Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#94 – Volleyball

Nintendo’s Black Box Volleyball is the only game of its kind on the console.

Good on the players to practice before getting started.

To Beat: Win a single match
To Complete: Win a match against Russia
What I Did: Won a match against Korea
Played: 7/15/18 – 7/17/18
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
My Video: Volleyball Longplay

If you have been following my project closely, you probably will disagree with my initial tagline. After all, I have already played an NES volleyball game already in Kings of the Beach. The only other games are Super Spike V’Ball and the unlicensed Venice Beach Volleyball. The main difference between these games and the original Volleyball is that the other games are beach volleyball and this one is standard volleyball. That means this game is a full six-on-six match while the others are strictly two-on-two. I can see why two-on-two volleyball makes sense on the NES. A four-player sport is perfectly suited as a Four Score title, and fewer characters on screen reduces the amount of flicker and graphical issues. It’s interesting to me that the first volleyball game on the NES is the only one to tackle a standard game, and it does a noble job of it. It’s also quite a bit more challenging than I bargained for.

Volleyball first launched on the Famicom Disk System, releasing in July 1986 in Japan. The NES version arrived in March 1987, and the PAL version followed in November 1987. It was developed by both Nintendo’s R&D1 division and Pax Softnica. Interestingly, this game is credited on the title screen to Tomoshige Hashishita (written T. Hashishita), which is unusual for early Nintendo games. I don’t know if that means he was the main developer, designer, or perhaps the sole creator of this game.

As mentioned in the introduction, Volleyball is the only NES game that covers a standard game of volleyball. Two teams of six players each play in a normal game. You can play in either the men’s or women’s league. In a two-player game, each player chooses his or her own team, while in single player, you will play as the USA team. There are eight teams in all to pick from. There are no additional gameplay modes in Volleyball, so winning a single match is good enough for completion.

Nice touch to animate teams lining up.

The game is structured in the same way as other volleyball games on the system with the same mode of play. One team earns possession of the ball and one player serves the ball from the back line into the opponent’s court. Each side may hit the ball three times before they are required to return the ball to the other court. A team earns the serve if the ball falls within the opponent’s court or the opponent fails to return the ball after three hits into the team’s court. If the serving team wins the serve again, they also score a point. Each match consists of up to five sets. In each set, the score is reset to 0-0 and the first team to 15 points, while also winning by two, wins the set. The first team to win three sets wins the match.

A good place to start with this game is the training mode. This is selectable from the title screen and you go straight into playing without choosing teams. This is for single player practice only. There are two differences between training and the standard game. First, the speed of the ball is decreased, and second, the active player’s uniform changes to red. This will help you see which character you are allowed to control at any given moment. Certain game situations force you to control only a subset of the team at one time, so training mode gives you an immediate visual of who you control so you can get the hang of it.

The scoring display is at the top of the screen during gameplay. The viewpoint scrolls from left to right to follow the action and the scoreboard is in the center making it visible at all times. The three-letter team abbreviation is displayed vertically on the appropriate side. Next to that is a column of five rectangles. This represents each set and the team that wins each set has their light turned on. The current set will blink on both sides of the scoreboard. In the center is the score for the current set. Below that are a series of lights that show which team is the serving team.

Good timing on your serves is always helpful.

The first thing you will need to do in single player is serve the ball. The server waits behind the back line for the referee to blow the whistle. Press A to toss the ball in the air and then press A with good timing to hit the ball to the other side. If you hit the ball early, you will do a high serve, and if you wait until the ball is low to the ground, you will perform a low serve. Be careful not to let the ball hit the ground or you lose the serve. You can also aim the serve by holding a direction on the D-pad while you hit the ball.

The D-pad controls the team members while the ball is in the air. There is a line close to the net on each side called the spike line, and there are three team members on either side of the line. You control the set of three players behind the line if the ball is hit toward the back, and you control the three players by the net if it is hit near the net. The ball casts a shadow on the court and you use this to anticipate where the ball might land according to its flight path. The ball often gets hit high above the playfield to where you can’t see it, and the shadow is usually all you can go by. Get into position and press either A or B to receive the ball. The B button is a low hit that is not often used. The third hit automatically sends the ball to the other side of the court.

You can also aim the ball a little bit while receiving. Simply hold the D-pad in the desired direction of the hit as you smack the ball. Holding down the button also locks the player in position and he or she cannot move unless you release the button. If you press toward the opponent’s court, you will hit the ball there even if you aren’t on the third hit. Another wrinkle is that if the center player receives the ball and you direct the ball either up or down, control is locked to only the player on that side in the same row.

Spiking is an essential skill here.

You can spike the ball on the third hit. The first hit is the bump, second is the set, and third can be the spike. Get the player into the position where the ball is expected to land, then press B to jump. Hold the button and you will spike the ball at the top of your jump. You can also aim the spike with the D-pad. You can cross spike with Up or Down, or do a feint by holding back toward your court. The spike is a difficult move to pull off with the arc of the ball and anticipating the shot without seeing the ball the whole way.

On defense, you can block the spike in much the same way. Simply press and hold the B button to jump by the net. If you press the D-pad toward the net, you will do a double block with two defenders. Optionally, while the ball is in the opponent’s court, you can press A to bring the front row of defenders together in a tight row automatically. One big difference here is that you cannot direct the ball on a block directly with the D-pad like you would in other situations. The direction of the ball coming off the block is determined by the angle of the block. For instance, if you block the ball using the right side of your body, the ball will shoot off to that side.

There’s a few more tidbits about the game. The seven teams you compete against are Russia (USSR), China, Cuba, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and Tunisia. These teams are in order of difficulty from hardest to easiest as determined by head to head ranking in the 1981 and 1985 World Cup tournaments. At the start you can select from either the men’s or women’s teams which determines the speed of the ball during play. In addition to player sprite changes, the ball moves faster in men’s mode than women’s mode. Lastly, teams switch sides after each set. If the match is tied two games to two, teams will switch sides in the middle of the set once one team scores eight points.

I love getting the other team to whiff on a hit like this.

This was my first time playing and beating Volleyball. Despite being a pick up and play style game, this is not one I spent much time with in testing carts. I do recall this was my 400th licensed NES cart I bought for my collection. That wasn’t planned or anything, just how it worked out. I have had a few copies of this game pass through my hands. The game primarily is found in the original 5-screw form factor, but there were some copies made after the conversion to 3-screw carts. I have a couple of 3-screw variants of Volleyball that are a bit more valuable than the 5-screw cart. The game sells for around $10 for a loose cart.

I had heard that Volleyball is a difficult game that you might not expect, and I agree with that assessment. I really wanted to beat the hardest team, Russia, but first I started on the opposite end with Tunisia. I ended up winning my first match in four sets, giving me a false sense of security for the harder difficulties. The Tunisia team makes a lot of miscues that you can benefit from. I played a few matches with Russia and got destroyed every time. My best single set over all attempts was a 15-4 loss. I played the middle difficulty Japan team a few times and also got my butt handed to me. I did figure out an exploit on serving against Japan. When on the left court, I could hit a low serve to the bottom right corner and the defender would whiff on it most of the time. That could only help me win two sets and I didn’t play well enough to win the entire match. I settled with beating the second-weakest team, Korea, but it was a close game. I won in five sets 15-10, 15-12, 5-15, 13-15, 15-8. That match was the one I recorded for my longplay. I had thought about stepping up a team at a time just to see the toughest team I could beat. I didn’t have a chance to win against a tougher team before leaving on vacation, and I wanted to move on to something else once I got back home. As much as I wanted to stick it to the Russians, this would have to be good enough.

The ball can easily go above the screen.

I had some issues with the game that made it difficult to play. I found the controls got in the way of keeping the ball in play. One example is if a ball is hit near the spike line. Either the front row or back row will be active at once, and sometimes I anticipate that the ball will land in a spot where the inactive group should get it. There is a little bit of time to recognize which group of players is moving, but I found it wasn’t enough for me to recover from a misjudgment. Another control issue occurs when setting the ball with one of the middle players. Setting off to one side leaves only the player on the same side active for the spike. I guess I just messed up the controls in the heat of the moment, but I left myself in situations too many times where I hit the ball to a non-moving player. Defense in Volleyball is really challenging and I just could not figure it out consistently. The ball moves so fast enough on opposing spikes that you really need to block. A successful block requires both good jump timing and good positioning. If the opponent hits the ball off the edge of one of your blockers, it flies off the court and there’s nothing you can do about it. I also either spiked or blocked the ball into the net a lot. It’s so cramped by the net that I can’t tell the outcome until the referee sorts it out. I didn’t play long enough to tell if either bad timing or bad luck caused issues with maintaining possession of the ball. It was a struggle at times to string points together but I managed the best that I could.

Black Box Volleyball is a noble, early effort on the NES, but I didn’t really have a lot of fun with it. The graphics are extremely basic, but that’s to be expected for an early game. Simple sprites help keep the action fast while avoiding graphical flickering. The music is not that bad. There are some shared sounds and songs from other early games Nintendo put out, but they are good enough. The action is very fast. Normally I find that a good thing, but I think that works against the game in this case. Too often the ball gets hit high in the air and you are left to guess when and where it will land, with not much time to react. Good luck defending enemy spikes or smacking the ball through their defenses. The speedy pace, difficult teams, and some control issues further mar the experience. It’s not an awful game, but there are better NES volleyball games.

#94 – Volleyball

Posted In: Finished

Leave a Reply