Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 12, 2014

Going around the wicket to the left-hander.

Going around the wicket to the left-hander.

While there arguably doesn’t need to be any kind of order to the process of picking through the wreckage of the various cricket games released over the years – and we’re hardly known for our diligence in terms of chronological coverage around here – I admit that, ideally, I would have liked to have reviewed Cricket 97’s predecessor, Cricket 96 (released with unnecessary celebrity endorsement as Ian Botham’s International Cricket ’96 in the UK) before getting to this one. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, copies of that game are pretty hard to source, and I got rid of my own some years ago, so we’re stuck here for now.

While Cricket 96 was pretty much a slightly-modified port of Super International Cricket on the SNES (which you can read more about over at JGR here), Cricket 97 sees the series dragged, reluctantly and half-heartedly, into the third dimension for its first PC-only release. Utilising a mixture of sprites and polygons, there are some echoes of FIFA ’96 here, although despite being a newer game, the comparison doesn’t reflect favourably on Cricket 97, which, frankly, lacks the usual spit and polish you’d associate with an EA Sports title.

Initial impressions of the on-pitch action are that everything seems a little bit wrong. There’s something not quite right about the camera angle (which can be changed, but not to anything useful) – it seems rather low down, while the bowler looks quite pixellated, as if the camera has zoomed in too far. The batsman, meanwhile, appears as a rather tiny and ill-defined shape somewhere in the middle-distance. In motion, things aren’t much better: the bowler goes straight from a standing start to a full-speed run-up, before launching into an unlikely back-breaking bowling action to deliver a ball at a hunched and squashed-looking batsman, who by this time has come into view enough to establish that his stance involves his backside sticking out at an unnecessarily acute angle towards square leg. A small red ball floats erratically down the pitch, at which point a somewhat stilted approximation of a cricket shot is executed.

Switching to pyjamas for one-day cricket - although everyone's pads are always yellow, for some reason.

Switching to pyjamas for one-day cricket – although everyone’s pads are always yellow, for some reason.

In other words, the presentation isn’t up to much. The most readily available version of the game is missing some video clips and commentary, which means we’re spared footage of the game’s greatest commentator, Richie Benaud, sitting in a cupboard pretending to be at a cricket match and a handful of audio clips featuring the ubiquitous Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham describing the pitch conditions, but their inclusion wouldn’t have helped much. Also absent is a ludicrous intro clip featuring (from memory) a batsman hitting a ball so hard that it sets on fire (NB it could also be a bowler bowling so fast that the ball sets on fire, but either way, there are flames). Fortunately, we do get repeated reminders of this fireball while navigating the menus, which are accompanied by some enjoyably-naff power rock. The message, though, is clear: cricket isn’t dull, it’s exciting!

To be fair, this approach is preferable to the one taken by the majority of cricket titles, which seemingly view the game as a repetitive and predictable chore, forcing you to perform the same actions over and over again for hours, as if that’s what fans of the real sport want. Whatever other flaws Cricket 97 may have, that isn’t the case here, with the developers going to some length to provide an expanded range of batting and bowling options.

Playing shots involves one of the eight directions combined with one of two buttons, giving you sixteen options in all. Although you can see where the ball will pitch, and what kind of delivery it’s going to be, significant exaggeration of the effects of swing, seam and spin on the ball mean that you have to pay attention as the ball is bowled in order to execute your stroke successfully. Yes, a number of the shots are a bit useless and exist only to get your batsman out or see him hit on the head (a feature wisely retained from Cricket 97’s predecessor), but in general there’s enough choice there to be able to manoeuvre the ball around.

This is what happens when you get hit on the head.

This is what happens when you get hit on the head.

While the challenge of making bowling interesting hasn’t exactly been met, you can rattle through your overs quite quickly and the previously-mentioned exaggerated manipulation of the ball does at least give you a few things to try. Refreshingly, AI batsmen do actually smack the ball around a little, too, punishing lazy autopiloting with aggressive strokes and taking quick singles at every opportunity. The latter happens more often than it should thanks to the way fielding is handled, a kind of semi-automatic approach that sees outfielders doing the necessary work of their own accord unless you decide to cock it up by taking control at a vital moment. With the exception of diving for catches close to the bat, it’s best to leave well alone – even if the sight of the opposition taking a run to your slip fielder does rather grate, hammering the buttons will only make the poor sod dive over the ball and allow them to get two.

If you’re able to look past the ropey visuals, there’s actually a decent knockabout to be had here, and even test matches can be conducted in sprightly fashion, with most innings ending up at the 200-250 mark and runs and wickets coming at regular intervals. The standard difficulty level provides a low-level challenge that always seems slightly weighted in your favour – you tend to win, but the victories feel hard-fought. (Adjusting the difficulty mainly affects the amount of help you get with batting: on ‘easy’ you only need worry about choosing the direction of your shot, while ‘hard’ hides the bowling cursor).

It’s not much like real cricket though: as usual, there are very few catches to the ‘keeper or slips, and even bowled and LBW dismissals are rare, with the majority of wickets coming via catches in the outfield. And, ignoring the aforementioned ‘silly shots that never work’, you can get away with playing some of the others to balls of any line and length without being punished.

There's the umpire giving the traditional 'up yours' to the non-striker.

There’s the umpire giving the traditional ‘up yours’ to the non-striker.

There’s also some general ridiculousness – slightly misdirected deliveries ending up as the widest wides ever, especially if blown off-course by a gust of wind; or the wicketkeeper displaying moronic inadequacy whenever a bouncer is bowled – as well as some slightly bothersome inaccuracies (the ‘off-cutter’ and ‘leg-cutter’ deliveries are the wrong way around here, for example). Finally, after a while you really notice the fact that batting lacks the option to hit the ball in the air in a deliberate, controlled fashion, meaning you can get bogged down when facing spin (a disappointing omission considering that a cheerful aerial slog was a hallmark of the previous game).

Factor in a lack of real players and a shortage of career/tournament options, and Cricket 97‘s appeal becomes more and more short-lived. It certainly isn’t the worst game of its type around, though, and if all you want is a quick, undemanding match or two, then this should do the trick nicely.