Sunday, May 13, 2007

Videogame Classics - World Series Baseball '98

While we're at it, I thought to myself I should conjure a couple words on Sega's World Series Baseball '98, which was basically the excuse I gave myself for getting another Saturn. Again, for all the Sega faithful, it's all old news - you already know the score. For everyone else, here's just why I think this was the best baseball game ever made.

I know, I know, I should actually spend time with the latest round of console baseball games before spouting off childish "best ever" hype. For all I know, World Series '98 has been passed up and lapped a dozen times over. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Developers had more than enough time to figure things out by the time Dreamcast died, and still nobody bothered to learn a damned thing.

Like most of the Saturn games you'll play in the 21st Century, you're going to have to make your piece with the squarish polygon look to everything. Hey, it had some charm back in '97. It actually looked nice. And let's be fair, most of the games from the 32-bit generation haven't aged too well. You just have to sort of let it go, which is fine since the gameplay is really the thing that matters anyway.

More specifically, World Series '98 comes down to that one element that seems so difficult to recreate in a videogame - the batter/pitcher duel. You'd think this would be the main focus of research, since the fielding aspect of video baseball hasn't changed a drop in 20 years. You could have never played a baseball title since the original RBI Baseball on your old Nintendo, and still not miss anything. So you'd expect the batter/pitcher duel to be exciting in most baseball games. Wrong.

I think this is why most baseball games have bored me to tears. It's just simple target practice, a mere formality on the path to....what, exactly? That's only 90% of the game of baseball.

It took Sega's development team, whoever was responsible for the World Series Baseball series in the first place, three tries on Saturn before finally getting it right. And they succeeded by completely ignoring the tired cliches and recreating the quiet tension of the game.

Here's how batting and pitching works. For the batter, your strike zone is broken up into four quadrants. One option is to focus your attention on one quadrant, by hitting the X, Y, A, or B button. You're betting on where the next pitch will fly. If you guess correctly, you have a clear, unavoidable shot at the ball. If you guess wrong, you can still move your cursor, but it's almost a lost cause. You're scrambling to hit a ball which is almost certain to end badly.

Option number two is to wait for the pitch and aim with your circular cursor. More old-fashioned, yes, but here's the catch - the hits won't be nearly as possible. You could get a base hit, or throw it into the outfield, but you're not going to score that homer. The cursor is larger than if you use the quadrants, so that helps to balance things out.

From the pitcher's perspective, it's a mix of old and new. You have different pitches, depending on the pitcher's skillset, all the usual fastballs and curves and sliders and changeups. After choosing, you can aim a bit during the windup, but that's only the initial aim, and you can't move the ball once it's in the air. So, no RBI wiggling.

The great thing with this is that, while there's a small circle showing your aim for all the world to see, the batter won't know which pitch you threw. The batter cursor won't light up unless it's locked on, and this is where all those curves and changeups kick in. They all go in different directions.

Som after a couple pitches, you can see just how far this little ballet can go. It's a great dance of tension, of patience, and of trying to psyche the other player out. Swinging at every pitch is suicide. Make the pitcher throw pitches. Make him throw to you on your terms. Or, on the other side, keep that sucker behind the plate gasping for air.

In practice, this becomes a true duel, a battle of wills unlike anything ever seen before in videogame baseball. Whoever cooked this one up deserves a medal. Throw in a league full of actual players, with the apropriate stats to match - and all kept in that perfectly arcade-style symbolism that Sega does so well - and, well, as far as we're concerned, this is the first real video baseball game ever made.

The Saturn has the reputation among classic and hardcore gamers as the Console That Got Royally Screwed. That's not really true; that honor goes to the Dreamcast. The Sega suits did enough damage on their own to seal Saturn's fate, and nothing really was ever going to stop Sony's Playstation from dominating. It just wasn't gonna happen. But Saturn's cream of the crop - now, that where the real action is, the real creative breakthroughs. There's probably ten games on that console that can wipe the floor with the best of today, but, of course, hardly anybody ever knew it. About damned time someone in this business learned, especially anyone making sports games not named EA.

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