Cricket Special!

Brian Lara Cricket ’96

Jumping forward a generation, Audiogenic released their next cricket game, Graham Gooch world class cricket, onto the PC and Amiga in 1993. This game (and its expansion, cunningly titled Graham Gooch’s second innings,) found their way onto multiple systems and regions under, quite suspiciously, a number of different aliases:

  • In Australia, it was known as ‘Allan Border Cricket’
  • In South Africa it was known as ‘Jonty Rhodes World Class Cricket
  • Battle for The Ashes was a cut down version released for the 1993 Ashes series

Now, most importantly:

  • Brian Lara Cricket was a port of the original Graham Gooch title released on the Sega Megadrive
  • Brian Lara Cricket ’96 was a sequel of sorts that basically included some of the extra material from the expansion patch

Phew! So, brief history lesson over, is there much difference between them? Slightly. The original versions only featured one variable per bowler (so for spin bowlers you could only control the amount of spin, swing bowlers the amount of swing and so on,) but that was the only real gameplay difference.

Generally they’re all much of a muchness then, so I’m sticking with ’96 on the megadrive because,aside from having the most complete feature set,it also features a theme tune that sounds suspiciously close to a chiptune rendition of BBC cricket theme Limbo Soul.

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So then, was this rag-tag bunch of cricket games actually any good? Yes! Pretty much all of the promising aspects of the original Graham Gooch are present here, while all of the negative aspects have been addressed. 

In the 16-bit iterations, all of the hideous rigidity of Graham Gooch is missing and the player is in full control. batsmen can shuffle around during the bowlers run up in order to put themselves in a perfect position to to tonk the ball to the boundary, while bowlers can both bowl to  a precise line and length AND fine-tune their variations.

But it’s not just having control of these aspects that makes Brian Lara Cricket so good. Audiogenic’s real skill was breaking the sport down into its component parts, and this skill  is reflected brilliantly in Brian Lara Cricket’s game mechanics.

Just like the original Graham Gooch, the main component of batting is timing: If your timing is impeccable, you’re generally pretty much safe (even if your ball will be drilled along the floor to a fielder.) However, these are effectively modulated by your positioning and your shot selection (oh, and whether you’re using the B button to try and smash it for 6!) Move too far into the offside and it becomes nigh on impossible to time a cut. Try and hook a ball zeroing on the stumps and it generally won’t end well.

This makes for one of the most balanced batting systems i’ve experienced in the cricket game. If you’ve played the Xbox Brian Lara titles and expect to be smashing 30 off an over, you might be in for a bit of a rude awakening. Though it is possible to score buckets of runs if you’re careful, the game will bite you if your timing and selection are off.

 

Out!
Similarly, bowling is broken down into 3 incredibly logical components. To decide where the ball will pitch, the player moves a cursor around on the wicket itself. In real life it’s not easy to hold a steady aim while sprinting in at full speed, however, so the cursor understandably slips and slides a little of its own accord, which makes sense.

Next the bowling player has to stop a fast-moving scale in order to get the required power/swing/spin on the ball. In real life, bowling is a pretty brutal action which requires you to charge in and then turn your body into a slingshot at just the right moment. The fast moving scale is a pretty reasonable analogue for the timing needed to release a good delivery in real life.

Finally, the ball’s speed is decided by rhythmically bashing the buttons in order to build up a speed bar. Again, this is a pretty reasonable representation of the rhytm needed for a bowler when they’re running in real life. All in all, it’s a pretty logical simulation  of real bowling mechanics.

As with batting, those used to fielding on the PS2 or Xbox maybe in for a bit of a surprise. The batsmen won’t suicidally run themselves out, or take wild swings at a ball homing in on off stump. They’ll also punish short, wide bowling. Good lines and lengths are the key to bowling well here, as they are in real life. In comparison to the Speccy original, it really is a vast vast improvement.

It’s not just the game mechanics that were improved, either. All of the nice touches found in the original are replicated here, and expanded on. The player sprites are large, well drawn and animated with a real attention to detail. Any fours or sixes you scores are treated to a nice animated cutaway of the umpire signalling the runs. There’s also animated rain breaks, a beautifully animated coin toss at the beginning and – to add the bails on top of a an already pretty robust wicket – they also included the entire league of English Counties to go alongside the usual array of international teams AND the option to play in traditional whites or colourful one day outfits. It’s a pretty complete experience.

It’s not all plain sailing mind: If the game has one troublesome Graham Hick to bat alongside its masterful Graham Gooch, it’s the artificial intelligence. Now this isn’t to say that the AI is bad at all (in fact, if you’re playing a five day test match, it’s pretty good.) The problem is that it seems to have been setup only for test matches.

You see, a big challenge for anyone making a cricket game is to take account of the differences between one day and test cricket. In test cricket, the batsman can generally take as much time as they want. If the bowler sends down 6 really threatening balls an over, he can just block them and not attempt to make any runs. Because bowlers will eventually tire, there will always be runs to be made later.

One Day cricket, however, requires a much different approach. Because of the vastly reduced number of overs, the batsmen have to make use of every single ball. In one day cricket the batsmen can’t block every yorker (delivery bowled at the batsmen’s feet.) They have to get creative to succeed.

It’s this lack of creativity that harms the AI in Brian Lara ’96. Even if you take the overs down to 10 a side (so just 60 individual deliveries,) the AI can’t adapt. As long as you’ve got an accurate yorker up your sleeve (that’s at the batsmen’s feet. not straight at the stumps,) the batsman will always block and you can restrict them to a very low total indeed.

I also question the speed at which the fielders can move around the field. It is slightly irritating how, when you are confronted with an attacking field where all of the fielders are close to the batsmen, the fielders still seem to be able to take catches relatively close to the boundary when you try to go over the top.

These, however, are largely nitpicks. When you factor in the wide variety of options, the robust mechanics and a loving attention to detail, the 16-bit Brian Lara/Graham Gooch/Alan Border is definitely one of the most accomplished cricket title of all time.

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