I have a pleasantly nostalgic association with watching Major League Baseball (MLB) in its native environment, the ball park. Those long walks from car to stadium my brothers, dad and I took to save a few bucks on parking was as much a gameday ritual as watching the home team Milwaukee Brewers get obliterated by the opposition. Because these experiences were so captivating, I never had much interest watching professional baseball on television, yet the comfort-of-home factor was precisely the experience its developers hoped to embody in creating ESPN’s Baseball Tonight (EBT). But could a unique simulation engine, the license of a premier sports network and some delicious product placement save this game from anonymity in an over-saturated market of SNES baseball games? That, my friend, is precisely what you are about to find out.
The sounds and visuals certainly leave an impression on the gamer, so let’s begin here. ESPN’s very own “Baseball Tonight” jingle gets a lively revamp as EBT’s opening theme. I mean the bassist is really laying into it. In-game sounds are limited to the crowd’s roar and the voice of ESPN’s color commentator, Dan Patrick. Patrick has something to say after every non-hit pitch, even though “ball” or “strike”is clearly read center screen. His exaltation of a home run is pleasant (as are the Little Caesar’s advertising on the wall) the first several times hearing it, but “nice leather”after every dove-for ball gets stagnant real quick. Another fixture from the popular program, Chris Berman, shows up for a brief pre- and post-game segment.
The color scheme in EBT is bright and expansive. Boosted by the presence of the opening jingle, the real logos on the team selection screen look sharp. On the field the grass is a believable kelly green and the dirt looks freshly tilled. However the players’ uniforms are a drab gray, which wouldn’t be so bad but nearly every team’s helmet is identically blue or red. Your eyes will be distracted by how startlingly fluid the player movements are when pitching and swinging—in fact it’s almost movie-like.
Unfortunately, the players look awkward in all actions other than pitching and hitting. The avatars have a strange way of jittering when shifting from foreground to background, or vice versa. Disparities in depth perception exist, such as the infielder taking about three seconds to run from infield to outfield, a real-life distance of about 300 feet. Diving is also awkward, and for some reason when a runner is called ‘out’, he pulls a Houdini and disappears. What must have felt at the time like a quality presentation unfortunately translated into an disjointed presentation.
When it comes to game modes, there are a couple wrinkles added to the familiar lot. You can play against a human or computer opponent in an exhibition match, or you can go straight to entering a team into the MLB playoffs, but there is no season mode. In absence of a season mode, the playoff mode would have greatly benefited from stat-tracking. That way it could at least feel like a season, and since games like Baseball Simulator 1.00 had stat-tracking on the NES, I don’t see any excuse here. A practice mode exists for you to polish off your batting skills or pitching behind a protective fence. Home Run Derby lets you take a player from any team in the league in an effort to rack up as many home dingers as you can in 20 tries. This is an incredibly challenging task, and it’s much more likely you’ll earn the ranking of “ballerina” than “Hall of Famer.”
Because EBT went with the league license over the MLB Players Association license, you will be able to choose from all 28 MLB teams, including the expansion Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. But on the player’s screen you’ll find only player numbers accompanying statistics, not names. I always find it silly when a sports games lacks the licenses of its players, but EBT is not the only SNES game with this flaw. In a way the player statistics don’t matter, because every hitter is an All-Star in the user’s hand. Just for a challenge, a couple times I began a game with the members of my bullpen in my batting line-up (why they allow this is beyond me) and I still scored over 50 runs. The pitchers are just as ridiculous: it’s way too easy to hit the corner of the strike zone time and again and send the competition to the dugout sulking.
Pitching in EBT is straightforward. Pressing A begins a rather lifelike wind-up, and upon release you have several options: press Down for a fastball, Up for a change-up (slow ball), and Left or Right for a Curveball or Screwball. All pitchers are equipped with this stable of tosses and equally tire as their pitch count increases. It’s very easy to fool the batter into thinking you’re delivering him a hittable pitch, then move the ball to the very corner of the plate at the last moment for an easy strike-out. Even when the computer player makes contact, it’s usually a foul ball or ground-out. While confidence inducing at first, in the absence of challenge, the pitching game offers diminishing returns.
In the rare occasion that a batter puts the ball into play, you’ll have to field it. The directional pad moves one fielder at a time, as designated by the computer. If a pop fly is hit, or if a ball makes it past the infield, a respective outfielder will be highlighted. A gray circle on the grass depicts where the ball will land, so it’s just a matter of matching up your outfielder to it. Pressing B will make your fielder dive, and A plus direction throws the ball to a respective base. Pressing A by itself throws the ball back to the pitcher, which is necessary to conclude each play.
Batting in EBT has a distinction I haven’t seen in other games. Pressing A allows you to swing high, low or straight, depending on whether you also hold Up, Down or nothing. Swinging while pressing Left or Right automatically swings high, which is fine because for some reason hitting a ball high channels the most power. While waiting for a pitch, the batter can glide around the batter’s box, making it easier to hit balls thrown either inside or outside. Still, many a pitch nicks the outside corner of the strike zone and frustratingly feels impossible to hit.
Two last aspects of the controls are worth mentioning: 1) you can slide! And 2) you can lead off! Programmers usually handle the art of sliding by either making it automatic or avoiding it altogether. In EBT, pressing Y when your runner is nearly to the base will cause him to hit the deck. Really, you will reach the base only about .2 seconds quicker, but you will indeed earn style points. Leading off is a fancy, but ultimately useless means of incorporating the oft-neglected top triggers. The catcher will likely throw the ball to first base before you remember to dive back, and just like in an actual baseball game, getting picked off at first base is about the most embarrassing way to be called out there is.
Let me say first that if I put too much importance in a sports game’s artificial intelligence (A.I.), it’s because I’ve seen it done right plenty of times. The first rule for a game’s A.I. is that it must be consistent; secondly, it must make sense; thirdly, it really ought to resemble the game it simulates. The A.I. in EBT is extremely frustrating for any gamer wanting a legitimate challenge—it is consistent but neither sensible nor realistic. The batting and pitching simulation isn’t too poor, but the fielding simulation nearly collapses the house. I should stop here and simply say, “make sure to play this game with a friend, not the computer,” but in the spirit of giving every game in the SNES library a thorough review, allow me to chronicle the frustration of the gamer who has just put the ball into play!
For starters, outfielders controlled by the computer are opposed to hustling for balls that come their way, so taking an extra base is like taking candy from a baby. When a man is on second, you’re likely to get a consecutive hit, thus you can easily progress the hitter to second base by running home with your base runner and easily beating the throw. This is a cycle that proves very easy to rack up runs, and shows a simulation flaw that should never have made it through the game’s testing cycle. The fluidity of the players’ movements make it obvious that developers had the talent to clean this up, but didn’t.
EBT does offer a few wrinkles to its over-saturated sub-genre, but as a whole this game falls short of mediocre. The game indeed has a unique appearance, but your time is much better spent playing NBA Hangtime, a much more successful effort by Russel Shanks and the team at Sony Imagesoft. Where’s a difficulty setting when you need one? The Home Run derby is impossible and the normal gameplay mode is far too easy to be respectable. How a baseball game from the mid-90s can get away without a season mode, I don’t know, then again maybe the programmers realized no one would want to stick out a lengthy season with such an inefficient A.I. engine. Playing this game has allowed me to coin a phrase, which could potentially be proven down the line with more reviews: “If it’s backed by a major sports network, it won’t work.”
Two out of Five Stars