I’m not a sports guy. Truth be told, I never really have been, though I did have some relative interest in sports as a kid. I was sort of into football, I was sort of into basketball, and I had a passing interest in a couple other sports. The sport I was most interested in, like many other red-blooded American youth, was Baseball. Yes, America’s pastime was my preferred sport, in part because of the strategy, and in part because that’s what my dad was into. My team was the Kansas City Royals, in part because of their proximity to where we lived, and my favorite player was the pine tar king himself, George Brett. Needless to say, as a chubby nerd of a kid, I played exactly one summer of little league and played poorly enough that I didn’t feel like playing a 2nd year. Once the player strike happened, I quit collecting baseball cards and pretty much lost all interest in the sport. I guess I had no sympathy for guys who made more money in a month than my dad made all year, and them whining about not getting paid enough.
So while I haven’t followed the sport in well over 20 years, I still understand the basics, and have played and enjoyed a handful of baseball games over the years. The classic RBI Baseball on the NES was a hoot, and I had a little fun with Bottom of the 9th, an arcade classic that had semi-realistic (at the time) graphics and physics. I even had some fun with Baseball on the Atari 2600, until the joystick stopped working. But I never purchased a baseball game for any home console, because I’d rather go throw the ball around outside than play the game inside. My first official baseball game purchase ever is Baseball for the Game Boy, a launch title.
As baseball games go, this is pretty bare bones. There are only 2 teams in the game, The W-Bears and the R-Eagles, and you choose which team you want to be based upon whether you want to hit or pitch first. You can also choose between “USA Mode” or “Japan Mode”, but as far as I can tell, the only difference between the 2 modes is the names of the players, which are all generic, save for Mario and Luigi. The brothers don’t appear to look like their more famous plumbing counterparts, however, as the player sprites are all quite generic. The game mechanics are extremely simple as well. If you’re looking for a deep sports game experience, this isn’t it.
Graphically, it’s a pretty simple setup. The view is the same, whether you’re pitching or hitting, which is a view from behind home plate, as if you were the umpire. When the ball is hit, the view switches to a more overhead perspective, and zooms out quite a bit so you can see more of the field and the players. As expected, the player sprites are simplistic and have very little animation to them. The graphics don’t have to be fancy, given the need to see the field lines, bases, and players, so one wouldn’t have to expect them to be anything more than what they are. The animations are also a bit goofy at times. While the pitching and batting animations are solid, and look quite good, the running animation is strange, especially when the pitcher runs to the mound at the beginning of each change-over. The screen animation following a hit is also very jerky, and can be a tad distracting.
Sound design is very basic as well. The little tune that plays at the beginning of the game, as well as the one between rounds, will get stuck in your head, because they’re catchy. The song that plays during the game loops forever, and it’s the only long-form track in the whole game, so if you don’t choose to turn the music off (thankfully, that’s an option), you’re a better person than I am. Sound effects are all appropriate for the game, and only the “pop fly” sound began to grate on me after a while. At this point in the Game Boy’s life, Nintendo wasn’t experimenting too much with the sound hardware, and it shows here, because nearly all the sounds are pretty standard high-pitched “boops and beeps”, much like what you would hear in early NES titles, before creative developers like Sunsoft started to push the envelope.
Gameplay is quite simple, mostly intuitive, but actually quite difficult. When batting, you can move your player around in the batting box, and hit the A button to swing the bat. Similarly, when pitching, you can move the pitcher left or right on the mound, press A to take a stance, then A again to throw the pitch. Holding down on the D-pad makes the ball go faster, holding up makes it go slower, and pressing left or right will make the ball curve in that direction. Fielding is semi-automatic. When a ball is hit, your fielders will run in the general direction the ball is travelling. If it’s a pop fly, generally the fielders will run to where they can catch it, assuming it doesn’t move too fast for them to catch up. If it’s a ground ball, often the fielders will scramble and run to the ball to try and intercept it before it goes outfield. If so, you can try and quickly throw the ball to a base to get a runner out. This is where part of the intuitive nature comes in to play. If you’re pitching, you can press Start to call a timeout, then press Start again to bring up the list of pitchers so you can substitute by selecting a pitcher and hitting the A button. You hold the direction on the d-pad to the base you want to throw: right for 1st base, up for 2nd, and left for 3rd, as well as down for home. Then you press the A button to throw in that direction. Similarly, when you’re the hitting team, you use the B button and the corresponding direction to steal a base, or run to one in times when the ball is hit and your on-based players don’t automatically run.
That brings me to one of the game’s somewhat broken mechanics. There’s apparently a trick with stealing bases, documented on GameFAQs, where you can begin to steal a base, as the pitcher is beginning his throw. If you can pull it off, even if your batter hits a foul, or hits a pop fly, you can often steal the next base. However, it doesn’t always work correctly. In conjunction with that, there are times you’ll hit the ball, and the runner on first won’t move, so you’ll have to manually advance him to the next base, only to occasionally be thrown out because you didn’t notice until your batter was halfway to first base. Also, if you attempt to steal a base and you’re in danger of being thrown out, you’re supposed to be able to backtrack to the base you just crossed, but I couldn’t ever get that mechanic to work. On top of that, sometimes when you steal a base, it doesn’t count for some reason, and that runner gets thrown out at their previous base. It doesn’t quite track with the rules of the game, and can be frustrating when you’re trying to exploit the base stealing mechanic. The batting mechanics have been documented as well, but I never found any great consistency in where I was going to hit the ball, based on where I connected with it on the bat. Speaking of connecting, I found the most luck when I moved the batter to the bottom of the batter’s box, versus in the middle or top. Similarly, I struck out batters as much throwing straight pitches as I did trying to throw curve balls and the like, so the game’s AI is severely lacking in that respect.
The game also seems highly unbalanced when it comes to the hitting and fielding. The AI for the semi-automatic fielding seems to work better for the CPU than for you, and because the computer’s team doesn’t have human hands controlling it, when an infielder catches or fields a ball, they can instantly throw it to the corresponding base, and throw our your runner and/or batter. I found that I could never react fast enough to throw them out with any consistency. The computer sometimes seemed to be able to really hit major curve balls and score home runs, and even grand slams, scoring anywhere from 2-4 runs at once. I could never hit with any kind of consistency. Thankfully, the game institutes a Little League styled 10-run rule, so if you’re losing by 10 points, you automatically lose the game, and don’t have to suffer the continued humiliation of being annihilated by the computer. When you lose the game, and you will, your team lines up on the field so the audience can throw objects at you, which only furthers your sense of shame. I played some 20-25 games in total for this review. I lost via the 10-run rule 3 or 4 times, and lasted the 9 innings the rest, but I was never able to win a game – not even close. The game’s somewhat unforgiving AI made it very difficult to get anywhere near enough runs to claim victory.
All in all, it’s an interesting period piece. Baseball was and is America’s past time, and in 1989 when this game was released, the sport was at peak popularity, so even a relatively weak game like this would sell, especially given the more powerful nature of the Game Boy hardware, compared to previous LCD or LED-based handheld baseball games of yore. The game’s simplicity is both a strength and a weakness. There are so few options that you can’t get bogged down in them, you just pick up, play a quick game, and you’re done. But for the more serious fan of the sport, there are no other options other than a single game. No season or campaign mode, no tournaments, nothing to give the game more replay value. The only way to pause the game is to call a timeout, or substitute a pitcher or hitter. If you need to walk away when you’re pitching, you can – there’s no penalty for just standing there on the mound forever. But when you’re batting, you have to sacrifice a timeout if you have to stop for some reason. It adds an unnecessary, real-world element in a game that throws most of those conventions out the window. Still, I had fun with it, despite all of its flaws. There’s a weird sort of draw to the game, because I kept going back to it, hoping I would eventually figure out the batting enough to win a game. I have to believe that subsequent baseball outings on the Game Boy are more full-featured affairs with better AI, so here’s hoping. In the meantime, there are worse ways you can spend $4, but don’t pay much more than that for a loose cart, because you probably won’t spend much time with it. For serious baseball nuts and collectors only.
Originally posted on the official Game Boy Guru blog: