Brian Lara Cricket: How 32-bit graphics helped me fall in love with a gentleman’s game
By James Ash
When you consider the complexity of cricket against other sports, you realise what an incredibly difficult premise it is to simulate. However, the third entry into the Brian Lara Cricket (BLC) series, released in 1998, was one of the first games which made me realise that virtually any sport, or in fact event, could be digitised. It struck me as a weird but thrilling glimpse at just how wide the gaming landscape could become.
It is a game which I’ll always treasure because it taught me so much about my favourite sport; the rules, the stats and the idiosyncrasies. I had initially fallen in love with cricket competing against my brother in the back garden. However, it was a summer sport which gave way to football in the winter. Suddenly, though, I was able to play it all year round by honing my batting and bowling skills on BLC.
“It taught me so much about my favourite sport; the rules, the stats and the idiosyncrasies”
Our N64 and Game Boys had been cherished childhood gifts but, looking back, they only truly excelled when focusing on Nintendo’s much-loved cast of characters (Mario, Link and hundreds of Pokemon). That’s not to say they lacked quality, they were excellent consoles with genre-defining games, yet the PlayStation and PC suddenly offered far more complex propositions.
My initial introduction to BLC by was via my friend Max whose parents had bought him a PlayStation and a bundle of games but I soon grew to love it to the extent that I’d get annoyed if he suggested playing anything else. My brother and I had become masters of the Nintendo 64, clashing over Mario Kart 64 and World Cup ’98 on many occasions, and I guess I craved what I didn’t have at home. As a compromise, my parents bought me BLC for the PC. It took ages to install and we didn’t have the correct graphics card (I had no idea what that meant at the time) but it eventually worked.
Bowling was the hardest aspect of the game and trying to get the cursor in the right place to achieve a consistent line and length was challenging. I found batting more enjoyable and often reduced the difficulty level in order to smash every ball for six. As such, I didn’t play long matches, often starting test matches before leaving the computer half an hour later without saving my progress. One Day Internationals (ODIs) were easier to finish as they only needed to be 10 overs per side.
I didn’t fully immerse myself into BLC until 2001, when my parents bought us a PlayStation 2 which I was thrilled to discover was backward compatible. Initially I stocked up on more old games than brand new ones and, naturally, BLC was part of that collection. It had now been three years since the game launched but I didn’t care.
Suddenly I was bowling better and playing on a higher difficulty. I made the most of test matches and still remember the first one I ever finished, England vs. Zimbabwe. Playing as England, I was all out for 257 with Alec Stewart hitting 54 at number six to rescue the innings. I then bowled Zimbabwe out for 221 before smashing 220, with an important 32 from Darren Gough helping to get the target above 200. Zimbabwe could offer little response and were out for 167, handing me the win.
With my renewed determination to challenge myself, batting became a lot tougher as it required more concentration than bowling. I’d often try to whack myself out of trouble and a lot of the time it didn’t pay off. On one occasion I was bowled out for 63 in a 10 over ODI, trying to chase 74 against New Zealand. That slight hint of realism that prevented you from blasting your worries away was perhaps, on balance, a good thing.
“That slight hint of realism that prevented you from blasting your worries away was perhaps, on balance, a good thing”
My favourite test innings saw Michael Atherton score 123 against the West Indies. With the field up in the opening overs, I managed to cut nearly every ball I faced with for a boundary. The confidence I took from that spread through the order with Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe also scoring well. Wickets from Robert Croft and Alan Mullally eventually won me the test.
Modern cricket games, Ashes Cricket for example, tend to go from one extreme to the other. Batting is either far too easy, allowing you to notch 600, or, if you increase the difficulty, you find yourself nicking nearly every ball to the slips. In BLC, you were fairly rewarded for sustained concentration and timing, although it rarely forgave you for trying to hit sixes when fielders were on the boundary.
As I mentioned, cricket games are tough to build. Simulating the sport’s many variables is a near impossible task and BLC had its issues. It felt as though certain situations would only ever have a single outcome, for examply trying to guide the ball to third man against a spinner usually led to a catch for the wicketkeeper.
Sometimes the gap between taking wickets felt far too long and there was little you could do to force it, bar a sneaky glitch involving changing the weather in the pause menu which allowed you to render the striking batsman unresponsive, giving you free wickets. I rarely used the trick though as it made the game as pointless as the range of cheat codes you could access by completing historic scenarios.
However, BLC did get most things right. The player stats allowed me to gain me a terrific knowledge of world cricket that I otherwise wouldn’t have possessed. The gameplay was realistic and rewarded you for patience and persistence. The dynamics no longer match modern cricket, the sport has moved on, but it does mirror the era it was made. I often watch cricket highlights from the 90s and think to myself ‘Oh wow, that was a BLC shot!’.
BLC will always be a personally treasured game and I still go back to it every now and then to try to beat my old records. It could have been better but the first (and only) cricket simulator available on fifth-generation consoles could also have been a lot worse.
Brian Lara Cricket