The month of July is upon us, and if you follow what used to be called ‘America’s pastime’ you know that the midpoint of the Major League Baseball season is at hand, with the All-Star break this weekend. Professional football has supplanted baseball in the hearts of many, with the still-growing phenomenon of fantasy football a yearly tradition in homes and workplaces around the country. Be that as it may, and with baseball now more of a tradition than an obsession (and with fewer kids than ever playing sandlot games and dreaming of careers in the ‘majors’), there have still been some very good efforts to bring realistic baseball simulations to home game consoles since I began playing video games. We will explore some standouts this week.
It was no accident that I chose to write about baseball games for my 31st article for this fine website, as it was number 31 for the Atlanta Braves that I called my favorite baseball player as a youngster. Greg Maddux was, like myself, rather slight of build and not outwardly athletic, but he threw with a precision that mitigated a lack of velocity (unlike me, unfortunately). It was partly with a desire to pitch as my hero that I set out to purchase my first baseball video game in the autumn of 1999, and with only a Nintendo 64 to that point my options were pretty limited. I settled on Ken Griffey Jr’s Slugfest, which was far less of a sim, and more of a fun arcade baseball experience. Part of the appeal for me was the single-click batting interface, having read of the difficulty in controlling the more ‘realistic’ baseball games available. (Yes, even then I worried about difficulty.)
Slugfest was certainly fun enough, but even by Nintendo 64 standards it did not have particularly impressive graphics, and the sounds effects became pretty repetitive after a while. (A problem with the cartridge format.) One of the title’s saving graces was the two-player mode, in which the ability to widely vary pitch speeds and mislead your human opponent on pitch location (thanks to a blinking cursor that one could time to suggest a location that was changed a moment later as the pitch was delivered) it was pretty difficult to get a hit against better players. But after doing my best to wear out the cartridge, I decided I was ready for something more. The next purchase on my list became one of a running series from Acclaim called All Star Baseball, and that year a 2000 was appended to the name. (Sports games are like automotive manufacturers, where the current year just will not do.) I admit that when I placed the cartridge in my system for the first time and started a game, I was absolutely blown away. I promise that Acclaim did not pay me to say that, as they are bankrupt and could not have done so (unfortunately).
The graphics in this 1999 Nintendo 64 title were really, really good (screenshots do not really do it justice – you will just have to play it). It was astonishing to me at the time just how realistic the player faces were, and how fluid the motion of batters walking up to the plate appeared. (The official press release from April 7, 1999 stated that the game offered “second-generation Hi-Rez graphics and realistic player animations unmatched in any baseball title”, and I can not deny this rather grandiose claim.) Once in control of a pitcher I developed an appreciation for how much more realistic the physics of this All-Star Baseball series were, but batting was downright hard. I make no claims to be a great – or even good – gamer, but moving a small box with the N64 joystick to a pitch location in a split second while perfectly timing the swing with the action button was very, very difficult for me. As much as I appreciated all other aspects of this title from a realism standpoint, it was impossible to get a hit without first guessing the pitch location and speed – something that major league players have to deal with every day. But I am not a major league baseball player.
Revisiting the All-Star Baseball franchise on GameCube in 2003, I found a simplified one-button approach to batting (just time the swing) and was finally able to score runs! But pitching was always my first love, and here controls were just as one would expect, with the proper complement of pitches for each simulated major league pitches and realistic ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ zones for each batter that provided a high level of realism in the match-ups on screen. Graphics were outstanding, commentary sounded like a real television broadcast, and the sounds of the game were spot-on. In short, All-Star Baseball 2004 was a gem of a game – and one which I still own (and treasure) to this day. But time marches on, and while interest in baseball has waned in the last decade or two (my own interest level included), I still decided to revisit the console version of the old ballgame with the MLB The Show franchise from SIE San Diego Studio a few years ago. This renewed interest in baseball games became a benchmark for realistic graphics on my PlayStation 3 at the time, as the game looked so much like a televised game I forgot why I had ever been impressed with anything on Nintendo 64 and GameCube before (PlayStation 3 can do that to a person). And then I purchased the game on PlayStation 4 a year ago. Wow.
Graphics aside (I would just watch the demo game that appears after a timeout on the start screen sometimes, it looks that good), MLB The Show 16 provided a deep, accurate, and highly customizable realization of American baseball that was a treat to play. There are different types of both pitching and batting interfaces to choose from, the usual wide variety of difficulty levels and modes of play, and some of the most hyper-real animations I have seen from computer-generated humans on my TV. Seemingly the perfect marriage of a quality gameplay experience with graphics so realistic that it looks like I am playing a live broadcast. For now. Until the PlayStation 5 version at least. Sports games are, as we know, annual affairs – and pretty specious as legitimate video games most of the time. Slap a new year at the end of anything called “Madden” and millions of units sell. The same (minus the millions) holds true for other sports annuals. It is rather sad, but once the game engine has been designed and licenses have been obtained it seems logical (from the game studio’s standpoint at least) to milk the games for all they are worth, and you had better believe that these studios do.
There you have it: a in-no-way-comprehensive-or-even-historically-relevant account of some baseball games I have played since 1999. Forget NES and SNES classics. Forget SEGA titles. Forget everything you thought you knew about my level of professionalism. (Watch me stream games sometime, and all will be made clear.) That is all for this week. Good day.