Nothing says summer quite like the smell of fresh hot dogs and the crack of a baseball bat. Listening to the radio on warm summer nights to hear how my Seattle Mariners are doing (bad…always bad) is one of my favorite things. Falling asleep on a lazy Sunday afternoon with the baseball game on TV is as peaceful as it gets. Needless to say, the national pastime of baseball has a special place in my heart.
Growing up I tried out many baseball video games on the NES. The homerun derby in R.B.I (For the Genesis I believe) baseball was a fun challenge. My brother and I had a PC game that let you become a complete general manager for your team. It was a dream come true for us. The go to game for us though was an NES title from SNK, Baseball Stars. Released in July 1989, Baseball Stars was the first console game with a battery backup to allow for saving. While it seems like such a small and simple addition, it allowed for teams and seasons to be saved. No longer were baseball games a single play, but you could build, create, and become a champion.
As a part of our sports games month, I took Crosstix to the shed and beat him. Yeah Gina! I mean, we played through a few friendlies to see how Baseball Stars holds up after all these years.
For sports games there are two keys to examine. The first is the options and modes. Most games up until at least the SNES era had only two options. Versus the computer or a friend. You would play only one game and then start over. Replay would be found in playing against friends. Playing versus the A.I. would run out of steam in only a few games and realistically just serves as practice to be able to take on friends. The longevity of these sports games was minimal because of their limited options.
This is where Baseball Stars shines. There is the basic vs. mode like previous baseball games had. By using the battery to save, SNK adds a league play. In this setting you can set up how many games are played in the league. Again, I know that seems basic now, but it was revolutionary to even have a league set up. Baseball Stars does not stop there. They add a create team mode where players can custom build their own team. First, you choose the type of team that you would like. Pitching focus? Hitting? Then the game populates a team for you. Then several other modes now become available. You can purchase players that are veterans, rookies, or stars. I always chose the rookies as they would have the highest potential points and simply take time to power up.
Using the meager money you begin with you can adapt your team to your playing style. This is done through purchasing upgrades (stat boosts) for your players. The icing on the cake for this old NES game is that you can even change the names of players. Using all this customization I once created my favorite team, the 1995 Seattle Mariners. I adapted the stats so that Randy Johnson had a wicked slider. Ken Griffey was a great all around player. Edgar Martinez was a consistent hitter but slow as molasses. The colors for the team were even blue and white. Most games at this era did not have professional players in them, yet because of the customization you can create your favorite players and teams from any time period.
The second aspect of sports games is the actual games themselves. How is the batting? Pitching? Fielding? Let’s start with the good news, pitching. The game perspective is from behind home plate. The pitcher stares in from the mound in the center of the screen. The pitcher can slide to different points on the rubber to come at the hitter from the right or left. Once you have your spot then you simply hit A and the pitcher will go into their wind up. Other baseball games use the D-pad to throw a slider, fastball, change and then the animation takes over. Baseball stars makes you adjust the curve, speed up and slow down your pitch in real time. What this does is provides a skill level for more experienced players. Those expertly skilled in this game can actually curve the ball and hit a target point on the bat to induce hitter to hit where they desire. My brother would do this to me constantly, getting foul ball after foul ball until I would swing at a bad pitch.
Hitting has its own nuance. Like normal baseball games you press the button and your hitter swings. The bat though is pixelated into three parts. Hit on each of those parts and different things happen. Get the sweet spot and look out! The nuance is that the hitter can move around the batters box during the pitch and swing. The result is a trick (one I have been trying to verify after all these years) that when going backwards as you hit the ball is more likely to be a fly ball. When moving forward it is more likely to be a grounder. No matter if this mechanic holds true, you can move around to adjust where the ball will hit on your bat, same as the pitcher. The result is a cat and mouse game that can provide a great deal of entertainment.
The other major component is fielding. This is where Baseball Stars drives me nuts, and Crosstix too! Unlike many of the other NES baseball games, Baseball Stars provides a zoomed in view of the field when a ball is put into play. The field and players look better graphically. The trade off though is you do not know who the game has given you in the field to control. Line drive back up the middle? Will you get the shortstop or the 2nd Baseman? Guess wrong and it could be a triple to the wall. The game will even trick you by having a player run to cover the base, so you think you have control of them, only to discover they are locked on to the base while the ball drops inches in front of them. This mechanic is aggravating and drastically impacts the fun.
Fielding is not all bad though. The game adds three awesome mechanics that create web gems. Players are able to dive for the ball when it is close. You can also leap in the air (which shocked Crosstix in our play through). The final move is the most impressive when pulled off. You can climb the wall and take away homers. The curve in mastering fielding and which player you will get is very challenging, but when mastered you can pull of impressive plays.
Baseball Stars is a stand out game. All over the internet are players testifying their love of this game by noting how it never leaves their top loader. It has depth and insane replay value. It has a high skill curve that is difficult to master. The game is not without its faults but if mastered then the game truly shines like the star it is.