Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Talkin' Baseball (Video Games)

Sega CD Summer isn't just about video games. There's a lot of baseball in there as well. You'll even find video games about baseball referenced in the book!

From Chapter 10, for example:

Newer baseball games had hit the market, but for my brother’s money, it didn’t get any better than Sports Talk Baseball. We had a few games in the RBI Baseball series, Tony La Russa Baseball, Hardball ‘94, and World Series Baseball. While those games had newer players and were, in some cases, officially licensed by Major League Baseball and the MLBPA, Sports Talk Baseball had a roster closest to that of the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati Reds. Most of the key players from that team were on the game, and Craig the Baseball Prodigy couldn’t let it go.

For this entry in the Inspirations Series, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the baseball video games I remember for the Sega Genesis. While there's pretty much one "real" baseball game out there now (the excellent MLB The Show series, which started on the PlayStation and is in now on the Xbox, which is wild), the 8- and 16-bit consoles had multiple video games from different developers and publishers. Some of them were even released in the same year!

Here are a few noteworthy baseball games for Sega's glorious 16-bit console.

Sports Talk Baseball (1992). A solid baseball game, Sports Talk Baseball was officially licensed by the MLBPA and featured real players with, well, let's just call them generic store brand cola teams that were just different enough from the real thing to avoid any lawsuits. The gimmick here was the play-by-play provided by Lon Simmons. It lagged behind the action a bit, especially on bang-bang plays, but the effect was impressive for its time.

I didn't own the game, although I rented it several times. It did feature a roster somewhat close to that of the wire-to-wire 1990 Cincinnati Reds team. Since I grew up in the eastern part of the state close to the Ohio state line, we were Reds fans with fond memories of that team. It's the last time the Reds won a title and they've plunged straight into irrelevancy in the years since. 

As for Sports Talk Baseball, I think it's a pretty solid baseball game.

RBI Baseball '93 (1993). This was a Genesis exclusive from Tengen. The graphics here tended more toward cartoony, although some of the ballparks were nicely detailed, like Oriole Park at Camden Yards (which was then brand-spanking new). Different animations, like the coach giving signs to the batter, played in little windows in the upper right or upper left corners of the screen when there were no baserunners.

The game had some decent-sounding voice samples, although the music was ever-present and could get grating at times. Sometimes the game triggered its own replays on close plays, which was a nice touch. Like Sports Talk Baseball before it, the game lacked an MLB license, although it featured real players and stadiums. I appreciated the home run scoreboard animation, which included the hitter's name along with the home run's distance in feet.

You could also have your pitcher throw an unhittable spitball in a crucial situation. Use it again, however, and the umpire would toss him out of the game, forcing you to pick a new pitcher.

Hardball '94 (1994). For a time, Accolade tried to challenge EA Sports with its own "Accolade Sport" series. The boxes even resembled EA Sports fare a little, what with the white background and all.

Hardball '94 may have been my favorite baseball game for the Genesis. There are a couple reasons for this: you could edit teams and create your own logos. Sure, the logo editor was the epitome of rudimentary, but it got the job done. I sometimes put friends and teammates into the game using the player editor. The game did carry the MLBPA license and had a nice overall feel as a baseball sim.

I have to stress this, however: of all the different baseball games available on the Sega Genesis, the Hardball series was definitely more simulation-heavy than some of the other offerings. If you were looking for a more arcade-like feel--even in a game with some realism--then you probably won't dig it.

There were some nice rotoscoped animations for the time and most of the ballparks looked really, really good. There was no distracting music, just a crowd that reacted to the action on the field and some sharp voice samples from the umpire and the occasional pop of a ballpark organ. The presentation was nice, too, with a behind-the-pitcher camera that gave things a TV-style look. A more traditional behind-the-batter camera was available for batting.

There was also a swanky tune that played when you knocked one out of the park. You could play a full season and track stats via battery backup.

The predecessor to Hardball '94, titled Hardball III, featured very Sports Talk-like play-by-play from Al Michaels, a feature dropped in the subsequent Genesis versions.

Oh, one more thing about Hardball '94: while the game isn't featured in the book, it did inspire Tommy's bet with his father. In real life, my dad told me he'd buy me a Genesis game if I hit .400 during the season. When I accomplished the feat, I chose Hardball '94 as my prize. 

My hard-earned copy of Hardball '94
Poor Dad didn't know what he was getting into and balked at the price! For a guy who didn't really understand "playing videos," it was a real wakeup call. He made good on the deal, though.

World Series Baseball (1994). I thought World Series Baseball looked absolutely amazing. The game featured real MLB teams and players and went for a far more realistic look than some of its predecessors. The batter sprite was absolutely huge for its time, and play-by-play commentary returned in the vein of Sports Talk Baseball (the sound didn't improve much and the commentary still lagged a bit, but it was an admirable effort).

This game really nailed the look and feel of baseball. The ballpark atmosphere was alive and well thanks to a fairly reactive crowd and some fun scoreboard animations. Reviews upon its release were universally positive, and it remains a terrific addition to any sports gamer's library. My version of World Series Baseball is a loose cartridge I bought from Hasting's in Richmond several years ago for a couple bucks.

You could play a full season with stat tracking thanks to a battery backup.

Triple Play Gold Edition (1996). This EA Sports entry lacked the MLB license, but it was a very impressive effort. Basically, EA made incredible sports games for the 16-bit era from about 1991 through 1997. Part of this was because other companies made competing sports games that forced EA to innovate every year and pack new features into games. By the early 2000s, though, EA dominated so much (and ended up scoring the exclusive NFL license) that innovation came at a trickle.

Triple Play Gold was a Genesis-exclusive sequel to Triple Play '96, a good baseball game itself. The game included the usual roster updates and that sort of thing. It had a considerable amount of depth and extensive stat tracking. Like some of the other titles listed here, a battery backup allowed players to save seasons in progress and track statistics over the course of a season. 

In terms of gameplay, something about Triple Play Gold felt slightly choppy to me. I can't quite explain it; I just remember the game didn't feel as smooth as some of the others on this list. Still, it boasts great atmosphere, some nice animations, and the ability to choose between an "aggressive" and "conservative" throw or catch attempt. This was a risk-reward system; aggressive throws sometimes resulted in great plays and other times ended up going off-target for an error. Conservative plays could get the job done but didn't put extra "juice" on throws or allow a fielder to make a spectacular catch.

The game did allow four players to play at the same time, which was certainly a unique feature. Definitely a solid option for the system.