Atari’s Tennis, the exact opposite of false advertising

There is no way…absolutely no way…that I can write a whole blog post on Atari’s Tennis. NO FREAKIN’ WAY!

Ah, but herein lies the challenge. Just how many synonyms exist in the English language for the word “boring?” Let’s find out, shall we? (Parenthetical number count to follow.)

Oh my — this ought to be fun.

As a young youngin’, I didn’t have many options for local multiplayer. When we got our patchwork Atari 7800, my brother was only just old enough to kinda, sorta operate the joystick. Other than that, Dad or sister were my partners. Though honestly, both of their attention spans were worse than mine. Without a cache of game-playing friends at the time, I learned to enjoy games to a very full extent on my own.

Atari Tennis cartridge © Activision, Atari
Atari Tennis cartridge © Activision, Atari

Now that didn’t mean that I never, ever convinced another human to play Atari with me, but when I finally did and it came time to choose what to play, hoo nelly was Tennis waaaaay down on the list of choices. Tedious (1) and unexciting (2) only begin to describe it.

Okay, okay, to be fair, Tennis was leap and bounds ahead of other tennis-type games, which at the time consisted of Pong…and, uh…Pong. Oh, and then there was…Pong. And surely a few Pong-rip-offs, but mostly Pong. Back and forth a “ball” went between two “paddles.” So the ball moved faster the more you played. Eh, big stinkin’ deal. We never had the Atari version of Pong, though we did have it on the PC. It was mildly addictive for a few rounds but quickly dove into humdrum (3) territory.

And let’s be honest here, Tennis was a very early Atari game, having been released in 1981, so that fact that it depicted two tennis “players,” complete with little rackets, and “full court” movement was pretty spectacular and fluid. Unlike the really dull (4) Home Run, Playing Tennis felt like playing tennis, only without all that running and being outside crap.

It's like comparing John Fitch's steamboat to goddamn Queen Mary.
It’s like comparing John Fitch’s steamboat to Queen Mary.

But Tennis had one major problem: it was simply monotonous (5) to play, either by oneself or with a partner. In terms of gameplay, first you had to choose a speed – slow (in the saddest and most trite [6] sense) and fast. From there, all you needed to do was move your player to the ball (back and forth, up and down, around and round). Your character hit the ball automatically – forehand or the swank backhand — if it was in range. The ball’s speed never deviated. The ball couldn’t go out of bounds. When playing against the PC, it matched nearly all your shots, so the only way to stop the banal (7) volleying was to purposefully let the ball bounce twice or hope that the PC was having a bad day. When playing against another person, things were only slightly more fun than watching water boil. As long as you two matched shots, you could play until a trance-like and wearisome (8) zen had been reached. Again, the only way out was to miss the ball. Sadly, this was harder than it sounds because you really had to be completely out of the way of the ball. Spitting distance was not good enough.

Like with all games back then, I figured there just had to be a way to beat it. That some sort of prize would be awarded if I could only figure out how to “hit” the ball right or if I won enough games. Yet more often than not, because I played by myself, the game usually fell into a lifeless (9) torrent of hit, *beep* (bounce) run, hit *beep* (bounce) run, hit *beep* (bounce) run. There’s really just no way to make this game sound fun. Y’know why? Because it wasn’t. It simply just wasn’t. It was a video game, it was in the house, it was something to do for 10 minutes while waiting for dinner to be finished. Atari’s Tennis was, in retrospect, stale (10) and drab (11).

Alright, so I came up with 11 synonyms of “boring,” And look, suddenly I’ve got a whole post. Huzzah! (I think.) But I can’t leave this random, little trip down memory lane on a sour note. Yes, Tennis was an uninteresting (oh, there’s 12!) game, but it was also among the first actual tennis games ever created. The movement of the players was a little more complex than your simple back and forth motions common to most games at the time, and especially to those on home consoles, which weren’t nearly as powerful as arcade games. And it’s not like the game was marketed as something it wasn’t. It said Tennis and you got tennis, not Donkey Kong, not Space Invaders, tennis. Plain and simple.

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