Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Evolution Of... Darts Video Games

If you had to compare one sport to mashed potato, it would have to be Darts. Nothing comes close to the comforting feeling that comes around each January with the start of the BDO World Championship. Unashamedly old-fashioned and low budget, it's the perfect accompaniment to a post-Christmas afternoon of tea and biscuits.

We've had a few dartboards of our own over the years, and are actually not too bad at the game. I had my first board around the age of nine, a kid-friendly version with plastic darts and magnetic points. Aged fourteen, I received my first proper board, a BDO Winmau in a wooden blackboard cabinet from Argos. My best friend and I would spend endless evenings pretending to be Richie Burnett or Steve Beaton, although I'm not sure either of them practised on a board which balanced on top of a pink headboard in their mother's bedroom. Not exactly BDO regulation. Louise bought our most recent board at Christmas 2000, and we've always tried to have it at the correct height and length - even if this did mean hanging it on the kitchen wall and trying not to smash any nearby mugs.

Sometimes it's just not practical to play the real thing. Other times, you want to be able to score more than twenty-six at any given time. That's where video games come in useful. Virtual Darts has been around since the early days, no doubt helped by the fact that even on a primitive machine it was possible to indulge in turn-based multiplayer. After all, Darts is best when shared with others.

Darts-mania came along at the same time as home computers were really taking off in the Eighties. There were at least two dozen titles dedicated to the sport on Spectrum alone. Admittedly, the video game versions were sometimes harder than the game itself, with some needing a good grasp of mathematical co-ordinates. But as machines became more accessible, so did the gameplay. Soon anybody could be the virtual Eric Bristow of their classroom or office.

So, in celebration of the greatest of pub games, we take a look at over thirty years of Darts in video games and try not to go yellow-blind...

Computer Darts (1983, AVB Software, ZX Spectrum)

Using co-ordinates to throw your arrow, Computer Darts was a very challenging affair. Graphically simple - the dartboard looked more like a top-down view of a bandstand - but with the nice addition of a coloured character representing each player. Each throw of a dart required you to stop a moving bar on the X-axis, followed by the same on the Y-axis. Trial and error was required to work out where you could expect your dart to end up, as it wasn't just a case of stopping each bar at the maximum value. With practise, it was possible to achieve consistently high scores - landing in the twenty bed required little more than stopping each axis at around three quarters full - but checking out was a different matter. My ten-year-old self just could not master the technique, and to be perfectly honest I'm no better now!

One Hundred And Eighty! (aka. Spectral Darts) (1983, Mikro-Gen, ZX Spectrum)

In what would become a trend in Spectrum Darts games until the end of the machine's life, One Hundred And Eighty features a yellow dartboard. A cursor rapidly flashes around the outer edge and it's your job to stop it on the required number, before stopping another equally rapid cursor to determine the bed. It's soon easy to get maximum scores - although you'll soon wish you hadn't, as the game will manically beep in celebration. A simple but fun and addictive title.

Darts (1983, Mr. Chip Software, ZX Spectrum)

Using the same basic graphics as Computer Darts, Mr. Chip had you move a tiny little pixel around a board which had to be re-illustrated - Rainbow-style - after every three darts. If you could make out the pixel - not easy on a small flickering portable - you just had to press T to throw. Darts usually ended up where you expected, and the game even had the nice little addition of letting you press a button to remove your darts from the board at the end. Not a perfect game of Darts, but easier to pick up and play, so a step in the right direction. The game was later re-released as Bully by Unique Software, and as Bullseye by Mastertronic with no obvious difference or improvement.

Championship Darts (1983, Shadow Software, ZX Spectrum)

A test of reflex, Championship Darts was based on the brilliant idea of a line moving clockwise around the yellow dartboard which had to be stopped by pressing any button on the keyboard. Then, a bar moving left to right would have to be stopped in the same way to determine where you landed in that segment. Such a simple idea, but so addictive. It was possible to achieve maximum scores with ease and fast, high checkouts. Even if you missed your required number, the secondary gauge allowed a chance for Bullseye (or Outer Bull) each time. The game made you feel like a champion of Darts, as long as you had even the slightest sense of timing. Playing with a friend led to high competition, and one more go was never enough. To this day, it remains an excellent way to waste an afternoon!

World Class Darts (1983, Alphasoft, ZX Spectrum)

Using a slightly modified version of the Championship Darts control system, World Class Darts adds a more sophisticated bar at the bottom of the screen to help determine where your dart will land. This was also the first game to include a lifelike blackboard to keep score. Like Championship Darts, it makes for a thoroughly addictive and satisying experience, even by today's standards. As an unexpected (and inexplicable) bonus, checking out will result in the theme tune from Match Of The Day being played.

On The Oche (1984, Artic Computing, ZX Spectrum)

A slight step backwards compared to the simplicity of Championship Darts, On The Oche returns to the co-ordinate based system of Computer Darts. This time you had to move a small marker on each axis to set the trajectory of your arrow, with varying degrees of success. Decent scores were obtainable with practise but doubles were harder to come by. The game did feature the nice addition of an illustrated player at the side of the screen - clearly modelled on Eric Bristow - for that television-style presentation.

Eric Bristow's Pro-Darts (1984, Quicksilva, ZX Spectrum)

You weren't classed as a proper 1980s celebrity unless you had your own Spectrum game, so it was a great decision for Eric to get in there at the height of Darts-mania. Unfortunately, for a game based on a player known for his quick, crafty style, Pro-Darts is a painfully slow affair which relies on you moving the snail-like cursor from the corner of the screen to the area of the board required, then pressing the throw button. It's possible to be very accurate, and doubles check-outs are easily obtainable. But it's such a chore getting to that point that any sense of achievement is cancelled out by the fact that you or your opponent fell asleep three hours ago.

Bullseye (1984, Macsen, ZX Spectrum)

When I opened up my Sinclair Action Pack Spectrum +2A on Christmas Day 1990, I was thrilled to find that one of the included games was Bullseye. Based on one of my favourite childhood television shows, this was one of the most authentic home versions of the many 1980s quiz show conversions. The Sinclair Action Pack version had support for the Magnum Light Phaser gun, but this made for a haphazard game of Bullseye as it was impossible to get any kind of accurate aim (especially when played on a 9" black & white television set). A session of lightgun Bullseye would end up like one of those celebrity specials of the programme, when some comedian or other would insist on messing around and refuse to take the game seriously, only to fluke a treble twenty in the scoring round. That's just not Cricket - or Darts - so I was even more thrilled to find the original version of Bullseye in a bargain bin at John Menzies a few months into my Spectrum ownership.

Accurate scoring was still not guaranteed in the non-lightgun version, but it was a vast improvement. Aiming involved putting the hand roughly where you wanted it at the bottom of the screen, then adjusting a power meter to determine the height up the board. With practise, it was possible to get your arrows where you wanted them and hopefully getting the question, score or segment you desired depending on the round. Like in the television show, being good at Darts was not enough. Decent general knowledge was still required, but even this was no guarantee of victory. The game could be extremely picky over answers and would only accept surnames when accepting famous names. On some occasions, it would even insist that you were wrong when you knew you were spot-on. Bully's ill-judged thumbs-down must have resulted in many a broken Light Phaser on such occasions.

Apart from this, Bullseye was such an accurate portrayal of the television programme that you could almost hear Jim Bowen as you progressed. You'd hit the wrong segment on the questions board and your head would fill in the silence with a reassuring "it's alright, the category is still lit." In the second round, you could almost hear Jim saying "for one hundred pounds, can you tell me..." It was impossible not to do your own Tony Green impression during the prize board ("IIIIInnnnn one!") and of course you'd have to say "we've had a lovely day" when asked if you wanted to gamble. It really was just like being on the show, just without the bendy Bullies and your BFH.

The game was so good that despite an interactive DVD game of the show being released in 2006, complete with Jim Bowen and Tony Green, Macsen's Spectrum offering remains the best way to play Bullseye at home to date.

180 (1986, Mastertronic Added Dimension, ZX Spectrum)

Mixing comedy characters with a very authentic game of Darts, 180 was not just an excellent representative of the sport but also of Spectrum games in general. It may have all been very yellow, but the game presented a lovely detailed board and used an excellent floating hand interface. The game was so easy to pick up and play - all you had to do was move the hand where you wanted it and press fire - but very hard to master, especially against the computer. No matter how hard you tried, that hand would not stay in one place and gave an overall impression of playing while under the influence. For some, that probably added to the authenticity!

A variety of fun opponents were available, including Devious Dave, and matches would take place in a pub setting complete with a busty barmaid, brightly coloured optics and an Andy Capp-style character at the bar. Rather than having to watch your opponent's floating hand, the game switched to a side-on view with text commentary and numerous comedy shenanigans in the background - pints sliding down the bar and dogs running into the pub, for example. Plus, unintentionally, the animation makes your rival look like he's walking like an Egyptian while throwing.

Fail to beat your opponent and you'd be branded a wally. Win, and... well, I don't know actually, I was never good enough to find out!

In 1989, a Freeware game called Darts Lord was released, based on the dartboard graphics of 180. This oddity allowed you to simply type in the number you required, as long as it was possible to hit that amount with one dart. Typing 60, 60, 60 is probably the easiest, yet least satisfying way of achieving one hundred and eighty in video game Darts history.

Indoor Sports (1987, Advance Software, ZX Spectrum)

A compendium of four sports - Table Tennis, Ten-Pin Bowling, Air Hockey and Darts - it's the latter that inspired me to pick up this fun little title (although ultimately, all parts of the game became as addictive and playable as each other). Indoor Sports introduced yet another control method to the Darts genre, requiring you to stop a moving dart at the bottom of the screen before setting the throwing angle (the magic forty-five degrees) and then the power gauge. Scoring was easy - it wasn't unusual to see DOUBLE! DOUBLE! or TREBLE! TREBLE! flash on-screen numerous times per match - but, as usual with these tricky aiming techniques, checking out was almost impossible. In two-player mode, matches could potentially last hours before somebody fluked a checkout. Playing against the computer character - the affectionately named Speccy - would see you beaten at even the easiest level (despite him being unable to throw anything more than single digit totals each time). At least the game was colourful enough to cheer you up whilst cursing the game, although the dartboard was still yellow.

Jocky Wilson's Darts Challenge (1989, Zeppelin, ZX Spectrum)

Not wanting to be outdone by Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson was the second celebirty Dartist to find himself with a Spectrum title. If you could manage to get past the unbelievably complicated menu system, a decent game of Darts could be enjoyed. Using a floating dart technique, which looked (and handled) like an angry bee, Darts Challenge had you throwing arrows at a - gasp! - grey dartboard with scores displayed in glorious technicolour. Not quite as much charm as 180, but a decent addition to any Darts collection.

Ameri Darts (1989, Ameri, Arcade)

Using the simple controls of a trackball and a single button, Ameri Darts was as close as you could get to the real thing without picking up an actual set of arrows. The game was set in a typical American bar called Tim's, complete with a hostess who couldn't be more Eighties if she tried. All you had to do was move the floating hand with the trackball, set the target with the button and then move the trackball in a smooth forwards motion to throw it. Easy in theory, but you couldn't just give the trackball a good thrust, as the dart would end up hitting the ceiling, bringing down the light fittings. If you didn't move the trackball enough, the dart would fall to the floor where it was often collected by the bar's resident rodent (the same happened with bounce-outs). After a few goes - ten pence a time, of course - you'd soon have the rhythm worked out, and it was possible to rack up good scores. Get a score of one hundred and you'd be rewarded with a trophy in the form of a comedy Ton weight. Other high scores had similar prizes, whilst low scores would see you taunted by the machine with any number of comedy skits - a bull mooing, for example, or a baseball player being struck out.

Thankfully the game did not require you to check out on a double, but it was still far from easy to complete. More often than not, the Game Over screen would appear followed by the hostess seductively thanking you for playing and urging you to have another go. Get really good though, and you'd find yourself celebrating an out-shot accompanied by the hostess - who had now turned into a viking - singing at you, opera-style. If you were really lucky, you'd get on the high score table for the day too. A brilliant game with gorgeous colourful graphics, a catchy sountrack and motion control that was ahead of its time, it was a shame that it never received a home console conversion.

Wacky Darts (1991, Codemasters, ZX Spectrum)

For a company that was king of the minority sport simulators in the 1980s, it's surprising that it took so long for Codemasters to deliver a Darts instalment. But it was worth the wait. Written by Big Red Software, Wacky Darts contained the same addictive gameplay and quirky humour as their character-based games starring Seymour and CJ the elephant. The game reeks of the nineties - you almost expect Timmy Mallett to appear shouting "Bonkers!" - and features an array of unlikely Darts players such as a ninja and Wild West gunslinger. All this takes place in a bar similar to 180 - staffed again by a busty barmaid - with television-style presentation, complete with a spinning BBC globe at the beginning. The hyperactive commentator is clearly based on Sid Waddell and it all adds up to a fun-packed experience, even if you lose miserably. Which you will.

Gameplay-wise, it's the usual familiar yellow dartboard and floating hand, but the level of detail is amazing - the board even looks worn out. As usual, it's easy to pick up and play but fiendish to master. Wacky Darts is perhaps not quite as playable as 180. But as an overall experience, it's without doubt one of the best games of Darts on the Spectrum.

Magic Darts (1991, Romstar, Nintendo Entertainment System)

Magic Darts plays like a cross between Wacky Darts and Indoor Sports. Kooky characters reminiscent of the former are present - a shirtless bodybuilder and a robot this time - and they throw their darts using the same three-part technique as the latter. The extra power of the NES is evident, with lovely character animations at the bottom of the screen and a nice looking red and black dartboard adding to the realism. The simple controls make it a pleasure to play, and although it can be difficult to get high scores immediately, the game is charming enough to warrant hours of practise. It's still difficult to get those double check-outs but, unlike the Spectrum titles, Magic Darts gives you a set amount of arrows. Start taking too long and flies start gathering around the board. Throw too high a score and a monkey appears to mock you. Eventually, it's either check-out or Game Over - perfect when you don't have an indefinite amount of time to spare.

Jocky Wilson's Compendium Of Darts (1991, Zeppelin, ZX Spectrum)

If 180 was like playing Darts after a couple of drinks, Jocky's second game was like playing after a solid weekend of partying. The floating hand had a life of its own and would often refuse to stop even after numerous presses of the Fire button. The game was no better, blatantly ignoring coin toss decisions by handing the throw of darts to the wrong player. In single player mode, the game would often crash for no reason. But bugs aside, it's a playable little game and possible to get decent scores - over sixty, at least - with a bit of practise and second-guessing. Bonus points for the inclusion of an animated Jocky and Sid Waddell-esque commentator when playing against the computer.

Bully's Sporting Darts (1993, Alternative Software, ZX Spectrum)

A sequel of sorts to the Bullseye game, Sporting Darts featured everybody's favourite chubby, shirt-wearing bull in his own game. Seven different game modes were on offer - 501, Round The Clock and Darts versions of Snooker, Football, Cricket, Tennis and Golf. All were played using the same floating hand technique perfected in Mastertronic's 180. The graphics were gorgeous for their time, pushing the Spectrum to its limits and even including a picture of Bully in the corner of the screen during a match. The board was once again yellow but had great detail, and the hand (complete with numbered sweatband representing each player) moved around the screen so smoothly. High scores were possible and even accurate double check-outs.

Pro Darts (1999, Vatical, GameBoy Color)

Considering the GameBoy's screen and power limitations, Pro Darts was actually the most realistic version of the sport so far. For once, the dartboard looked exactly as it should - the colours were accurate and the numbers were metal, even clipped-on accurately. By now it was law for all Darts games to have a chirpy soundtrack and comedy characters, and Pro Darts did not disappoint - you could even play as a Granny. The game introduced yet another play style to the genre. This time a hand would scroll diagonally across the screen one way then, after a press of a button to stop it, across the screen the other way. But that still wasn't enough. The hand would then move back and forth for you to set the angle, then a final fourth stage would show a power gauge moving up and down for you to stop. Hopefully after all that, your dart would land where you wanted. A very difficult game to master - high scores were a challenge, let alone check-outs - but a fun little novelty with turn-based multi-player that was perfect for a portable console.

Jimmy White's 2: Cueball (1999, Archer MacLean/Virgin Interactive, PlayStation)

Included as a mini-game in Jimmy White's second instalment of virtual Snooker, this was actually a very playable and realistic game of Darts. Set in Jimmy's Snooker room, the dartboard was housed in a traditional wooden cabinet with blackboard doors to keep score. Throwing the dart was a simple process. First, you had to put it roughly where you wanted then set off the throwing motion. As the dart moved back and forth, you had to stop it at the perfect throwing angle. Throw it too shallow and the dart wouldn't make the board, too high and it would hit the wall above. As usual with multi-part control systems, practise would eventually make perfect and it was even possible to beat the various computer opponents over time. Multi-player with a friend was also possible. All this was accompanied by piano music such as The Entertainer which made you feel like you were playing the scoring round of Bullseye. Three years later, Darts made a welcome return as one of a string of mini-games in Jimmy White's third game - Cueball World - on PC.

3D Darts (aka. Elite Darts) (1999, GSP, PC)

A budget title which we stumbled upon in the much-missed two-storey GAME in Cardiff's Queen's Arcade, 3D Darts became one of our most-played games of the early 2000s. So simple but so addictive, 3D Darts used your mouse to give the impression of motion control - similar to the trackball in Ameri Darts. Holding both mouse buttons, you had to pull the mouse back and then thrust it forwards as you released the buttons. It all felt so realistic even though you were basically still moving a floating hand around the board. But the graphics were also very accurate and the sound added to the atmosphere, even though it was often just the sound of a pub-load of people mumbling in the background.

We originally played the game with a wired mouse which could be quite restrictive to our rhythm. We lost count of the amount of times we had a shot lined up perfectly, only for the mouse to get caught around the drawer of our desk on the up-stroke. When we eventually got hold of a wireless mouse, we became Darts machines! High scores were possible with either mouse though, even at a beginner level, and it was relatively easy to work your way through tournaments against the computer. Local multiplayer would turn into extremely competitive affairs and it became our go-to game on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

We still try to play it today now and again, but it isn't compatible with most modern systems and it is slightly more difficult using a laptop touchpad - but it adds an extra challenge!

Double Top Deluxe (2005, Idigicon, PC)

Another budget release with the same control mechanism as 3D Darts and even better graphics. You can even play on an LED dartboard - very flash!

PDC World Championship Darts 2008 (2008, Oxygen Interactive, PS2)

We've never been fans of the PDC Darts, there's just something about it that doesn't have quite the same charm as the BDO. Whenever we've caught it on television, it just seems to be an excuse for rowdiness for the sake of it (we don't like the Snooker Shoot-Out for the same reason). But at the end of the day, a game of Darts is a game of Darts, and it has to be said that the official PDC Darts games are amongst the best in the genre.

Any game that lets you play as old BDO favourites like Peter Manley and Wayne Mardle can't be a bad thing, and their likenesses are amazing. Television style presentation splits the screen in two, so you can marvel at your player on one side and examine the board on the other. Commentary from Sid Waddell - the real thing this time - is included, although his limited selection of quotes does get tiresome after a while so he inevitably gets turned off.

Throwing is a two part process, where you use the left stick to line up your shot before pulling back on the right and pushing forwards to release the dart. As in Golf games which use similar mechanics, and like 3D Darts and Ameri Darts before, any movement to the left or right will send your dart off target. But after a bit of practise it's almost impossible not to get high scores, and checking out can be done with ease. The Wii version adds motion control for added realism, whilst the 2009 DS sequel allows you to throw darts with the stylus and touchscreen.

However you play, it all feels very professional. Plus, a satisfying game of computer Darts is made even better by the fact that you get to beat Phil Taylor over and over again.

Top Darts (2010, Devil's Details, PS3)

Originally released as a digital title on PlayStation Store, Top Darts was later made available on disc as part of the After Hours Athletes compilation for PlayStation Move.

To throw, you first move a circular cursor around the board with your Move controller. Having pressed the trigger to lock it into position, you must then pull back on your controller before thrusting forwards and releasing the trigger. It is possible to get the darts exactly where you want them, providing that your controller is calibrated correctly. As usual, any movement to the left or right will cause them to go off-course. But it soon becomes second nature to follow through with your arm after releasing, just as you would in real life. It's so satisfying mastering the skill required, and local multiplayer is brilliant fun - plus nobody gets injured by wayward darts!

The graphics are gorgeous with amazingly lifelike boards and locations, some realistic and some fantasy. Commentary is provided by a Sid Waddell clone (thankfully you can turn him off too). It's even possible to add your own face to the game using the PlayStation camera, and you can also use pictures stored on your PS3 as dartboard skins. This not only allows for endless possibilities, but also for that old classic of putting pictures of your enemies on the board and throwing darts at them.

Even now, six years after its release, Top Darts continues to be the best version of virtual arrows around. It really is as close as you can get to the real thing, and is easy to pick up and play. Darts games were made for modern motion control gameplay, yet it's interesting to see that some of the mechanics introduced over thirty years ago are still in place today, and were even ahead of their time. Proof that the best ideas are often the most simple.

We've compiled a playlist of video footage from some of the games featured in this list to show them in action.

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