Most of us lucky enough to play a game endorsed by our favorite athlete have known the bitter defeat of realizing the game S-U-C-K-S (Here’s looking at you, Sterling Sharpe End 2 End). Just because he’s a miracle to behold on the court, field or ice doesn’t make him capable of providing insight in making a quality video game. Yet in 1994 the British group responsible for the legendary Donkey Kong Country series teamed up with Seattle Mariner superstar Ken Griffey Junior to achieve the seemingly impossible. Ken Griffey Junior Presents Major League Baseball was an instant classic with its lovably cartoony presentation and epically tight controls. In the wake of Presents’ success, Winning Run was released two years later. Was Winning Run, as its title implies, a triumphant sequel to the tune of Diddy’s Kong Quest, or did it have a lot lacking in the vein of Diddy Kong Racing?
While the opening track sets a serious tone as we gaze on our hero’s visage, Winning Run kept many of the fun aspects that made Presents highly imaginative. While the players are no longer mammoths wielding bats like toothpicks, they are still large and will fidget in anticipation. We get a wonderful scape of bleachers and buildings in the background, and the field moves fast under the sailing ball. Everything looks pleasingly Rare-esqe, including the clay-animated umpire making his ‘strike’ and ‘ball’ motion. There’s even a bit of an Easter Egg regarding the umpire; keeping the game idle for long enough, he will turn around and say, “Play the game, kid!”
The tightness of controls found in the Griffey games are legendary, which is good because it’s a central aspect of arcade style games. The intuitive pitching gives the user a bit of control before and after the release, and each tosser is equipped with one of six special pitches. There is a large map to aid the fielders, who can make leaping catches (B) as well as use a super-throw to catch a runner heading home (X). Hitting is incredibly fun as the batter can slide horizontally to find the sweet spot, and even direct a swing high or low by pressing down or up, respectively. Base runners are manipulated by pressing X and A and their destination, making controlling multiple runners a cinch. The only minor negative is that the left trigger, while used to become the closest fielder to the ball, does not always become the most useful.
The conducive hitting and tight controls make exhibition mode plenty of fast-paced fun. 28 real teams are available, although the players themselves are far from. Rare went away from themed names for the teams and simply gave them hilarious monickers. The National League All-Stars, for instance, feature: Tony Tollony, Slick Fitz, Swifty Munoz, Bull Higgins, Pop Risley, Muscles McFee, Denny Rails, Sam Scorcher & Typhoon Kuroi. Many seem to represent a real player, but many do not. Rosters, as well as defensive strategy, can be altered during gameplay. For those interested there is pre-game team summary which includes team history and highlights the team’s best players. An incredibly helpful pre-game feature is the ability to shorten a game to three, five, or seven innings.
The opportunity to take your team on a season-long adventure is available in MLB League mode, or season mode. Players can choose what length of season they wish to play, including Short (26) or Medium (52), but only by playing through a full, 162-game season can you unlock the use of two expansion teams. Throughout the season members of a roster can be traded based on their value index, which rises and falls based on their performance. One aspect of season mode I found intriguing was the ability to have up to seven other users on the same season! It’s difficult to imagine eight amigos playing a full 162-game season, but it sure would be fun to watch the stats pile up.
Those up for a more linear approach can enter Challenge Mode in which one team progresses throughout the MLB from weakest to strongest. This mode is reminiscent of NBA Jam and other legendary competitive arcade scenarios. The two last modes round out the game’s experience. In World Series Mode a team from one league is pitted against a team from the other for a best-of-seven series. All-Star Mode stages the best of the National and American League in a match-up. There is even a Home Run Derby mode where one of eight boppers hit as many popsicles over the fence before getting ten outs.
In short, a Ken Griffey title is simply a must-have for any lover of arcade-style team sports games. Anyone wanting to know what the SNES can offer in the realm of baseball should look to Griffey. With all its features and air-tight controls, there is plenty of reason why these games are still played today. The only knock on its replay value is a low difficulty, but that’s all the more reason to play with a friend. Whether you like the cartoony hyperbole of Presents or the more tight-lipped Winning Run, either one offers a hell of a time.
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