The Video Game Critic's
Baseball Review Special
NOTE: Keep in mind all games are graded relative to other games on the same system.
System: Fairchild Channel F
Publisher: Fairchild (1977)
I can't remember the last time I enjoyed playing such a pathetic game! Baseball is one of those rare titles that succeeds in spite of itself. All nine fielders are present, but aside from the bases there's not much of a diamond. The screen's white background makes it look like they're playing in the snow. The pitching controls are pretty slick. You have full control of the ball in flight, so you can curve, speed up, or slow down the ball as you please.
You swing the bat by pressing the button, and your timing does seem to affect where the ball is hit. Then there's the fielding. These fielding controls are so insane, you'll swear up and down that the game is broken. Your outfielders and shortstop move in unison - but only side to side. The good news is that you can pre-position your fielders.
The bad news is there's a hole in left field where no fielder can reach, and sure enough the ball is hit there quite often. The ball is "caught" when it touches a fielder, and it usually comes to a stop in the foot or crotch region. When a hit gets through, you'll need to watch the runners on base to see if it's a single, double, triple, or home run.
The bottom right of the screen displays two numbers: the outs and the number of runs scored this half inning. That's right, you can't view the actual score until the inning is over. At that point both players must hit their buttons at the same time in order to proceed.
Despite its awkward design, Baseball is fun and competitive, mainly because it moves along so incredibly fast. I swear I once retired three batters in less than ten seconds! My friend Scott noted "If real baseball was this fast it would be a lot more enjoyable. Oh who am I kidding - it would still suck."
System: Odyssey 2
Publisher: Magnavox (1978)
Compared to Homerun (Atari 2600, 1978), Baseball for the Odyssey 2 is pretty amazing! You get all nine players in the field and there's even a home run fence! The animation is smooth and the controls are responsive. The pitcher can curve the ball at will, but sadly he can't control the speed.
At bat you can direct your hits (allegedly) by swinging early or late. On defense you can shift your outfielders, which adds a strategic element. Then we get to the fielding, which is where things start to get a little dicey.
Whenever you catch a moving ball, it's considered a fly out, yet baserunners can take off at any time without penalty. While this clearly violates the tag-up rule, it also spices things up by rewarding aggressive baserunning.
Throwing the ball around the bases is easy, but the throws are far too soft. It's especially aggravating when you're trying to throw out a runner at home and he's running as fast as the ball! The general pace of the game is brisk, allowing you to play nine innings in about 20 minutes.
The audio is minimal, save for the "take me out to the ballgame" song, which is by far the most horrendous rendition I've ever heard in my life. There's no single-player mode, but Baseball's easy-going style makes it fun to play against a friend.
System: Atari 2600
Publisher: Atari (1978)
In all my years it just dawned on me that Home Run is in fact two words! I suspect Atari didn't go with "Baseball" because this game only vaguely resembles our national pastime. Home Run's graphics are as minimal as you can get with a field consisting of four bases. There's no dirt, no baselines, no fans, and no pitcher's mound. You pitch from second base for crying out loud!
Your three fielders move in unison and can't even throw the ball. You just scoop it up and run down the baserunner before he can reach the next base. It's not as hard as it sounds because your fielders are speed demons. I like how the runner's footsteps continue long after he's disappeared from the screen. There are no fly balls but hits to straight-away center are automatic home runs. You'll want to share that little tidbit of information with your opponent or he'll be really mad at you.
The pitching is the best part of the game. You have total control of the ball and can fool the batter by having it flutter all around before catching a corner of the plate. It's also possible to hit the batter in the face, which is always a good time. I have fond memories of playing Home Run with my dad as a kid but today I find the game borderline unplayable. If you employ a few basic techniques you'll throw a shutout every time.
As an experiment I had my friends Brent and Kevin give it a try. They had never even heard of the game. To my surprise they seemed to have a great time, especially when it came to tormenting each other with those crazy-ass pitches. After that I wondered if I had been too hard on the game. But then I had Scott and Chris play and they hated it.
Scott remarked that if he had a choice between playing Home Run or being poked in the crotch repeatedly with a sharp stick, he would only reluctantly choose Home Run. Home Run is a likeable but shallow sports title that's only fun for a while. On a final note, one astute reader pointed out that Home Run is only 1.84 kilobytes in size. By comparison, MLB The Show 17 is 38 gigabytes, making it 20.5 million times larger. The question is, is it 20.5 million times more fun? I doubt it.
Super Challenge Baseball
System: Atari 2600
Publisher: M-Network (1982)
Classic gamers have fond memories of Super Challenge Baseball - best known as M-Network Baseball. Compared to Atari's minimal Home Run (Atari, 1977) Super Challenge is a full-blown baseball extravaganza. The simple fact that there's a diamond and eight fielders (no shortstop, sorry) was notable for its time. The pitching and hitting controls are simple enough. You can throw a pitch far outside, only to curve it in to catch the corner of the plate. You control where the ball is hit by swinging early or late.
Every ball put into play is treated as a grounder, although home runs occur if the ball travels off the screen. Things get complicated when you need to take control of the correct fielder, which requires a complicated combination of button and joystick movements. It's not insurmountable but the learning curve is steep. Couldn't they just select a fielder for you? It is fun to throw the ball around the infield and tagging out a runner is especially satisfying because he disappears with a *zap* - like he was vaporized!
Be sure to set both difficulty switches to A which allows you to control the lead runners. These guys are slow so it's rare to stretch a hit into a double. Stealing a base is nearly impossible but at least you can lead off. The graphics are substandard - even for a 2600 title. Brent marvelled how the numbers are so sharp and well articulated, yet the field is an unadulterated mess.
Scott speculated that M-Network devised a special algorithm to make the graphics extra blocky just for this game! That diamond is jagged as all hell and the fielders resemble men's room symbols. At least the flicker is kept to a minimum. Like most M-Network titles this game lacks a single-player mode. Super Challenge Baseball isn't as super as it used to be and the real challenge clearly lies in grasping the controls.
System: Arcadia 2001
Publisher: Emerson (1982)
This comedy of errors belongs on the permanent DL. It only takes one look at that white grass and green diamond to know that this game is hurting in the worst way. The players are large and the ball moves smoothly, but that's the extent of the good news. You can't even throw a pitch until the second player presses the "signal to pitch" button on his controller. Ugh!! This ill-conceived design flaw makes every game about twice as long as it should be!
The pitches come in pretty fast, and you swing by pressing a button on the keypad. When balls are hit to the infield, the fielding is totally automatic, which is lame as hell! When a ball is hit to the outfield, a cut-away screen depicts a fielder in a large triangle. Apparently this is meant to show the ball heading towards the fence, but it looks atrocious and is completely disconcerting.
Once you have the ball, you can whip it between the bases pretty quickly thanks to the diamond-shaped graphic on the control pad overlay. Unfortunately, the programmers had to get cute and add "arcs" to each throw. As a result, the ball moves through the air like it has a mind of its own!
Baseball also has its fair share of glitches, including one that will not let your fielder relinquish the ball until all the runners have scored! Yeah, I know it's just a minor bug, but I like to nitpick! And then there's the audio. This game beeps so incessantly that it should come with ear plugs! My buddy Scott offered a five word review for this game: "Beep beep beep beep F!!!"
System: Atari 5200
Publisher: Atari (1983)
This is, without a doubt, my favorite classic baseball game. It may not have all the features of Intellivision's World Championship baseball, but it beats that game hands-down with superior graphics, awesome control, and impressive voice synthesis. Realsports Baseball gives you uniformed players, a sharp-looking diamond, and a stadium complete with a homerun fence -- and a crowd. There's even a scoreboard that displays the complete line score.
The pitching controls are outstanding! You can choose between nine pitches, and even control the ball in flight. Thanks to the helpful shadow, each pitch is visually distinctive. The batting controls are also innovative, taking full advantage of the unique Atari 5200 joystick design. You swing by sliding the joystick left to right, and can even control the height of your cut. Fielding takes a while to get used to, but the computer is surprisingly adept at choosing the appropriate fielder.
The whole baseball experience is captured in this game, complete with tagging up, hit and runs, squeeze plays, no wind-up pitches, base stealing, and throwing errors! Thanks to some nifty voice synthesis, an umpire calls strikes, balls, and outs. The menu screen allows you to fully configure the number of players, difficulty, and number of innings. No game is perfect, and waiting for the teams to leave the field between innings gets old after a while. But when it comes to classic baseball, Atari 5200 Realsports is second to none!
World Championship Baseball
Publisher: Mattel (1983)
World Championship Baseball is a big step up from Major League Baseball (Mattel, 1979), which was impressive in its own right. For some reason World Championship's title screen reads "All Star Baseball" as if Mattel couldn't decide which generic title to go with. Anyway, this game boasts an impressive feature list including fly balls, bouncing balls, manual positioning of fielders, overrunning bases, sliding, pitch-outs, errors, foul balls, leading off, stealing, pick-offs, and extra innings.
Best of all, there's a single-player mode with multiple skill levels. No other classic baseball title offers this degree of robust gameplay. Overrunning of bases is a remarkable feature, and I love how sliding kicks up a cloud of dust. The graphics are basically the same as the first Intellivision baseball game but the diamond looks brighter. I love how the players quickly scamper on and off the field between half-innings.
I just wish the controls were better. Each fielder is mapped to a key on the keypad, and switching between them is clumsy. I constantly find myself having to look down at the keypad to select the closest one. The computer is a worthy opponent. He doesn't swing at balls and won't hesitate to steal. In fact, if you walk away from the television don't be surprised if all the CPU runners have scored while you were away. Sneaky bastards!
There's not much audio, but a series of beeps are used to simulate the umpire yelling "YER OUT!" and that sounds amazing. I'm just wondering why the voice synthesizer wasn't supported. The biggest flaw with the game would have to be its weak pitching controls; it's nearly impossible to strike anyone out! Even so, World Championship Baseball is exceptionally good. As classic baseball games go, only Realsports Baseball (Atari 5200, 1982) is in the same league.
World Series Major League Baseball
Publisher: Mattel (1983)
For those who grew up with the Intellivision, this baseball game is one of myth and legend. In 1983 Mattel tantalized gamers with mind-blowing television ads depicting a baseball game with dramatic close-up camera angles. It's a shame so few of the Intellivision faithful ever got to experience this amazing game. World Series Major League Baseball (WSMLB) was only available via mail order, much like the Intellivision ECS (computer and keyboard) which is required to play it.
WSMLB is a collector's dream, but in terms of playability, it's a little hurting. It plays like a technical demo, albeit an impressive one. You can challenge a friend, play the CPU, or watch the CPU play itself. The two teams (AL and NL) are stocked with fictional players like Smokin' Breen, Gunner Schnepp, Tex Barnes, and Papa Sells. Each player has a set of statistics that he allegedly adheres to. The action is presented via a series of "close up" camera views similar to those used in modern games.
The players are blocky but gigantic by classic gaming standards. While pitching (or hitting), you view the action from the shortstop position, and the pitcher windup looks remarkably fluid. Unfortunately, it's hard to judge pitches from this perspective. In fact, you and a friend might want to agree to throw nothing but straight fastballs. The screen scrolls as the ball is tossed around the infield, and the outfield features scaling players. The runners on base are shown via picture-in-picture windows that are fairly astonishing - perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire game.
The controls are similar to the previous Intellivision baseball games, except you now swing via the disc. That's right - it's the first analog swing mechanism! WSMLB's slick presentation includes a batter introduction screen that displays his statistics along with his "close up", and players even have different skin tones. With the voice synthesizer attachment you'll hear a play-by-play man who does a pretty decent job ("He makes the catch!"). In fact, he's comparable to the announcer in Joe Montana II Sportstalk Football (Genesis, 1991) - a game released almost 8 years later!
WSMLB is loaded with bells and whistles, but it can be a little tedious to play. Having to hit the spacebar on the keyboard before each batter steps to the plate is truly annoying, as is having to throw the ball back to the pitcher after every pitch. When the ball is hit, the correct player is rarely selected so you'll need to hit the "switch" button. The camera angles are haphazard, and sometimes your player is completely out of the frame (especially during foul balls). You'll hear cheers and boos, and I love how the fans look in the stands. Sometimes they're calm and sometimes they're waving their arms, but there's always a lot of activity.
The tall structure behind home plate looks like a building but it's supposed to be a net. The organ music and fanfares sound great, but I hate how the CPU pitcher waits for the music to finish before throwing the ball. It's quirky as hell, but World Series Major League Baseball was clearly way ahead of its time, introducing many innovative features that we take for granted today. Rough visuals and aggravating controls notwithstanding, classic gamers are bound to find beauty in this.
Super Action Baseball
Publisher: Coleco (1983)
Groundbreaking for its time, Super Action Baseball never lived up to its jaw-dropping screenshots. The game shipped with two massive Super Action controllers, each with a joystick, a button for each finger built into the grip, and a 12-button keypad. There's even a little roller you can spin. This controller left no stone unturned. The only thing missing is a little organ crank.
Super Action Baseball's pitcher/batter screen continues to dazzle, depicting huge players, lifelike animation, and even runner windows. But what is the deal with these uniforms? I realize the game wasn't licensed by the MLB, but orange and purple? The audio leaves much to be desired. Between pitches all you hear is tweets and whistles, like they're playing in a freaking bird sanctuary. Is somebody making cat calls at the players?
The pitcher can throw a wide variety of pitches and even guide the ball in flight. The batter swings by moving the joystick, allowing him to determine the direction the ball is hit. I kind of like how you spin that little spinner thing on the controller to run the bases, partly because it's so strange.
The pitching screen may look dramatic but it might just offer the worst possible vantage point for the hitter. You really have to wait on each pitch to make contact, as the ball tends to slow down as it approaches the plate. An umpire who looks like Beetle Bailey appears on the screen to call balls and strikes.
Once the ball is put into play it's clear the developer spent 90% of his time on that pitcher/batter screen. The overhead field view is pretty barebones with single-colored, pixelated players that move in a choppy manner. Likewise when throwing the ball it just sort of blinks from one spot to the next. Fly balls are the worst. Instead of traveling in an arc (which would have required math) they move in the shape of a triangle.
Super Action Baseball is two-player only but there are practice modes that let you brush up on your hitting and fielding. I like how there's a button corresponding to each base, making it easy to throw the ball around the horn. Those who undertake this game will have their hands full (literally), but with enough patience it is actually possible to play a competitive, semi-enjoyable game.
Star League Baseball
System: Atari XEGS
Publisher: Gamestar (1983)
This is one of those easy games that's great for a quick contest against a friend. Star League's title screen plays a jaunty little tune, and each game begins with an abbreviated version of the national anthem. The stadium graphics look pretty sweet with a nicely-manicured field, well-defined fence, and even a 3D dugout (empty, but still). The players are small and single-colored, but highly detailed and smoothly animated.
Each player selects from two starting pitchers: "Curves" Cassidy and "Heat" Muldoon. You also need to choose between a "liners" and "sluggers" line-up, although I would prefer a "balanced" option. The intuitive, responsive controls give Star League an arcade flavor. Moving the joystick in the four directions lets you throw basic pitches, but things get interesting when you use diagonals to throw combinations of pitches!
You can swing with a press of a button, and I absolutely love the sound of the crack of the bat. Hitting the ball can be a challenge. It's hard to lay off the low pitch, and I can't hit Muldoon's fastball to save my life! When the ball is put into play, you control the nearest fielder, but the infielders often don't even flinch as ground balls roll through. The player on offense controls the lead runner, and once you get a feel for running the bases, you can really toy with (and piss off) your friend. Good luck tricking the CPU, which is remarkably adept at holding the runners on.
The game has a few shortcomings. You have the option of bringing in a knuckleball reliever, but only at the top of the eighth inning. Outfielders sometimes throw out runners headed to first base, which is not very realistic. It's hard to reach second base even after hitting the ball into a gap, and runners don't slide. The controls for getting situated on the mound require a lot of extraneous button tapping.
The game does have some nice bells and whistles, like a scoreboard shown between innings that displays paid attendance, an ad for a "Dutch Dougan" video game, and other scores from around the league. Star League Baseball isn't particularly deep but it hits the spot if you're looking for some simple fun.
Micro League Baseball
System: Atari XEGS
Publisher: Micro League Sports (1984)
Boasting ultra-realistic gameplay and actual historical teams, Micro League Baseball was state of the art... in 1984. It was the first baseball game to reflect actual player statistics. As a kid playing this on my Atari computer I was mesmerized by the TV-style presentation with live play-by-play in the form of scrolling text on the scoreboard. The commentary is brief but colorful ("A booming fly ball to the alley in left! Will he get it? Yes! Combs hauls it in.") The field is displayed using an unusual rendering technique, and if you look close you'll notice the pixels are arranged in a checkerboard pattern. It didn't take long for my buddy Scott to wisecrack about how "somebody's grandmother knitted the field" and "if you unfocus your eyes you might see a 3D image!"
The players have black outlines and teams are limited to red or white uniforms. Still, the action unfolds smoothly and fly balls move on realistic arcs. The thing about Micro League is that you're just managing the team, with options entered via keyboard. You control the lineup and strategy, but after selecting a play you simply kick back and watch. It may sound lame but it's surprisingly suspenseful. On defense you choose the type of pitch, and typically there is only one pitch per batter, resulting in a hit ball, strikeout, or walk. It's an ingenious scheme that keeps things moving. You can also position fielders, pitch out, issue intentional walks, warm up the bullpen, and even visit the mound.
On offense your choices are severely limited when there's no one on base. Normally you choose "swing away", but it would have been nice to have the option of making contact or swinging for the fences. With runners on base your options expand to include stealing, hit-and-runs, and safe (or aggressive) baserunning. It's fun to watch the action play out, especially with such a wide variety of outcomes including caroms off the wall, errant throws, balks, tag ups, and even head-first slides. I like how players throw the ball "around the horn" after a strikeout.
Between innings it's boring to watch the players change sides, but you can press the R key to disable that. Micro League even lets you save a game in process! The 24 included teams span from the '27 Yankees to the '83 Orioles, with additional teams available via expansion disks. When I was young I enjoyed watching the computer play both sides, and when I recently tried it again, I was still riveted to the screen!
One glaring flaw is a lack of crowd noise, resulting in a game played in mostly silence. The two manuals are fun to read and include biographies of all the teams. Micro League Baseball is a thinking-man's baseball game that's perfect for baseball fans who aren't necessarily video game fans. Technical note: This game was reviewed on an Atari 800XL because it displays the wrong colors on the Atari XEGS.
System: Commodore 64
Publisher: Gamestar (1986)
I bought this game on the advice of no less than the Video Game Critic himself. He claimed to have fond memories of playing this in his teens and said it was one of the better baseball games of its era. I'm beginning to think early-onset dementia may be overcoming him because Championship Baseball is average at best. Following an unskippable intro screen (for the three people who cared about who the graphic artist and assistant producer were), you are treated to... the main loading screen!
When the loading is finally complete you can take batting practice or play a game. I started my own team with players rated against four different stats (batting, running, throwing, catching). You need to set your batting lineup before each game, and frankly I found it to be a pain in the rear. Would a default lineup be too much to ask for?
When batting, the screen is split into two views; one behind the batter and one from a top-down perspective. In theory the behind-the-plate view lets you anticipate the pitch, but the lack of a shadow makes it really hard to read the ball. The overhead view is more useful, but I still found it impossible to hit a fastball.
When the ball is hit you automatically assume control of what is supposed to be the closest player. In too many instances the CPU put me in control of an outfielder when an infielder was clearly closer to the ball. On top of that, the fielding controls are cumbersome and non-intuitive. You need to press and release the button and then push the joystick toward the proper base - in relation to the pitcher's mound.
I got the hang of it, but still found myself throwing to the wrong base 30% of the time. There's a noticeable lag when throwing, causing you to wind up on the wrong side of some close calls. Conversely, I can't tell you how many times I was thrown out at second because I forgot to advance the runner on first after a hit. Why the game doesn't automatically advance your lead runner is beyond me.
Despite the annoyances, I found myself enjoying Championship Baseball for at least the first four or five innings. After that the bad controls and wonky AI take their toll on me. With the Orioles finally getting a postseason berth for the first time in 15 years I'm in full baseball mode this month, but even with that exuberance it's hard to play a full game of Championship Baseball.
Reggie Jackson Baseball
System: Sega Master System
Publisher: Sega (1988)
My first impression of Reggie Jackson Baseball was NOT good, and I think you'll understand why. When I first turned it on, I witnessed the most hideous sight ever seen in a baseball game: a RED FIELD with a GREEN crowd! I honestly thought my TV was broken. After nervously resetting the game, I was shocked to discover that Reggie Jackson Baseball has three fields - red, yellow, and green - which are selected at RANDOM! This has got to be the most unwanted feature EVER in a baseball game! Everyone I know who's played this game absolutely INSISTS on resetting it until you get the green field, and I feel the same way.
Once you have the green field, the graphics are not bad at all. The behind-the-batter view of the pitcher looks nice, and once the ball is put into play, the game switches to an overhead view with tiny fielders. The ball movement is smooth, but it takes some practice to track fly balls, thanks to their deceiving arcing shadows. Your fielders are slow, so you'll need to get a good jump on the ball. Reggie Jackson also offers an "auto-fielding mode" for the lazy player. Forget that - once you get used to the controls, Reggie Jackson is one heck of a baseball game.
The throwing controls are intuitive, so you'll be turning double plays with ease. During close plays at home, a close-up treats you to a nice view of the runner sliding into the catcher. There are some other nice graphical touches as well, like animated umpires, third base coaches, pitchers warming up on the sidelines, and cheerleaders (huh?).
And be sure to check out what happens when the pitcher hits the batter with a pitch - a bench-clearing brawl always ensues, and although medics with a stretcher carry the batter away from home plate during the mayhem, five seconds later he magically appears on first base. Annoying music plays constantly throughout the game, and I have no idea why Sega did that. The teams are real, but the players are fictitious (except for the managers). The computer opponent isn't too bright, but against a human, Reggie Jackson Baseball is a fun contest.
Publisher: Jaleco (1988)
In addition to being a terrific baseball game, Bases Loaded reinvigorated my interest in consoles in the late 1980's when I was more interested in home computers. I had stopped by my friend Tuan's house, and when I walked into his bedroom he was playing this game against my friend Bobby. Bases Loaded may have lacked the sharp graphics and sophisticated controls of a computer game, but I was captivated by its clean visuals, smooth animation, and intuitive gameplay.
Innovative for its time, Bases Loaded helped popularize the realistic "behind the pitcher" camera angle, and its fast-paced gameplay has held up well over the years. You can pitch and swing with precision, but fielding is tricky because there's no diving and the fielders move like snails. The game is loaded with memorable moments, and its quirks actually make it more endearing. When pitching a ball way outside, it's hilarious to see the catcher's disembodied mitt float away from the catcher's body.
Upon striking out, batters walk back to the dugout dejected with the bat on their shoulders. Pitchers can't seem to resist intercepting balls thrown from third base to first. Relief pitchers drive themselves to the mound, leaving me to wonder who is returning that little cart? And just look how wide that mound is! But the ultimate highlight of Bases Loaded is how you can initiate a brawl by hitting a batter in the face! That feature should be standard in all baseball games.
Bases Loaded's background music plays non-stop, which would be irritating if it wasn't so freakin' good! Fielders sound like they're squealing as they throw the ball, but the clear synthesized umpire voices sound great. Bases Loaded lacks a major league license, which may explain why my favorite player is "Paste" from the New Jersey team. With so many overly-complex baseball games on the market today, it sure feels good to get "back to the basics" with a classic like this.
Pete Rose Baseball
System: Atari 7800
Publisher: Absolute (1989)
Pete Rose had the makings of a perfectly good baseball game. The field looks terrific, and the pitcher/batter view looks like a real television broadcast. But is there a reason why the players' heads appear to be wrapped in bandages? It looks like a bunch of freakin' mummies out there, and last time I checked Egypt did not have a team!
King Tut can deliver four types of pitches at varying speeds, keeping the batter off-balance. Once the ball is hit, you only see a portion of the field at a time. The infield is split in half, and each outfield has its own screen. Those blue outfield fences with the distance marked on them look pretty sharp! The screen "flips" when the ball is thrown between areas, but it's not so bad.
What kills the game is the mechanism for fielding balls in the infield. Instead of automatically taking control of the nearest player, you need to manually select between the four fielders visible on the screen. Fair enough, but each player can only move within strictly-defined horizontal zones. As a result, when a grounder dribbles behind the mound, only first-basemen can reach it, despite the fact that the second-baseman is only a millimeter away!
Invisible walls are the order of the day, turning an otherwise respectable game into a complete joke. Isn't it odd how they can't get the basic fielding right, yet there's an infield fly rule!? The audio is another detriment, with droning static for the crowd and a repetitive "charge" fanfare. Pete Rose Baseball had a chance to be the definitive baseball game for the Atari 7800, but it failed to get the basics right.
Bad News Baseball
Publisher: Tecmo (1989)
Bad News Baseball features one of the more memorable intros I've seen in a sports game. As a camera rises slowly from the bottom of a light pole, the blue sky gives way to a stadium and field that slowly comes into view from below. It looks pretty amazing! In terms of gameplay, Bad News Baseball adopts the same style as so many other NES baseball titles, with simple controls, whimsical graphics, and a looping musical theme that really gets on your nerves after a while.
The fictional players (with names like Roger and Kelly) look like kids on the pitcher/batter screen, but appear short and squat when the whole field is displayed. Close-minded gamers might be uncomfortable with the fact that the umpires are bunny rabbits, but I'm perfectly fine with it. The pitches come across the plate very fast (110 MPH!) so you need to be ready to swing early!
The stadium is deep in the gaps and your fielders are slow, so getting a good "jump" on fly balls is critical. When the ball sails out of the stadium you're greeted by a sea of smiling faces. Don't hesitate to perform substitutions later in the game, because the players definitely suffer from fatigue.
Although its basic gameplay is unremarkable, Bad News Baseball spices up the action with brief "zoom-ins" of close plays. And after a homerun, the hitter will high-five all of his teammates. Hey, what the hell is Mr. T doing at the end of that line!? Comical animations include players that slam their bats in disgust, or pass out on the field upon being thrown out.
The background music is very well composed for the most part, but that irritating whistling part costs the game any chance of an A grade. What really stands out about Bad News Baseball is its excellent playability. The controls are so natural that I never had to consult the manual, and there's just the right number of foul balls. Heck, you can play an entire game in about 15 minutes. It's not the most realistic baseball title for the NES, but Bad News Baseball is hard to beat in terms of pure entertainment value.
Publisher: Sega (1992)
It was groundbreaking for its time, and in terms of fun, no other baseball game for the Genesis can touch SportsTalk Baseball. Boasting arcade-style graphics, smooth action, and intuitive controls, this is ideal for the casual player looking for a quick game. The pitching and batting controls are as simple as pressing a button. When fielding, you can dive for grounders, leap for line drives, and even snatch homeruns from the top of the wall! Runners can lead off and steal, but don't forget to hit that slide button as you approach second base!
Despite featuring major league players Sega inexplicably did not obtain the MLB rights. Having the teams referred to by their city isn't an issue, but those homemade logos look cheesy as all hell! I suppose that explains why the guy on the box is wearing a generic green helmet. Three fictional stadiums are available: White-Sky Dome, Blue-Moon Stadium, and Red-Sun Stadium. SportsTalk's gameplay is solid all around, but its true claim to fame is its live commentary.
This feature was amazing in 1992, and it's still quite entertaining today. The commentator (who looks like Larry King) keeps up with the action fairly well, and it's quite amusing when he lags behind. Since his voice doesn't affect the action on the field, you can just continue playing as he rambles on about the last play. For a good laugh, have a fielder tag an occupied base several times in succession, causing the commentator to exclaim "Safe! Safe! He's safe. Safe! He's safe. Safe!"
Playing head-to-head is great, but the single-player mode is respectable as well, with aggressive CPU-controlled opponents that even try to steal bases. SportsTalk lets you play a whole season via the battery backup, but its menu interface is woefully slow and clunky. One bizarre "feature" is the game's "domination" rule, which abruptly ends the contest when one team goes up by ten runs. What the heck is that all about? Another issue is the lack of an instant replay. Oh well, this is a 1992 game, so I guess you can't ask for too much. But if you're looking for pure fun, SportsTalk Baseball is definitely the way to go.
Baseball Stars Professional 2
System: Neo Geo
Publisher: SNK (1992)
I loved the first Baseball Stars Professional, and BSP2 really ups the ante. It's very similar to the first game, but the graphics have been given a major overhaul. In fact, the visuals are so flashy that sometimes I think they might have gone a bit overboard. The game bombards your senses by flashing so many windows and graphics that you can never digest it all.
The main screen features animated close-ups of both the pitcher and batter, and while these look terrific, the same faces repeat with annoying frequency. There are numerous cool graphical details like batters that break their bats, submariner pitchers, and rolling balls that kick up dust. After a home run, the entire team (including the mascot) greets the player at home plate. There are a substantial number of cut scenes and close-ups, especially during diving catches and close plays, which add drama and excitement. Unfortunately, the umpires tend to make bad calls, often contradicting what you see on the field.
The gameplay itself really hasn't changed much. It's easier to position your fielders laterally, but harder to tell how far the ball was hit. New "power-up" options add a bit more strategy, allowing you to increase your batter's strength a limited number of times per game. The single player tournament mode lets you save your place between innings, which is a welcome feature. I enjoy Baseball Stars Professional 2 immensely. It's probably the most spectacular baseball game I've ever played.
Tony LaRussa Baseball
Publisher: Electronic Arts (1993)
Tony LaRussa Baseball was an abomination in 1993, and it still is today. Sure the menus have options and stats out the wazoo, but the gameplay is hideously slow and unbelievably choppy! I remember buying this at the local mall when it first came out and being giddy with excitement. The game comes in a heavy, thick box, and I thought for sure this would unseat SportsTalk Baseball as the best Genesis baseball game ever. But upon playing my first game, my enthusiasm soon turned to disgust!
I recoiled in horror at the sight of the very first pitch. The pitcher's windup looks okay, but the ball "blinks" about four times on the way to the catcher. At that point, only one thing was going through my mind: get back to the mall immediately and get your [expletive] money back! The fielding and running are inexcusably choppy, and during many plays it's hard to tell what the heck is going on. Tony LaRussa Baseball is a comedy of errors. The control is poor, the announcer sounds like he's choking on a hot dog, and the crowd seems oblivious to what's going on.
There are numerous annoying pauses that occur for no reason in particular and slow the action to a crawl. Runners don't automatically run on base hits, and outfielders routinely throw out runners going to first base. The fields look good, but the stadiums all look the same. This is the only game I've ever seen where the pitcher spits on the mound, and it looks positively disgusting. EA had made some great football, basketball and hockey games in the early 90's. What happened with baseball?
World Series Baseball
Publisher: Sega (1994)
World Series Baseball set the high-water mark for realism in a baseball game, but in the process Sega sacrificed the arcade sensibility that made Sportstalk Baseball so popular. Unlike most baseball games of its time, World Series features all of the MLB players, teams, and stadiums. Playing modes include exhibition, batting practice, home run derby, and a battery backed-up season. The graphics are realistic but somewhat drab and indistinct. The stadiums are faithful to their real-life counterparts, including the scoreboards. The players all look pretty much the same.
An innovative new "catcher's view" provides the hitter with a wide-open view of the strike zone, with the batter standing just off the edge of the screen. Unfortunately, the emphasis on realism takes its toll on the gameplay. The action isn't nearly as fast or smooth as SportsTalk, and there are too many lulls in the action. Two button presses are required to throw a pitch, and the batter must "aim" using a circular target. You're constantly waiting for the pitcher to get the ball back, and for some odd reason the scoreboard is displayed before every batter.
Unless you're a purist who thrives on the finer points of the game, World Series can be downright tedious. Throws tend to be inordinately high arcing, turning the most routine grounders into close plays at first base. The height of the baseball is represented by a huge shadow, which looks pretty cheesy. I still recall my friend Bobby commenting, "Look at the size of that shadow", causing me to second-guess my $60 investment.
Fortunately, the game excels in its attention to detail. The SportsTalk announcer is back and he has a lot more to say. The scoreboard displays humorous animated cartoons in addition to the box score. Other neat little touches include fielders who toss the ball towards the mound after the third out. You can even hear vendors shouting "get 'yer hot dogs" in the stands. World Series Baseball certainly covered its bases in terms of getting the details right, but it took a step back in terms of gameplay.
Ken Griffey Major League Baseball
System: Super Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo (1994)
This game gave the SNES a legitimately baseball title - finally! This is a polished, arcade-style game featuring all of the major league teams and stadiums. Unfortunately, it does not contain any of the major league players - except Ken Griffey of course. In theory you could modify and save the rosters to reflect the real players, but this would be a lot of tedious work.
The graphics look crisp and colorful, although the players look cartoonish with their exaggerated physiques. The scrolling and animation is smooth, and the detailed stadiums look terrific. I remember my friend Eric and I playing this game on a display at Toys R Us and being extremely impressed that the outfield wall at Wrigley Field was actually covered with ivy!
Ken Griffey's controls are simple and responsive, and this has to be one of the fastest baseball games I've ever played. It's really too bad there's no instant replay feature. It may come up a bit short on realism but Ken Griffey Major League Baseball is undeniably fun and entertaining.
RBI Baseball '95
System: Sega 32X
Publisher: Time Warner (1995)
It's easy to get the impression RBI Baseball '95 is undercooked when the title screen can only muster enough voice synthesis to utter "RBI". It may be raw, but RBI Baseball is extremely playable, adopting some of the best features from other 16-bit era baseball titles. You get large, digitized batters like World Series Baseball 95 (Genesis, 1995) along with the robotic Larry King commentator voice of SportsTalk Baseball (Genesis, 1992). The pacing is brisk, with controls so intuitive you won't even need to consult the manual.
The default auto-fielding gives you a head-start on fly balls, but you can turn it off if you prefer more offense. The pitching gives you total control of the ball in flight, and as a batter you can check your swing. The players look fairly realistic in the field despite some jittery animation. Pleasant, understated music plays throughout the action - a relic of a bygone era. The main problem with RBI 95 are the little glitches and oversights, some of which border on comical.
The commentator will exclaim "down the left field line!" as the ball bounces off the right field dugout. The faceless pitchers appear to have sacks over their heads, and some have the complexion of pea soup! Pressing upward during a pitch makes the ball take off like a rocket! The picture-in-picture cut-scenes look bizarre, with actors apparently filmed against a black screen. The AI is erratic, with routine ground balls turning into infield singles when CPU fielders fail to charge the ball.
The games end abruptly without even showing a box score. The graphics are realistic but the colors are oversaturated. There's a slew of modes to choose from including a full season mode, home run derby, gamebreaker challenges, and even a "stadium tour". Perusing the various ballparks sounds like fun until you discover just how blocky and inaccurate they are. RBI Baseball '95 has that rushed, let's-get-this-out-before-the-32X-flops vibe, but if you're looking for some lightweight baseball fun this is surprisingly enjoyable.
World Series Baseball 98
Publisher: Sega (1997)
With World Series Baseball 98 (WSB98), Sega finally fulfills the promise of the Saturn system. The game is now rendered using genuine 3D polygons which remarkably do not compromise the fast, fluid gameplay that's distinguished the franchise. The player models may look chunkier than their Playstation counterparts, but the animation is superb.
The new 3D visuals allow for TV-style camera angles including players stepping up to the plate and dramatic collisions at home plate. Pitchers and batters possess the same mannerisms as their real-life counterparts, so baseball enthusiasts will recognize their favorites easily. The pitching and batting system has been overhauled and is much more sophisticated.
The pitcher can precisely aim the ball, and the batter moves a target to direct his swing. A useful and unobtrusive "guess the location" feature gives the batter an advantage if he can anticipate the correct quadrant of the pitch. These new mechanics add depth but never impede the brisk pacing of the game.
The weakest aspect of WSB98 is its audio. There's a new umpire voice, but he's just as annoying as the last guy, and you still can't shut him up! The commentator is less irritating but still dumb ("The ball goes hiiiiigh in the air!") Inexplicably, there's still no instant replay feature. But these gripes can't prevent World Series Baseball 98 from being a showcase sports title for the system, and one of the finest baseball games I've ever played.
Publisher: Virgin (1997)
This obscure baseball title turned out better than I expected. Grand Slam is baseball without all the boring parts. The intro features an announcer yelling stuff like "alrighty then" so you know this is going to be a little bit zany. Grand Slam has a Major League Baseball Players Association license but not the MLB. That means you get all the players but teams are only identified by cities and strange logos. It looks odd how in player photos the symbols were removed from their hats. I wonder how long it took some guy to do that?
The game itself offers two pitcher-batter views. When batting you get a behind-the-batter view and when pitching you are behind-the-pitcher. Both work great. The players have a digitized appearance and seem to assume their real-life stances. The batting feels different than most baseball games. Instead of swinging ahead of the pitch, you need to hold back until the ball floats in. It's easy to hit once you get the timing down.
The pitching controls are solid. You get a list of pitches to choose from and an inset window lets you view the catcher's signal. After choosing a pitch a two-press golf-style meter is used to throw. It's both quick and challenging. Once a ball is put in play the fielders chase down fly balls pretty much automatically. The commentator says goofy stuff like "Line drive! You could have hung your spring laundry on that one!" It's fun to whip the ball between the bases.
Unlike real baseball, the players exhibit a sense of urgency, quickly scurrying back to the dugout after being called out. The only person not in a hurry is the announcer who tends to drag out each batter's name. "Now batting... Rooooobertooooo Alllllomar!" I guess they wanted to get their money's worth from that player association license. The semi-digitized stadiums are good approximations although they could be sharper. The pixelated crowds look awful. Overall I enjoyed playing Grand Slam. It's all the excitement of baseball but without the major time investment.
Ken Griffey Jr.'s Slugfest
System: Nintendo 64
Publisher: Nintendo (1999)
While its basic gameplay is almost identical to its predecessor (Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr.), Slugfest provides a serious upgrade in one key area - the graphics. The first thing I noticed was the game's slick new menu system loaded with a lot of new options. On the field the graphical improvement is amazing. Not only are the players much higher in resolution, but they also appear more "shadowy", adding subtle realism.
Apparently the crowd had to be sacrificed to facilitate the visual upgrade, because they now look like blurry wallpaper. But while the player models are better defined, their bodies still sport the same odd, top-heavy proportions. Slugfest's audio features a two-man commentator team, but while they sound professional enough, they sometimes go several minutes without saying anything at all. The best new feature is the "classic" mode, which does away with the tedious cursors in favor of simple, old-fashioned controls. It works wonderfully, and it's refreshing to just push the "swing" button instead of having to guess a pitch location each time.
While Slugfest's developers were busy adding new features, I really wish they had included an instant replay system. After all, it's the 90's for Pete's sake!! While far from perfect, if I could only have one Nintendo 64 baseball game, Slugfest would probably be my choice. It has the slick graphics, simple controls, and non-stop action I look for in a baseball game.
World Series Baseball 2K2
Publisher: Sega (2001)
Last year Sega got caught with their pants down, inexplicably releasing an incomplete baseball game with no fielder control. This year I figured they'd come back strong with a robust, polished game with bells and whistles out the wazoo, but it didn't take me long to start picking this game apart. For an arcade-style baseball game, World Series 2K2 doesn't have any glaring flaws, but it does have a huge number of glitches and minor problems.
First, the ball moves too quickly off the bat, making it difficult to flag down grounders or stretch a hit into a double, and outfielders can throw out runners they would never have caught in real life. Players sometimes forget to reach for balls or tag runners, and if they're running away towards the fence, they'll catch the ball with their backs! I actually saw a ball that bounced on the ground ruled a fly out!
Pitchers field too many hits, and every play at the plate is a head-on collision. The single man commentary is incredibly boring, never adds anything to the gameplay, and often lags behind the action. Sometimes he's just plain wrong, like the time he said we were at the "halfway point of the game" - in the ninth inning! And there's absolutely no drama for home runs.
Graphically, the player bodies are modeled well, but their faces don't resemble their real-life counterparts at all. The crowd looks like cardboard cutouts, and the dugouts are completely empty. I think this game came out of the oven a little early. But despite all of these problems, a funny thing happened to me: I couldn't stop playing this game!
I was won over by the easy-to-play, fast paced arcade action. The animation is smooth, and the stadiums look great. Thanks to the simple controls and user-friendly menu interface, I found this game strangely addicting despite its numerous flaws. In fact, I prefer this over any of the PS2 baseball games out there. And what other baseball game offers online play?
MVP Baseball 2005
System: Playstation 2
Publisher: Electronic Arts (2005)
Considering the sport sucks, there are some very impressive baseball games out this year. Despite a host of worthy competitors, MVP Baseball 2005 reigns as the most realistic and polished baseball game of 2005. The pitcher/batter screen uses the best pitching meter I've seen, a simple and precise two-press mechanism (similar to those in golf games). The players are so detailed that you can see their faces, which look amazing.
The player animation is equally impressive; the fielders move fluidly and react to any situation in a natural manner. During one notable play, I was chasing a fly ball down the foul line. Although I was a bit off-line, my fielder gracefully adjusted and snagged the ball with an impressive backhanded catch.
But my favorite aspect of MVP Baseball is the ingenious "throw meter"; a single-press meter that lets you set the power of the throw. One you get used to it, you'll love it. The right joystick is used to jump and dive, and it works like a charm. In general, MVP's controls are outstanding, although the CPU sometimes inexplicably selects the wrong outfielder. The base runners react automatically (and intelligently) and balls are fouled with realistic frequency. Pitchers can intentionally hit a batter, and the batter can even charge the mound! Alas - the ensuing fight is not shown, so what's the point??
Nifty bells and whistles include a plethora of "customization" sliders which fine-tune every aspect of fielding, batting, and running. You can even enable "blown calls" by the umpire! There's no "fast play" option, but if you turn off the cut scenes, the game progresses at a reasonable clip. MVP also includes a collection of mini games that are definitely worth checking out. While I initially wrote them off, I would soon come to realize that these diversions are arguably more addictive than the normal game.
If MVP has a weakness, it lies in the presentation. Some of the city skylines look dead wrong (Baltimore for example) and the commentary doesn't sound as professional as MLB 2K5. The two-man team is enthusiastic enough, but they tend to mispronounce names, which is annoying. Still, if you're looking for a compelling baseball game with realism and tight control, MVP Baseball is tough to beat.
Major League Baseball 2K10
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Sports (2010)
There are two heavy-hitting baseball games out this year: Major League Baseball 2K10 (Xbox 360) and MLB 10: The Show (Playstation 3). The Show is clearly the flashier pick, but 2K10 arguably offers a deeper experience with more long-term replay value.
It's important to note that 2K10 is not a pick-up-and-play, arcade-style title. It takes a game or two to grasp the pitching mechanics due to its "gesture-based" system, which involves making a series of well-timed moves with the right stick. Throwing a fastball isn't so hard, but sliders and curveballs are more complicated. There's a learning curve but it's worth the effort.
You swing the bat by pushing up on the right stick, and you have the option of pulling back first for a little extra power. Unfortunately, due to the 360 controller design it's very easy to accidentally hit Start (pausing the game) when trying to swing or throw a fastball. My friend also had a problem issuing intentional walks by accidentally pressing in the right thumbstick.
The fielding is the most rewarding aspect of 2K10. Gunning the ball with that awesome throw meter is satisfying, and turning a double play is pure joy. Baserunning is somewhat confusing because there are multiple ways to control your runners. For impatient players like myself, MLB 2K10 provides a "hurry up" mode - something I wish real baseball would adopt! The more I played this game, the more I liked it.
2K10's biggest flaw is the horrendous camera angles shown during homeruns. Sometimes you don't even see the ball clear the fence! I also dislike how fielders will make no-look, over-the-shoulder catches. 2K's menu interface is counter-intuitive (as usual), and the Pepsi "clutch player of the game" award usually goes to some schmuck who went 0-4 with a pair of strikeouts. When a foul ball enters the stands, fans tend to flop around like fish out of water, and that looks funny. I don't know why there are so many people in the stands at Camden Yards, but I'm assuming they're all Red Sox fans.
Major League Baseball 2K10 isn't as polished as The Show, but the gameplay is more intense and the rich control scheme gives you more to chew on. You really can't go wrong with either game. NOTE: Unfortunately I discovered a pretty hideous bug in the game after posting this review. In one particular contest there were several situations when my baserunner was clearly thrown out at home plate, yet ruled safe! An obvious glitch like this is worth a letter grade.
MLB 15 The Show
System: Playstation 4
Publisher: Sony (2015)
When I first played MLB 15 The Show I couldn't figure out how to quit the Royals/Giants game that had automatically started. Eventually I noticed a very tiny "installing" message in the upper corner. Not only did this game take forever to install, I had to change my "share" settings to prevent constant "gameplay recording paused" messages.
Once I actually could play the game I warmed up to it in a hurry. The players, stadiums, and fans look phenomenal. Using the replay feature I was able to zoom in close enough to see hair on player's arms and wrinkles on their faces. The only thing they can't seem to get right are the eyes, which look like marbles rolling around.
On the field the action is fluid and seamless, but it's the little details that make all the difference. Runners hustle down the line to beat out throws. Pitchers react in disbelief to walks and batters argue strikeouts. Infielders apply shifts for power hitters and fans reach over railings to snag foul balls. Players high-five each other in the dugout after a homerun and sometimes even gather around home plate! The slick television-style presentation shows scenes of batters warming up on deck and split-screen views of the pitching matchup.
The Show is easy to pick up and play. The pitching gauge looks tricky but is very forgiving. You can swing with a press of a button, but it's hard to generate much offense. In fact, it seems like most of the runs come via the home run. The new "prepopulated pitch count" feature lets each batter begin with a random count like 2-1 or 3-2. It sounds like the dumbest thing ever but becomes habit-forming because it speeds up the game so much.
The two-man commentary flows nicely but tends to fall behind fast-developing plays. During one game two runners who had already scored become "stuck" while heading back to the dugout, and when the inning was over I discovered those runs didn't even count! Despite the occasional glitch I like how MLB 15 The Show strikes a balance between arcade and realism. The game also conveys the aura of being at a real ballpark, and you can't ask for much more than that.