Welcome back. Or for many of you, welcome aboard. For the uninitiated, a while back I had been working on a series documenting the up and down history of baseball video gaming.
Then, life happened…and by that I mean, the Mets became a circus on wheels, steroid scandals tainted home run records, and baseball became so gossip-ridden that the Bats and Bytes series had to park itself on an interminable back burner.
But, all is right with the world again, so let’s get to it.
After a long, hard stretch where baseball video gaming had left me cold, an Xbox 360 purchase re-lit my digital fire. If nothing else good came from watching MLB 2K7 play itself for an entire weekend, it made me realize just how far things had come in the realm of sports gaming.
In 1991, the Sega Genesis ruled the world. Sure, trillions of kids still swore by the antics of Mario, Luigi, and the myriad clones they spawned, but as the average video gaming age shifted higher, so did expectations. The Genesis was the system to have if you were a teenager, or even young adult, who was raised on gaming. It had more mature games, better graphics, and most importantly to this demographic, a distinct lack of “kiddy-ness” about it. Even the system’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, as cute as he was, was still much cooler to…ahem…play with…than a chubby plumber. And being that the Genesis had a nearly three-year head start on Nintendo in the 16-bit gaming wars, there was no reason to believe the old Japanese standby would ever catch up.
But Nintendo didn’t get where they were by sitting idly, playing pachinko. Despite the Genesis’ early dominance in the new system wars, Nintendo still owned the lion’s share of the gaming dollar with its aging but reliable Nintendo Entertainment System. Still, by 1991, they realized that a shot in the arm was needed, so they finally released the long delayed Super Nintendo to the gaming public. It was a monster hit, and a technological leap ahead of the Genesis. The Mario fanboys (and -girls) had a whole new slew of software at their disposal. In a matter of months, the Genesis’ lead dwindled to a near dead heat.
Still, as popular as the SNES was, it was clearly aimed for a younger demographic (unsurprising, as Nintendo continues this trend today). Whereas the Genesis seemed to offer more simulation-based sports games, the SNES library largely consisted of candy-colored kid titles, with little, if any violence, and even less realism. The baseball offerings on the machine reflected this standard as well, leaving serious sports gamers to stick with their Sega consoles, or graduate to the very different world of PC gaming. Fans were outraged, as the SNES’ superior technology would have surely made for some interesting digital baseball, yet most of the hardball “simulations” to come out on the system had that patented, gimmicky “Nintendo touch” - a touch that was not welcome in most college dorms.
Exhibit A is 1994’s Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, a tour de force of style over substance. Fans oohed and aahed over the title screen (”Look, Daddy, he even seems fragile in my game!”) but no one had seen anything quite like it on a console, so from day one, this cartridge moved like burgers through Kruk. It’s too bad baseball fans — and most other players as well — were disappointed once the eye candy wore off.
Griffey brought nothing new to the table, employing established but dull mechanics and controls. The sharp but cartoonish graphics demonstrated all the standard game perspectives — pitcher/batter, infield and long fly — but field dimensions were badly skewed, eliminating any chance of realism. Speaking of which, because the cover boy was still a threat back in ‘94, every other at bat by Junior led to a slow trot around the bases. But fans were happy to see Griffey’s boyish mug, because he’s the only MLB player licensed to be in the game. The rest of the teams were filled with similarly-named dopplegangers, though none were anywhere near as good as Ken himself.
I miss the 90s.
Nintendo went back to the SNES baseball well for the 1996 Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run, but the less said about that slab, the better. Seriously, it was bad. In a smart decision, Nintendo abandoned plans for any future Griffey sims…at least until the N64 arrived a few years later, but that’s another column for another time.
At the same time Nintendo appeared ready to concede the video sports battle to Sega, stalwart EA Sports was about to throw its hat into the SNES ring. Though EA had firmly planted itself into the gaming subconscious through its stellar Madden, FIFA and NHL titles, baseball remained a mystery. The company had created a moderately successful sim in the Tony LaRussa series for the Genesis, but the game was (at the time) too involved for console gamers to get their heads around. With the SNES’ arrival, EA saw the opportunity to tone down LaRussa’s sim aspects, while still remaining more realistic than other games on the market. A tough balance, for sure, but one that was successfully achieved in the fledgling MLBPA Baseball.
First, let’s discuss the name. These days, it is unfathomable for a sports game to have anything less than full licensure for teams, images and names, but back in 1994, it was common for a game to obtain only one (or even none) of these licenses, especially when it seemed every company was trying to create their own version of Madden. There was simply too many bad games being made, tarnishing good licenses. Therefore, the leagues and players’ associations made it much more difficult to get real teams and/or players on to silicon.
Thankfully, EA Sports made it safe for professional sports to dip their toes back into virtual waters. MLBPA is clunky by today’s standards, but at the time, it was the only game that bypassed gimmickry and flash in favor of more realistic gameplay. Though fans were weaned on 20-19 homer-fests, MLBPA kept the scoring to a minimum, and the stats as close to real life as the SNES would allow. The game allowed the player to do a single game (with the default teams being Philly at Toronto…sigh), full season, using the scheduled 1994 season calendar, league playoff, and The [World] Series. Additionally, games could be played on either natural or artificial grass (which all looked alike, but I digress) as well as choose between day and night games.
Hell, the game even added scoreboard animations whenever the home team pulled off something special. Okay, I guess maybe EA added some flash.
Regardless, though MLBPA was far from perfect, SNES sports gamers finally had a hardball sim to crow about. Sequels and Genesis ports followed, but for a change, the original SNES version of the game was the one to own. Which is good, because rival developers ignored the relative success of MLBPA and continued to churn out faceless rehashes and cheap, license-free baseball for Nintendo’s baby. Much like the steaming pile I’m about to mention…Oh, how we had hopes for this one.
Today, ESPN-style presentation is commonplace in our living rooms, but in 1994-95, the idea of having a sports ticker and a virtual Berman on our SNES was like digital crack for the masses. We wanted it, and wanted it bad. Though, by now, the Sega boys had Sportstalk, better versions of most sports games, and the cooler console, the SNES languished in comparative mediocrity. There was a dim light that followed MLBPA, and it came in the form of ESPN Baseball Tonight.
When the game booted up, it looked great. Holding the MLB license, Tonight sported real teams (with the requisite fake players) and a handful of decent looking stadiums. A static image of Berman welcomed you to the game, and presented a series of options that seemed to represent real baseball.
Players had the option to choose between arcade-style and realistic action, but neither of these options mattered, as the gameplay was stiff, unintuitive, and most disappointing, extremely boring. Apparently, the makers of this game decided that in order to be “realistic”, the game had to be nigh-impossible to play. The graphics were excellent when not moving, but emanated a weird flash whenever the ball was hit, causing seizures the world around. If the guy in the cubicle next to you twitches and talks to himself, chances are he once owned ESPN Baseball Tonight.
They made a Genesis version of this turd, as well. But Sega owners didn’t really care. They had much better baseball to play, and less shaking to deal with. Meanwhile, Nintendo loyalists got games such as…
Tecmo, which at the time had created one good game in the company’s second-rate existence (that would be Tecmo Bowl for the newbies) decided to create a “super” baseball game all of its own — Super Tecmo Baseball.
I won’t waste your bandwidth with another diatribe about stiff animations. Just trust me - the game looks like a ripoff; sounds like a ripoff; and plays like Joe Torre manages…poorly. Tecmo managed to take every overused baseball gaming convention in history, shove it in to some plastic, crap on it, then sell it for 40 bucks. Genesis games from three years prior looked and performed more admirably then this supposed “super” update. As expected, it sold like good meth, and was sold back to the stores even quicker. Next…Lord, make it stop.
For Tecmo to make a bad baseball game was understandable, even expected. For Jaleco to take one of the greatest baseball games of all time and drag it through moist farmland was another thing altogether. It was a crime of the first order, and one that managed to inevitably kill the once-proud, but sputtering Bases Loaded series.
Not one aspect of the original Bases Loaded, save for the pitcher/batter interface, made it in to this game. Balanced teams? Gone. Good graphics? Nope. Creative gameplay? Not a drop. The innovators became the imitators, and the only ones who suffered were guys like me, who hoped that Jaleco would drag SNES baseball gaming out of the doldrums.
Sporting no licenses, real players, or any real technological progress, Super Bases Loaded was nothing more than a glossed-up, NES-quality remake. The season mode was completely broken, forcing players to check off every game they wanted to play on a schedule. By the time someone was done setting up a season, he no longer wanted to play. Should that person have soldiered on to actually play a game, he was treated to a mishmash of poor controls, stiff animations and infrequent enjoyment. Certain teams were given god-like power, while others barely caught a single fly ball. Additionally, and most disappointingly, the sound was barely improved over the rudimentary static from five years earlier.
Of all the SNES baseball games that I bought, and subsequently tossed, none was more of a letdown than Super Bases Loaded. Come to think of it, I think people jumped off Jaleco’s ship before this landfill fodder even came out. And, for that matter, I think most sports gamers were already Sega converts at this point, so it was relatively moot. But, no one gave Jaleco the memo, so SNES fans were also graced with two useless sequels.When I started this series, I knew I would dread covering the SNES era of baseball video games. I just didn’t know how many bad memories this would evoke. Which is why my scathing reviews of games featuring Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, or any other pitcher from Texas, will not be posted here. Nor will the SNES’ robot baseball game, monster baseball game, or Sammy Sosa’s slammin’ softball sim get any of my digital ink. I also certainly had no plans on covering the dung you see on the left… Enough is enough, already.
Thanks to strong titles like Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and a slew of other fantasy-driven games, the Super Nintendo enjoyed a long, healthy lifespan. But aside from a decent EA Sports MLBPA title, baseball games can not be credited for any of the system’s success. Which is a shame, because the SNES was the stronger machine. But game companies knew its target audience, and focused the sports energy on the rightful champ of the 16-bit era, the Sega Genesis.
Of course, a whole new world of baseball gaming goodness was given to me, the day I traded in both my SNES and Genesis, for a shiny, new Sony Playstation.But that’s going to have to wait until next time. Thanks for reading.