When people think of sports video games, these are the types of games they think of. Photorealistic graphics (or as good as it gets for the time period anyway), deep rosters, lots of ratings, real stadiums, real teams, and gameplay that does its best to mimic what the real sport is all about. While neither of these franchises is still in production, they represent part of the journey that has led us to games like what MLB: The Show and Out of the Park Baseball have become today. It’s a shame that exclusive licenses became a thing for most sports video games, because I truly wonder how far we could have pushed the envelope if some of these franchises were still able to make baseball games. For now, we’ll just have to enjoy what we were able to get, and what we did get was pretty dang awesome.
MVP Baseball 2005
Gameplay: This is the template that baseball games should be copying for gameplay. The pitching meter was game-changing and the perfect epitome of what gaming should be. Easy to pick up, difficult to master. Hitting only used two buttons—one button to swing and an additional button to bunt—but using the joystick, you could tailor your swing perfectly to the pitch coming in. If the pitch was up and away, you would push the joystick in that direction and punish the pitch. If you picked wrong, though, the game embarrassed you by putting your hitter in a pathetic-looking animation just to show you how wrong you were. Running the bases, sliding in on a close play, and throwing the ball as a fielder were all intuitive and smooth to work with. Also, you were able to select specific baserunners and have them individually advance or retreat, which in my extensive gameplay of other games from the time seems to be unique to this game, as most games only had the option to advance or retreat all runners. The only part of the gameplay that was a little iffy to me was getting to the ball as a fielder. Sometimes you’d hit the joystick to dive, and your player would dive…but in the wrong direction. Or you’d just miss the hitbox for the ball and rather than the fielder bending down to at least stop the ball, they’d run right past it as if it wasn’t there. Outside of that, though (and that only ever happened maybe twice a game), the gameplay is flawless. This game came out in 2005, but it still has some of the best gameplay for any baseball title on the market right now.
Replayability: For the most part, this game actually just has average replayability. It does have unlockables, including classic stadiums, throwback uniforms, and a few dozen legend players to play with. There is a franchise mode, with deep rosters (the first time a baseball video game included the Single-A minor league level), and it does do all the basics well, like trading and signing free agents. If there’s a chance for this game to shine, though, it’s in the Owner Mode, where you get to build a franchise from the ground up, including a stadium that you have to build from 20,000 seats and no features, to a monument of a ballpark, complete with fireworks after home runs and restaurants lining the outfield sections. You decide when to have promotional nights, what concession stands to bring in, and how much to sell your team jerseys for. While this mode did bring a lot to the table, it did feel a bit half-baked, as you are limited to becoming the owner of one of the current 30 MLB teams, and the ability to customize the stadium is unfortunately pretty rigid.
Graphics: This is the most lacking part of this game. The players don’t really look all that different, other than their body types. The only difference between Randy Johnson and Barry Zito is that one is much taller than the other. They do a good job of having all the different batting stances and pitching styles, but you can’t really differentiate between the players. It gets the job done in terms of seeing what is happening on the field clearly, seeing the pitches come to the plate well, and the menus are clean and simple. Stadiums look pretty true to life, though, and that includes outdated stadiums like the old Polo Grounds and Crosley Field. Also, there was a “Cooperstown Effect” when you played in old ballparks or with old legends, which would go on to inspire the creators of Instagram to put filters on their platform. So while there are definitely some things that the game gets right graphically, the player models and crowds are still lacking.
Sound: At least once a year, this game comes up on Reddit somewhere, and every single time, one of the top comments is about the soundtrack to this game. EA Sports knocked this one out of the parking lot, because this has to be one of the best soundtracks in all of sports gaming. There’s absolute bangers, like “Tessie” by The Dropkick Murphys and “Pressure Point” by The Zutons, and there’s the smooth music that keeps the good vibes rolling, like Trail of Dead’s “Let It Dive.” The commentary duo of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow are solid, but they do get repetitive at times. It’s pretty obvious where the game gets its commentary cues from, and you can hear the same exact piece of commentary a half dozen times by the end of one game. They are at least entertaining voices to listen to, so even though you might be tired of hearing “BIG BOY” for the 20th time in one game, it’s still pretty funny.
Miscellaneous: This game has a few neat features that are worth mentioning. It comes with two mini-games that are actually incredibly fun to play. There’s a hitting mini-game where you try to hit balls to all sides of the field, avoiding vortexes and trying to hit parked cars, ramps, and the lawnmowers that are always running. The pitching mini game is where it’s at, though, with a Candy Crush style setup, attempting to hit specific blocks of the strike zone with specific pitches to earn points. The timer is always counting down, and you’ve got to beat the clock, making it a very fun and stress-filled game. MVP Baseball ’05 also has a scenario-maker, so you can try specific situations out. I remember recreating the Dave Roberts steal against Mariano Rivera the first time I played this mode, and have tried countless other random scenarios since.
Yesterday, I said MLB Slugfest 20-04 had the sickest intro. That is still true, but damn if this intro by MVP Baseball 2005 isn’t banging.
High Heat 2003
Gameplay: This game plays like a pretty par-for-the-course early-2000s baseball game, with enough depth that you can feel the difference between this and say, Backyard Baseball. Batting boils down to timing the press of a button, though you’re able to aim where you want the ball to go, as well as being able to guess what pitch the pitcher is going to throw before the pitch, which gives you a small bonus to making contact and power. Pitching isn’t all that much more complicated, letting you choose what pitch you want to throw with the face buttons, and then letting you decide whether you want to throw a strike or a ball, as well as where in the zone the pitch should be with the directional pad. Bonus points, though, for having surprising depth of options for changing the alignment of your infield and outfield, and even where on the mound your pitcher stands. Baserunning is almost exclusively two buttons, one to advance and one to go back, though you can technically also stop in your tracks, a feature I used exactly once, to test that it worked. Fielding is just moving the directional pad where you want to go, with buttons to let you dive or jump. I do want to laud the game’s wealth of options when you have the ball, though, letting you make actions like cutoff throws, running down a baserunner or running to a specific base easily with the press of just one or two buttons. Everything here is fine, I never had any issues with mechanics not working as they were intended to, and it works perfectly serviceably for what it is.
Replayability: Sadly, I can’t fully cover the replayability of this game, because for whatever reason, selecting the Season Mode makes my PlayStation 2 freeze up, every single time. Based on the instruction manual there’s a pretty wide selection of options you can tinker around with as well, from season length to DH rules to custom rosters. These are all pretty standard features now, but for 2002, that’s pretty impressive (I think, I wouldn’t really know, I was still in diapers). For what I was able to play of the other game modes, there’s not a whole lot here. Two-on-Two Showdown is essentially glorified batting practice, where each player selects one pitcher and one hitter from a team and go head-to-head in a Home Run Derby-type competition, though you still get points for singles and doubles. This mode is fun for a bit but gets old after a while if you don’t have someone to actively talk trash with. It doesn’t help that the not particularly advanced batting engine makes making contact remarkably easy, and without cranking the game up to Hall of Fame difficulty, it’s almost more difficult to lose this game mode against a computer than to win. There’s also a dedicated Home Run Derby mode, but it’s mostly just a worse version of two-on-two. You can create your own player for use in the different game modes, so that’s pretty cool, but I would imagine the novelty of creating you and your friends and putting them on baseball rosters would get old before too long, especially given the limited customization options.
Graphics: This looks fine, for its time. It’s not totally fair to knock the game for having what were probably pretty good-looking graphics for the time, but similar to the aforementioned MVP Baseball 2005, player models don’t vary that much beyond just height. The user interface is clean and not cluttered at the least, and stadiums look pretty close to their real counterparts.
Sound: While nothing here is terrible, there’s nothing about the sound design of this game that stands out. There’s no banging licensed soundtrack to rock out to here, and that stands out a lot on the menu screens, especially coming off the heels of playing The Bigs 2, with its awesome rock music. Instead, you get a very generic sounding fast-paced song that sounds more like something from a Goldeneye 007 mission than a baseball game. Announcers Dave O’Brien and Chuck Valenches do a competent job, sounding genuinely interested, though the list of quips they have to say is pretty limited and recycles quickly.
Miscellaneous: I might have had a bit more to say here had I been able to actually play the Season Mode, but alas, I was not. Interestingly, the main company behind the series, The 3DO Company, would go bankrupt just a year after this game came out, shortly after the release of High Heat 2004. From what I was able to dig up about the game series as a whole, it generally garnered favorable reviews as one of the most realistic baseball games of its era, though the series’ sales did not reflect its critical acclaim at all.
-Negative Nate Watt
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)