boxes enveloped in plain white, fronts emblazoned with “FIFA two thousand and something” and a couple of smug millionaire footballers trying to look tough, belying hours upon hours of training for dramatic injury simulation. These mountains are kept from flooding onto the shop floor only by the distending walls of the makeshift cardboard frame that houses them, and the glue from previously applied discount stickers that failed to entice my kind into spending £15, nor a tenner, nor a fiver in exchange for relieving the shop of the wastes of space. Punctuating the swathes of football releases lay golf, rugby, wrestling, and American rules football titles, with the occasional tennis or cricket title cropping up. These abominations could barely shift their load at the lofty price of five for £5, such was their instant appeal and subsequent antiquation in spite of the woefully small amount of progress the next title brought to the party of sports titles, new trainers, dirty calendars and cheap beer.

Of course, things weren’t always this way. The likes of football and cricket games were once a flourishing allegory of a blossoming spring. In the early 90s, Sensible Soccer and its follow-up Sensible World Of Soccer, along with other titles at the time, were bringing new tricks into the mix faster than Linford Christie on steroids. Of course, Europe was always football crazy, and the world cup tournament we remember as Italia ’90 fanned the flames fiercely. Such fervent demand didn’t exist for cricket, with Great Britain and Australia the only major computer gaming nations to take the thinking man’s sport seriously at a time when five day test matches were still very much the undisputed pinnacle of the game. A look back into the naturally shallow history of cricket games recalls Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket, a breakthrough in the mid 80s that saw both arcade and simulation modes introduced, and a basic level of playability had been achieved. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it went, and the sluggish development of cricket games continued into the 90s. A couple of sequels later, Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket was blazing the trail on the home computer front, leaving Ian Botham’s Cricket burning in its wake. By now the platforms had allowed the graphics to look vaguely realistic, there was a wider selection of shots available, and bowling was something of a challenge. The game was woefully sluggish to the point where it was genuinely consistent with test match pace though, and this wouldn’t do if the game of cricket was to see the insides of a games console.

The folks at Beam Software produced International Cricket for the NES in 1992, unrivalled, and it looks like we should be thankful that it was confined to Australia, being garish, noisy, and looking more like a broken copy of Streets Of Rage on a faulty monitor than a cricket match at times. Nevertheless, with competition persisting with absence, Beam again was to create the only cricket game for the next generation.

Super International Cricket does not resemble its predecessor. It’s unrecognisable. Released on the SNES in the places that cared in 1994, you could almost be forgiven for thinking “here we go again” when booting the game up. The menu music loop sounds like it’d be more appropriate for something like Defender than a sports game. Nevertheless, a little exploration of the menu gives you an idea of a little extra control that you have. Once you delve into the teams you can pick your XI, and it’s actually worth rummaging through your squad of 16 for the best skills and best bowling options.

The main menu looks and sounds
all too sinister for me, but things
lighten up further along the way
Mullet Man can bat, and he can
catch, but he's slower than
Tony Christie on steroids
The graphics are a remarkable improvement. Once you get beyond the menu, which had offered little in the way of promise other than fake identification photos for players, you get to see what they’ve done. The player sprites aren’t as articulate as Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket, but they’re much more properly animated. Where the aforementioned was a very flat view which gave depth perception something of a miss, this is tilted so far down that you barely see the entire wicket as a fast bowler, and judging height becomes more of an issue. Overall, it looks like an actual computer-generated cricket game rather than animated sketches. You could more easily picture Gooch’s endorsement in a 1970s episode of Paddington Bear, although it’s Super International Cricket that features such tomfoolery. The game is underscored with a subtle but very buoyant loop of Caribbean flavour, some of the superimposed images are sillier than others, and at the end, you see the winning team’s mascot. The game has a mildly camp nature to it, but pulls it off quite well. There’s a little match conditions notifier at the coin toss, but I can’t tell if the implied hardness of the ground has an effect on the bounce. The game is a little reduced in speed and comes across as a little bit gritty, but it feels more uniform than the lightning fast strokes that batsmen played on other games.

Silly backwards Australian scoring
confuses the rest of the world
There is a very healthy shot selection on display when it’s your turn to bat. A couple of defensive shots, drives, cuts, slogs, and even leaves are available. The problem is that your control of these shots is somewhat limited, and the strokes are bundled into the four buttons. X covers the defensive, Y covers off-side shots, A has the leg-side shots, and B deal with straight hits. You don’t really get to choose which shot it chooses, it makes a loosely-calculated guess based on where the ball is pitching relative to the batsman’s position and, strangely, on whether or not you made the batsman move position. The shoulder buttons do have somewhat useful functions. The L button makes it easier for the opposing team to catch you out. Unless you feel like you’re in the right spot to hit a six and believe that the computer will play the correct shot, the “add loft” function is something you’d never use. The R button adds more power to your shot, but unless you’re trying to mishit or block for a quick single, you’d never not use this button. Perhaps sacrificing these functions to use the shoulder buttons to give greater control of these shots would have made batting more enjoyable, or maybe even just one shoulder button to change the shot and the other button for some sort of super-slog function. Having said that, trying to play the game as it is without using the shoulder buttons makes the game, particularly batting, criminally boring. Running between the wickets is logical, up and down, but for some reason the batsman running towards the striker’s end doesn’t seem as keen to dive to make his ground as the one heading towards the bowler’s crease, which can prove very annoying at times.

Pre-match report
Post-match report
As a bowler, things are a little more simplistic. You have four types of delivery courtesy of the four action buttons (these change depending on the type of bowler), and four speeds controlled by the shoulder buttons. Looking at that setup on the surface, I’d say they’ve struck a healthy, playable balance. However, because it takes one button to start the run-up and another to commit to the bowling action, it seems like there was an opportunity missed to use two-button combinations, which could be used for sixteen different types of delivery for any given bowler, or, more realistically, four variations of each of the four types of delivery. It’s all very well being able to swing, seam and spin the ball, but how much? There isn't even an option for a fast bowler to bowl in a straight line. Bowling as it is presented is slightly less fun than batting, but certainly more than a functional frustration.

Fielders are best left to
their own devices
The fielding options don’t give you immense freedom to crowd one area of the field, but there is a good degree of versatility, and the interface is very nice and simple, highlighting a given area well, the player’s basic fielding stats and face for recognition, and a giant hand that picks up the puny players by the head and drops them into position at your leisure. Fielding in practice is a lot less joyous. You can choose which end to throw to, knock the stumps over, swap which player you want running for the ball, appeal for a wicket, and make a diving stop. It sounds like a tidy package. However, the fielders never do anything intelligent once you gain control of them. They’re allowed to run maybe 50% faster, but won’t just pick up the ball. Instead, you have to make a diving stop. The fielders never dive in the right direction, and you have to do it so the outstretched hand lands on the ball, or else move your fielder into the path of the ball well in advance if you can, and then let it stop it by itself. A potentially great feature is ruined.

A good turn of speed can
avoid an embarrassing run-out
The field setting is nice and
easy to use
The AI is, of course, limited. This is a Super Nintendo, after all. As a bowler, you can bowl a specific line that narrows the batsman’s reasonable shot selection, and bundle eight or nine fielders into a limited arc, and bowl even the toughest side out for under twenty runs. It’s a little bit trickier as a batsman if you want to play properly, but as you can see where the ball is pitching in advance, you can move your batsman into the correct position to play whatever shot suits you. Otherwise it’s down to tricking the fielders into mistakes to pinch extra runs. The stat that makes the biggest difference in this game is speed. A batsman could have the best stats in the team, but if he’s very slow between the wickets (the best batsman usually is in this game), you will hate him. There are two extremely fast reserve batsmen in the Australian squad, so you could pick them as the opening pair and grind out singles if you cared more about winning than having fun. Even without doing that, you’ll appreciate the decreased run-out risk. When trying to fill a given spot in the side to a batsman or bowler, speed is your primary reference. On top of everything else, it helps an awful lot in the field, and is still a good benefit when playing against a human, which, as usual with sports games, is by far the superior way to enjoy the game.

A swing and a miss, perhaps...
...but the boundaries were pushed
It’s easy to dismiss Super International Cricket, and in terms of playing it today, that’s a fair call. After all, not too far into the next year we saw the release of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer, which still plays pretty well, is a lot of fun, and looks good, and this hasn’t held up anything like as well. However, to dismiss the game in terms of the development of cricket’s representation in the industry is another matter. When compared to International Cricket, the follow-up really is “super”, and was good enough to enforce a follow-on. Beam Software and other companies ensured that cricket games would be improved for both home computers and consoles. Cricket 96 and Cricket 97 were big improvements, most notably in playability, offering a much more agreeable level of control. It just so happens that these two titles were published by a certain Electronic Arts.

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