Sunday, July 19, 2015

Video Game Slush Pile: Baseball Simulator 1.000

It's summer here in the Northern Hemisphere and that means oppressive cancer-causing solar radiation, urban rioting and the great sport of baseball. We used to call it our National Pastime and while it's been displaced from that lofty slot by internet pornography it's still a mildly entertaining way to while away hour after hour. It's all the fun of inhaling over-priced warm beer and enjoying "action," that despite attempts to modernize it with needle supplements and horrible human beings, would still not be out of place in 1890. Naturally, this sport that captivated 19th Century rural America is a perfect fit for the old murder simulator box and there's been attempts to bring USA Muscle Cricket to the world of video game right from the very beginning.

The NES era saw the release of some of the better attempts to translate the old ball game into something that's actually, you know, fun. Today's subject is a good example, incorporating an arcade sensibility and cartoony "Ultra Plays" into the mix. Somewhat unexpected for a game with a title that sounds like one of those old statistical simulator card games that have, thankfully, died.

At first glance this 1990 release looks like just another basic effort to bring the thrills of "Here's the two-two wait, he didn't throw it. Holds the ball...holds the ball...scratches self..." into your home. You get some generic teams and players, such as "New York" and their star player "Cal" who I'm sure you're all familiar with. The gameplay calls to mind RBI Baseball, accessible and generally solid, even if the pitchers tire at an alarming rate. Do you really think Rocket Roger would be sweating and heaving after three innings? It's called "The Gas" for a reason, you know.

"Earl" takes the pain with a quiet dignity.
Of course it wouldn't really be baseball if everyone wasn't cheating like crazy and this game really takes it to the next level with "Ultra Plays." Available only in the Ultra League these trick pitches, hits and fielding moves turn the game on its head. Batters hit balls that cause earthquakes or explode, pitches throw fireballs and lead shot-puts and the fielders can retaliate with amazing slides and jumps when they're not being blown to bits or impaled by "missile hits." Fortunately this horrible bloodbath gets the Wiley E. Coyote treatment and the players quickly recover from what should be fatal injuries. Yeah, the ball exploded in your glove destroying everything in a ten foot radius. Rub some dirt on it, you're fine.

Before "flax seed oil" was building big arms you had to get creative to break the rules.

Despite these arcade elements the game still is, at its heart, a simulator. You can play an entire season with any of the three leagues or make your own team. You can "edit" one of the existing teams in what amounts to a "create a team" mode. And, yes, you can simulate games. I'd really be derelict in my reviewing duties if I didn't mention that. During the season you can watch the computer play itself or choose what the manual describes as a "high speed" simulation. Pick that and beep boop music plays while you look at a box score that isn't filled in at all. Wait a few moments and nothing changes. I honestly thought the game was broken. It turns out you have to wait several minutes for the score to slowly reveal itself. And I do mean slowly. I remember sitting across the room, listening to eight bit "music," reading a book and occasionally glancing up to see if the game was over yet. Yes, I knew how to live well.

 Atlantic or Northern, we've got both.

I'd be equally remiss not to mention that yes, there was a sequel released for the SNES. Somehow it managed to ruin a lot of the fast-moving and light-hearted fun. Maybe "ruin" is too strong a word, the game was still decent, but it was pretty clear they were out of good ideas and just trying to coast on marginally better graphics while sacrificing depth and gameplay. Huh, that sounds oddly familiar. The major improvement was the simming now actually was fast, so no more reading Stephen King's "It" cover to cover while waiting for a 30 game, 6 team season to finish, so there's that. Does that make up for garbage like the "Leaf Ball," the loss of many fun animations and bats that can break multiple times on the same pitch? Maybe a little.

 What will the commissioner do about players immolating themselves to get an edge?

Graphics: Overall, not bad. There's some funny reactions and everything else looks fine. Check out the different stadiums, too. You get exciting choices like "Dirt" and "Grass." Sickly green or sickly brown or some combination of the two, we've got you covered.

Controls: Pick up and play, very easy to get into. Pitchers have a lot of control over the ball's movement in the air and can throw fastballs, change-ups and the always dangerous "middle speed" pitch. Batters can swing or bunt. Fielders automatically move into position, making that nice and painless. 

Depth: Plenty. You can customize up to six teams and then play them against each other in a league. The game tracks all the basic stats, sorry, no sabermetrics. The season length can range from full down to just five games and the glacial simulation screen must be doing a good job of making sure everything is realistically modeled.

Overall: This one's worth a second look.

Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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