Baseball is a very traditional and elegant sport. There’s a nuance to pitch sequencing, an art to stealing a base, a science to hitting the ball. Everything is a game within a game, and that’s what we all love so much about baseball. And then there’s punching the infielders as they try to tag you out, and skying 20 feet into the air to rob a home run. At least, that’s what these arcade baseball games have taught us. Sometimes, you just gotta throw all that nuance crap out the window, bean a hitter, and then beat him to a pulp when he angrily charges the mound. Just ask Zack Greinke.
MLB Slugfest 20-04
Gameplay: Midway Games knew exactly what kind of game they were making here, as they were building off the successful template that began with NBA Jam and NFL Blitz. Midway was looking to highlight the most fun aspects of their respective sports, between the high-flying dunks of Jam and the megaton hits of Blitz, they tried to bring that same energy to baseball. In terms of being accessible to many and being easy to pick up and play, they mostly succeeded at this. The game features as few buttons as necessary to get the job done, and spells it out for you what you are doing at the plate by telling you which button is for a contact hit and which button is for a power swing.
Throwing the ball as a fielder is as simple as pointing directionally with the joystick toward the base you want to throw to and pressing A, and as always with Midway games, there’s a turbo feature that you can utilize by pressing R, enhancing every aspect of your abilities for a short period of time. You can get on fire by getting consecutive hits or strikeouts, which gives you unlimited turbo, and it wouldn’t be a Midway game if you couldn’t commit unnecessary violence, like punching and kicking on the basepaths, and charging the mound for bone-crunching brawls after being beaned. Which reminds me of what is perhaps this game’s best feature: When you hit a batter, it typically triggers some type of animation that leads to the batter getting either a massive boost or massive decrease in skills. Maybe the batter starts crying and loses a bunch of skill points, maybe he charges the mound, wins, and doubles his abilities. Of course, sometimes he’ll charge the mound, get pummeled, and have to drag himself over to first base looking much worse for wear both graphically and in his stats.
With the simplicity of this game style comes some drawbacks, though. I can’t count the number of runs I’ve given up from the game not registering exactly which base I was trying to throw to, as I tried to gun it home but instead the game registered it as me wanting to throw it to first. The pitching is pretty lackluster, and trying to send runners for extra bases usually ended up in either sending the wrong runner, or too many runners, or some other way of doing literally everything except the one thing you were trying to do. And while the punching and kicking on the basepaths can be quite entertaining, it doesn’t serve much function in the game. Whereas shoving players to the ground in NBA Jam could lead to crucial steals, and pummeling players to the ground is a key part of playing defense in NFL Blitz, it doesn’t do anything in baseball to punch and kick your opponent. Technically you can knock the ball out of a fielder’s hands, but it usually lands right into the hands of a teammate next to him, and you can’t take advantage of the fielder’s mistake. While it’s fun, it’s also just kind of there.
Replayability: There’s a handful of modes to play to keep things interesting, but they all kind of feel the same. Outside of the regular exhibition game, there’s the “Challenge” mode, where you need to win a game against all 30 MLB teams, and the “Season” mode, which is your pretty standard franchise mode with the end goal being a World Series title. However, there’s not much in the way of difficulty here, as you can literally make any trade you want and stack your team as much as you like. The only thing that keeps this game feeling fresh at all is that you can put in cheat codes before each game, so if you get your hands on a list of the cheat codes, you can do fun things like make your whole team look like aliens, or play your game in the underwater Atlantis Stadium.
Graphics: The graphics are actually pretty good for the time period. The player models are somewhat questionable, but that’s normal for all the games that came out at this time. What sets MLB Slugfest apart though is all the extra stuff they pulled off with their graphics. Players who catch fire look pretty intense, from running the bases with shoes that are on fire to throwing fastballs that are literally leaving smoke behind as they come to the plate. In the home run derby, the pitcher and outfielders are little clowns, which adds some “wtf” to a game that is teeming with attitude. Punching and kicking players, including the sliding kick, all look pretty natural, almost as if it’s a normal part of baseball, and watching fielders crawl around on all fours after getting hit in the sensitive spot leaves you feeling the pain right there along with them.
Sound: Throughout this tournament I’ve heard many announcers, but I’ve never heard anything quite like the duo of Tim Kitzrow and Jimmy Shorts. Kitzrow is also the voice of Midway’s other sports games, and he plays the straight man to Shorts’s fool very well. Actually, Kitzrow brings a bit of zaniness to his own commentary, but it’s just the right touch as he never outdoes Shorts. Whether they are arguing over the correct way to play “Rock, Scissors, Paper” or if the batter would be better served by actually swinging at a dang pitch, they are fun to listen to and don’t really get old. The sound effects of the game are pretty spectacular too, whether it’s hearing the batter scream as he gets on fire, or hearing him cry after he gets beaned by the pitcher, there’s plenty of great sounds in this game.
Miscellaneous: This game has the sickest intro of all time. It gets me so hyped. I don’t know what it is about the switching back and forth from game footage to real footage and how they linked it all together, but it just works so well. The music amps it all up another notch too. 12/10, never skipped it.
Also, can we talk about how ridiculous it is that this game added dwarf clowns as the outfielders in the Home Run Derby mode? They didn’t need to add anyone, yet they added dwarf clowns with elite range, a penchant for nonchalantly making amazing catches, and also occasionally taking the fly ball to the sensitive parts. They really went all out here.
The Bigs 2 (2009)
Gameplay: If I had to summarize the gameplay in one word, it would be ridiculous. The control scheme feels pretty standard for a Wii baseball game, swing the ‘mote to hit and aim with the control stick, and pitching by aiming with the control stick, selecting a pitch with the directional pad and pitching by swinging the Wii remote. Fielding and running are both done with the control stick, with the addition of tapping the base you want to throw to in the field. After you get past the controls though, this game is pure madness.
Each batter has an area of the strike zone highlighted when they’re at the plate called “The Wheelhouse”. Batters have a higher success rate on balls hit in the Wheelhouse, but a pitcher gains “Turbo” if they get a strike past the batter in The Wheelhouse, in addition to making the area shrink with each strike thrown. Turbo can be accrued by both pitchers and hitters, and simply enhances your hitting, pitching, running or defense by hitting a button to activate it. Most batters have a very limited area of the strike zone covered, whereas guys like Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer’s Wheelhouses cover most of the entire strike zone. Additionally, players will rank up what’s known as “Big Play Points” throughout a game, by doing things like striking batters out, picking up hits, making great defensive plays, stealing bases and more. When a player reaches 100,000 Big Play Points they can activate a Big Blast (hitters) or Big Heat (pitchers). On top of that, hitters get an additional ability at 125,000 points called Big Blast. A Big Blast is an automatic home run if you make contact, and Big Heat lets the pitcher throw turbo pitches for an entire at bat. Big Slam is completely broken, and is essentially just Big Blast with the added bonus that you get to automatically load the bases beforehand.
The major pitching mechanic outside of the Turbo pitches and Big Heat is that pitchers will lose pitches over time, rather than becoming fatigued like a standard sports game. If you allow too many hits with one particular pitch, or can’t find the strike zone with it, or give up a grand slam with it, you lose the ability to throw that pitch. Defensively, beyond just moving your fielders around with the control stick, you’ll occasionally be given a quicktime event prompt to make an insane defensive play, be that diving an impossible distance to make an out or jumping 20 feet in the air to rob a home run, doing your best impression of that time Gohan played baseball in Dragon Ball Z. This is an arcade-style game through and through, and it makes no effort to hide how over the top and ridiculous it is.
Beyond playing exhibition matches, there are multiple other game modes, but the only one worth playing in my more or less objectively correct opinion is Home Run Pinball. This game stops pretending to be a real baseball game and just lets you wreak havoc in cities including Las Vegas, New York and Tokyo by obliterating surrounding buildings, signs, cars, and even the Times Square Ball by hitting home runs at them. The game slowly ramps up in difficulty as the pitcher adds more pitches to his repertoire, and you get to swing free until you miss too many pitches. Season mode and Become a Legend are also here, but season mode quickly becomes repetitive and is hampered by it’s very limited tracking of stats beyond home runs, and Become a Legend is essentially a less fun version of NBA 2K’s MyCareer, working your way from the Mexican Leagues to the Hall of Fame. This mode would be inoffensive if it weren’t for its’ asinine methods of raising your stats, which happens exclusively through playing mini games and by completing arbitrary tasks in games, such as recording a certain amount of putouts.
Replayability: The ridiculousness of the game is what gives it a lot of its’ replay value, similar to NBA Jam. In my opinion though, if you’re not playing the game with friends, it gets rather old really quickly. I replayed the game with a group of buddies for this review and had a blast, the inevitable trash talk that arises from arcade-style competitive games a perfect fit for The Bigs 2’s trademark flair and attitude. In single player though, you’re pretty much just getting shafted by random chance events that you can’t control, and while getting robbed of a home run by a pal via quicktime event can be somewhat annoying, it’s amplified tenfold when this happens multiple times a game against a computer, who you can’t yell at to take out your frustrations. The season mode is already repetitive as is, and I’m really not sure why you’d even bother doing it more than once. Home Run Pinball’s high scores at least give you some reason to keep playing it, but after a while, you do get tired of just swinging the Wii remote and occasionally hitting A or B.
Graphics: For 2009 on the Wii, I really can’t complain. The players all look relatively on model, and the animations are respectable for the time. The camera can be a bit wonky at times though, zooming in and out a little too quickly at times. My only major gripe with the visuals is the font used for most of the game’s text. It’s so awful, and borderline unreadable if you’re not playing on a huge television. I’m not sure why 2K decided that normal font wasn’t good enough for this game, but having to get right up in front of the television to read tutorials for gameplay mechanics is even more ridiculous than the game itself.
Sound: Eh. Damon Bruce does a solid job as the game’s announcer, but his quippy one-liners start to recycle after a couple games, and I can only hear the phrase “Like finding a needle in a cliche” so many times. Given what an unapologetic jerk Damon Bruce is in real life (Which wouldn’t really come to light until about five years after this game came out), it’s also a bit weird hearing him at all. The music is inoffensive, with a solid tracklist of rock songs from groups like Pantera, Fu Manchu, Disturbed and Korn, and the musical style works well with the gameplay style. The sound effects are also really solid, and the bombastic cracks of the bat when you nail a Big Blast will never, ever get old to me.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)