It may be a bit odd to include two games from the same franchise that are so close to each other, but Backyard Baseball is a franchise that is certainly deserving of two entries. This feels like one of those childhood experiences we’ve all had, as I’ve yet to find a sports fan who hasn’t played at least one of the Backyard Sports games. This was something that my dad and I grew up playing together, and a game that I still go back to on occasion for the nostalgia of it all. The first game was the flagship to what ended up becoming a massively successful brand for Humongous Entertainment, and the second game brought MLB into the mix with both real players and the official teams. You can’t go wrong with either entry.
Backyard Baseball (1997)
Gameplay: I gotta say, considering this game came out 22 years ago and is limited to just the point-an-click of the mouse, the gameplay is surprisingly strong. Baseball is a game of options, whether you want to go for an extra base, throw it to the cutoff man, or try to goad the runner into advancing by throwing it to your right fielder and then gunning it into second base to get the foolish CPU runner out, you have all the options at your disposal. It is really easy to pick up and play, making it very accessible, which was clearly the No. 1 goal of this game. In fact, before the game I played, color commentator Vinnie the Gooch made an inspiring speech about how those of us at home should ask our parents about joining a baseball league at our local park.
This game knew exactly who it was aimed at and made gameplay that that target audience would find fun. And I can attest to that, given the many many hours I spent playing this as a child. One negative mark is how slow the action is once the ball is in play. The kids run agonizingly slow when the ball is in play, so I essentially only hit home runs or singles. Even the kids who were supposed to be the fast ones on my team seemed like they had cinder blocks for feet. I don’t remember this being an issue when I played this game regularly, so perhaps it was something that was fixed in later iterations, but it definitely hampered my experience playing the game today.
Replayability: This category is where this game shines for me. There’s nothing more exciting than a draft, and every game mode of Backyard Baseball begins with drafting the nine players for your team, and you have so many choices! You have 30 unique kids to choose from, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. There’s the legendary Pablo Sanchez, who’s good at everything, but there’s also interesting players like Kenny Kawaguchi, the pitching guru, or Mikey Thomas, the hardest-hitting slugger who also can’t run worth a damn. There’s secret boosts as well, like Amir Khan getting all of his stats boosted when he’s on a team with his older brother, Achmed; siblings Angela and Tony Delvecchio getting boosts when they play against each other; or Maria Luna becoming a superstar when you pick pink as the primary color for her team. The combinations are endless and have even led to countless debates as to who’s best at what position. I’ve always thought Pablo Sanchez was best as a shortstop, but my dad always swore by him in center field. There’s no right way to build a team in this game, and there’s no wrong way either.
While I’m on the topic of all the kids in the game, I have to commend Backyard Baseball for the incredibly diverse cast of players. There’s exactly 15 boys and 15 girls, and every great roster I’ve ever built has a good mix of both. There are kids of a wide variety of ethnicities, with different voices, different personalities, and even some with physical handicaps, showing that everyone is equally welcome when it comes to playing baseball. This is an amazing lesson to teach kids who are not just learning the sport of baseball, but also learning for the first time how to be a member of a team and socialize with their peers. The fact that Backyard Baseball went out of its way to make sure this message was delivered is wonderful, and good on them.
Graphics: For the most part, the graphics are pretty good. I mean, the game was made in 1997, so the fact that it doesn’t look horrible is a feat in and of itself. It’s at its best when you’re at bat or pitching, once the ball is in play the graphics definitely take a dive. The menu screens aren’t anything fantastic either, but they get the information across and are easy enough to understand and navigate. It’s a simple game with a simple, bright look, and it works perfectly for what it needs to be.
Sound: You won’t find a better broadcast duo in any of the games in our tournament than play-by-play analyst Sunny Day and color commentator Vinnie the Gooch. Sunny keeps it professional, gracefully describing the game and never stealing the spotlight from the Gooch. And why would she when he drops such money lines like, “The Gooch likes that, yeah give me some more of that,” and “I don’t know what kind of pitch that was, but it tasted just like chicken!” He gives great pitching analysis, describing strikes with a simple “that was in there like swimwear,” and letting us all know “that heater was a show-me for the breaker coming next. I’ll bet you a soda.” But nothing tops his home run call, my personal favorite line of his, “Aloha means goodbye, baby.” The Gooch just brings the heat, and the proof is in the fact that I wrote all those quotes from memory. For those of you who have played Backyard Baseball extensively, I’m 100% positive you heard those lines in his iconic voice.
Outside of the commentators, the game has some really great sound production. All of the special power-ups have their own unique sound, like the “Screaming Line Drive” literally screaming as it zips off the bat, or the “Crazy Ball” pitch laughing hysterically as it dances around before dropping for a strike. The sound of the bat hitting the ball belongs in r/oddlysatisfying, and they even have multiple versions of that sound to tell the player how well the ball was hit. The menu music is simple but enjoyable, and the voice actors for the kids bring a lot of life to each player. For most of the kids, you could have them read completely nonsensical lines, and you still know what their personality is solely on the way they speak. It’s a lot of fun to hear them speak before they come to the plate or after they strike out a hitter.
Miscellaneous: There’s not much really outside of the core gameplay here. There is a batting practice mode, but you won’t spend much time playing it when you could be playing games instead. This game is what it is.
Backyard Baseball 2001
Gameplay: Given that it’s an early-2000s PC game for kids, and specifically that it’s by children’s edutainment powerhouse Humongous Entertainment, the controls for Backyard Baseball 2001 are understandably simple. Essentially everything is done with a single click of the mouse, from fielding ground balls to swinging at pitches. Batting is essentially just a game of timing, as the location of each pitch is displayed to you before it’s thrown. The presence of some funky pitches with ridiculous movement (corkscrew, zig-zag, etc.) means hitting is occasionally slightly more than just “click at the right moment,” but more often than not things stay pretty simple. Pitching isn’t much more complex, consisting of selecting your pitch and then selecting where you want said pitch to go. Fielding is, you guessed it, clicking on the ball and clicking where you want to throw it. There’s not a ton of depth here, but that’s sort of the point of every Humongous Entertainment game. The only real issue I have with the gameplay is the occasional jankiness of baserunning, which results in more instances of completely accidental baserunning outs that I couldn’t do anything about. Outside of that relatively minor nitpick, everything that’s here is simple, but ace.
Replayability: One of the major draws of this game, and an important factor in its replayability, is the very large cast of 61 characters, 31 of whom are actual (former) MLBers. It’s a ton of fun seeing a rogue’s gallery of late-’90s and early-2000s MLB stars, (and Marty Cordova, if you’re into that kind of thing), and the personality given to each character makes you want to see as many members of the colorful cast as you can. This was the squad I trotted out for most of the games I played, which I built with as many 2020 Hall of Fame eligible players as I could:
1st Row: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Billy Jean Blackwood, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker
2nd Row: Ivan Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Pablo Sanchez, Derek Jeter
Not all the personalities match exactly (I actually like Curt Schilling), but the simple fact that they’re there gives Backyard Baseball 2001 an edge over many other baseball games of the time. The personalities of the fictional kids are what sticks out the most, though, and every single one of them is interesting in their own right. Jorge Garcia is comically stuck up, Dmitri Petrovich is a lovable dork, and Billy Jean Blackwood’s adorable Southern drawl lands her a guaranteed spot on every team I made. The problem, though, at least in my opinion, is that the replayability hinges just a bit too much on said cast. While simple gameplay would generally be a positive in this regard, the fact that you do basically nothing besides click the right spot on the screen at the right time makes the game get a bit repetitive pretty quickly. Additionally, this game is sloooooow. I’m not necessarily talking about game length, I have no issue with playing games that take a long time to complete, but the awesome animations and presentations (more on those later) that make this game what it is work against the replayability and end up making games significantly longer than they need to be. I don’t think that ~30 minutes for a six-inning game is an inherently bad thing, but when it feels like you spent more time watching character animations than actually playing, that makes it hard to justify playing more than a few rounds in a short span.
Graphics: Given that this game came out in 2000, it looks pretty great. Character designs are all distinct and full of charm, and while I don’t know that I could pick out all the MLBers in the cast without knowing them already just by looking at their avatars, they all come close enough, besides Shawn Green and Nomar Garciaparra looking just a tad too similar. Likewise, the game is chock full of great-looking and fun animations for just about every action on the field, from flaming fastballs to screaming line drives that actually scream at you. The fielding interface looks very rough, with character models looking more like early 3D fighting games than the beautiful 2D sprites of the rest of the game, but the fact that you generally spend little time on this screen at once makes it excusable. It knows what it is and doesn’t step too far outside the bounds of what you’d expect from an early-2000s kids PC game.
Sound: Oh man, this is the only aspect of this game I can genuinely say I dislike at times. This game was made primarily for kids, and I remember loving the banter and taunting of the kids on the team when I was a part of the games target demographic. Replaying it now, though, I seriously just want this game to shut up a solid 75% of the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re pitching or hitting, the stream of kids yelling things from the field and dugout is endless, and it gets old by about the end of the first half inning. Add in the fact that there are not that many lines of dialogue, and you’re going to be longing for something less grating by game’s end, like nails on a rusty garbage bin, or “Baby Shark.” The phrase “We want a batter, not a broken ladder” was said no fewer than 29 times over the course of my first game, and it’s probably more than that given I didn’t start counting until the second inning.
Outside those complaints, though, the game’s sound design shines, as was mentioned in the original Backyard Baseball review. The commentary of the games’ announcers is very enjoyable, and I personally think that Sunny Day and Vinnie the Gooch should cast every single MLB game this upcoming season. The Gooch combines all the ridiculousness of Bill Walton’s White Sox game commentary with the fact that he actually knows what a baseball is, and I would pay an exorbitant amount of money for a Gooch soundboard on my phone. The dialogue for the pitchers and batters is also great (Schilling begging for Randy Johnson to go easy on him was a personal favorite of mine), but I didn’t hear any of it after the first game I played, on account of being ready to blow a gasket if I heard “We want a batter, not a broken ladder” one more time. Beyond the commentary, the music is generally very good, particularly the custom walk-up songs for each batter (Ken Griffey Jr.’s is the best and I won’t hear otherwise).
Miscellaneous: This game would be a ton of fun to play against friends, but sadly, the game is single player. It technically has online functionality, but I couldn’t make it work at all, and I get the distinct feeling the online community for Backyard Baseball 2001 isn’t particularly robust, if the servers work at all. It’s not super relevant, but I was pretty awful at this game in my first time playing in over a decade, specifically when it came to batting. That makes it all the more impressive to me that games manage to go on so long, given that I didn’t play a single game where either team scored more than two runs.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)