HOWARD MEGDAL: There’s this great quote from Mary McGrory, the tremendous columnist who passed away a few years ago: “I’ve always felt a little sorry for people who didn’t work for newspapers.”
This captures exactly how I feel about anyone who hasn’t played the game Baseball Stars, created by SNK for the Nintendo back in 1989. The game broke ground in so many ways as to make it not only the finest baseball game by far to that time, but has made those that followed it merely imitators.
Just to try and set the scene for Baseball Stars in 1989, the two pacesetters in baseball for Nintendo until Baseball Stars were RBI Baseball and Major League Baseball. In the former, the players looked like mushrooms afield. You could move sideways, or down, but not both at the same time. Pitchers tired quickly, the rosters were limited and immovable, you could create no players, take control of no roster, play in no league.
Major League Baseball was all of that, plus random inside-the-park home runs were a standard glitch in the game.
Along came Baseball Stars. There were ready-made teams, including an American and Japanese all-star squad. You had the option of creating your own teams- six of them! You could create players, trade them, NAME THEM. The players looked like players, moved like players. Your pitcher could have different pitching specialties, with a range of quality breaking pitches left or right, even down.
You could create leagues, you could play for money which would improve your individual players, you could allocate that money toward players with a strong peak or those with high potential value! You could even add female players, a step forward we haven’t even yet seen at the major league level. Baseball Stars was 50-75 years ahead of its time!
In the game itself, pitchers tired like pitchers. Outfielders looked like outfielders, and could climb walls realistically! You had to time a home run steal. You had to time a steal as well, and your success depended on your speed and the arm of the catcher, which was itself carefully calibrated. It got the dimensions of a stadium right, not only the correct ratios but the correct feel. Hitting a home run didn’t feel random- you had to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat.
And those games mentioned above, or since, with last season’s stats? Please. With Baseball Stars, you had the opportunity, with just a few hours of work (and trust me, that time would fly by), to create up-to-the-minute stats for the rosters. You got to work on each team, game by game, improving players based upon real-time scouting, as you added to the money pot. You gleefully could watch as David Cone developed the ability to throw a half-dozen pitches, or look upon the creation of Greg Maddux respectfully as he developed pinpoint control. Baseball Stars was everything to all people.
As for the increased realism that has come since; I’ll take a pass. One of the most enjoyable parts of Baseball Stars is it got the game of baseball right in a way few games have since. As for the realism, it allowed freedom there- your players and teams could be as real as you wanted them to be. And if you wanted Ryan Thompson to play like Willie Mays, and Butch Huskey to hit like Harmon Killebrew, that was okay, too.
Do not believe for a moment that the winners in this economy are the people still working. No, the real winners in this economic downturn are all the people currently unemployed, who still own either a Nintendo with a functioning Baseball Stars, or more likely, an emulator. Let the word go forth on the 20th anniversary of the greatest game ever made: the American Dreams are not a good job, education and health care. They are the enemy you should vanquish on Baseball Stars- if you have time, do it tonight.
CHRIS NEEDHAM: Oh, sure, Howard. “Back in my day, the games were games and the men were men.” Yeah, we’ve heard it all before, Gramps. Sure, Baseball Stars is a fun game, but there was a time that the Slinkee was considered a real toy, too.
Baseball videogaming peaked in the late ’90s with Sierra’s Front Page Sports: Baseball Pro. Why do dorks like us like baseball so much? It’s the numbers. Yeah, you could spend hours customizing your Butch Huskey into a finely tuned hitting machine, but I want my games to have realistic numbers… and that means I need realistic games, and realistic seasons. And where Baseball Pro took a step it further, for the first time, it meant realistic careers.
Oh the freshman memories of sitting in my friend’s room, annoying the crap out of his roommate, as we stayed up all night figuring out whether to draft Andruw Jones or Willie Greene as the hot prospect for the coming dynasty we both planned to build.
Players were rated on a range of categories, from 1-100. And players developed as the seasons wore on. The 19-year old Andruw Jones wasn’t much then, but after a few seasons of simming — you could play him in your minors! (where’s that in Baseball Stars?) — he’d be every bit the superstar he was in real life. (Of course, Willie Greene would develop, too, but that the computer saw every prospect through Peter Gammons’s rosy glasses shouldn’t be held against it.)
The game let you be the GM in all aspects: trades, waivers, signings, etc. You controlled the entire organization, as the game lurched along, day by day and week by week.
But it wasn’t just all behind-the-scenes goodness. If your thumbs started itching, you could plunge into the game and actually play. The graphics might not look like much, but it was 3D! When you hit that line drive down the line, the replay showed the Green Monster looming in the background and the ball rattling around the corner.
You could even customize the angles of the replay. A particular favorite was ball-cam, putting the camera right where the ball was, so you could get a first-hand view of how far you ripped that high drive into the stands.
It’s that level of customization which made me fall in love with the game. You could change anything and everything — create new leagues, add new teams, throw in or take out the Wild Card. If you could dream it up, the computer would figure out how to do it.
That even extended to the gameplay physics itself. There was a data file that came with the game (pb.ini) that allowed you to customize the physics engine. Wanted to play baseball on the moon? Lower gravity. Want to up the average fastball velocity? Go for it. Want to give your groundskeepers a week off? Increase the friction coefficient and send out the groundballers.
Combine all that with the online support the game offered — you could actually play in online leagues with fellow baseball dorks! — and you’ve got a game anyone could love.
I’ve still got a copy of the game on my bookshelf. And as much as I want to play it, it’s obsolete now. It doesn’t work with either XP or Vista, so (for me) it’s lost to the ages. But if you’ve got a copy of Windows 98 on an ancient PC, the game is now freeware. Give it a go, and if you don’t like it, Howard will be happy to send you his old NES and copy of Baseball Stars.