Thursday, January 29, 2015

World Series Baseball 98 (Saturn) - Still the Greatest Nine

Whenever I'm feeling the itch to play Sega Saturn, I always have a short list of "must play" games to play, and World Series Baseball 98 is always near the top of that list. Back in 1997, I was convinced this was the greatest baseball videogame ever created, and in the year 2015, I still hold to that belief. I don't think this sports title has ever been surpassed.

One of Sega's greatest strengths during the 16-bit era was their stellar lineup of sports titles. If you wanted to play sports games, you had to have a Genesis. On Saturn, however, Sega struggled and stumbled for years, as Sony and Electronic Arts dominated the sports arena on the Playstation. It remains a cruel irony that Sega finally regained their mojo just as the Saturn was being phased out in the US; the '98 sports lineup - World Series Baseball 98, NBA Action 98, NHL All-Star Hockey 98, Worldwide Soccer 98 - proved to be their strongest in years. It may have been Sega's best sports year ever.

World Series Baseball 98 looked stunning when it was new, running on Saturn's high resolution mode (Sega's ace in the hole that was criminally underused). Graphics are clean, clear, sharp and detailed. Colors are bold, confident and smooth. In other words, what we've come to expect as the "Sega Look." It's a good preview for what would follow on Dreamcast. All the official ballparks are realsically rendered and in the proper proportion (you'd be surprised how many old baseball games screwed this up), and the polygon players are confident, solid. There's that squarish, slighly chunky look that comes with Sega Saturn, owing to its use of quads instead of triangles; as a visual style, it was widely criticized by software developers, but I personally enjoy it. It gives Sega Saturn's best games a unique charm and adds to the mystique.

All in all, this game looks fantastic on Saturn, one of the system's finest hours, and a far cry from those early roughshod days in 1995, where everything looked ugly. Sega clearly needed two more years added to Saturn's lifespan: one at the start, and one at the end. Fortunately, I think a lot of this momentum carried through to the Dreamcast, where Sega was creatively unstoppable.

Now we come to what really makes World Series Baseball 98 great, why it's still the video game baseball king: the pitcher/batter duel. The pitcher chooses from his aresenal, aims the pitch during the windup, and lets it go. Available pitches are based on the real-life players' skills, making their curveballs, sliders and sinkers very unique (and lose their effectiveness as the pitcher tires). The batter has two methods of attack. He can attempt to follow the pitch with the cursor, where it will "lock on" at the correct destination. Precise swings can result in fly balls, grounders, or curves, depending on where the cursor strikes.

The batter's second option - and this is the masterstroke - are the quadrants. The batter's box is broken into four quadrants, and each player has their unique "hot" and "cold" zones. By selecting a quadrant before the pitch is thrown, the batter will focus their attention on that area. If the ball travels towards that quadrant, the batter will "lock on" the ball, guaranteeing a hit. These are essentially the "power" swings. If the batter guesses wrong, he regains the batting cursor, but with only a fraction of time to attempt a swing.

This is the genius of Sega's design. They've turned the pitcher/batter duel into a strategic series of mind games and shootouts. No longer do you swing at every pitch, or just throw the ball wildly. The pitcher tries to get the batter out of his zone, away from his power swings that could result in home runs. The batter tries to wear the pitcher down, drag out the count, wait for that arm to get tired. A tired arm results in bad pitches. Those lead to "lock on" power swings.

For the pitcher, your strategy is to keep your opponent guessing, try to make him swing at a bad pitch, try to keep away from his strong side. For the batter, the strategy is to know when to use your normal swings (cursor), and when to aim for the power swings (quadrants). Get a hit, get a man on base, then try for a bunt or steal. It's difficult to move around those bases. This game doesn't make things easy. And home runs are, thankfully, uncommon. You can't rely on them to win games.

Traditionally, nearly every baseball game followed a basic formula for pitching and batting: you just press a button. Press a button to throw a pitch (and maybe weave it side-to-side in midair); press a button to swing the bat. Whether it's Home Run on Atari 2600, RBI Baseball on NES, Sports Talk Baseball on Genesis, or Ken Griffey Baseball on Super NES and Nintendo 64, the gameplay remained extremely basic and simple. WSB98 on Saturn smashes that paradigm to pieces. Thank God for Sega and their eternal underdog spirit. Something special about videogames died when they were forced out of the hardware business.

For reasons I have never understood, Sega never used the WSB98 pitcher/batter model again. Nobody did. If anything, modern software developers have only succeeded in making baseball games needlessly complicated, without adding anything to the strategy. Heck, we hardly even have baseball video games anymore. The modern scam of "one developer per sport" is a sick, demented joke. Thank God you can find a Sega Saturn and WSB98 for less than the price of dinner.

I'm serious. Get yourself off the couch, step away from the desk. Find yourself a Sega Saturn, a couple controllers, and copies of Sega's '98 sports lineup. It's the best bargain any videogame sports fan will find.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Pebble Beach Golf Links (T&E Soft, for Sega Saturn)

Pebble Beach Golf Links was one of the early titles from Sega Saturn's notoriously early launch in the summer of 1995. An installment of the popular golf sim series by T&E Soft (which appeared on the PC), this was the very definition of a "launch title." That is, it's a videogame that is servicable, not very impressive, and largely present to satisfy early adopters before the real software titles arrive.

My first impression with this game was at a local Funcoland (remember those?), and was none too impressed. With the imminent arrival of Sony's Playstation taking all the buzz, Sega's early Saturn launch felt like a desperation move, and such wimpy titles were not winning us over. However, first impressions can be deceiving, and once I bought a Saturn myself (because of Panzer Dragoon, which just knocked my socks off), I picked up Pebble Beach, and it grew on me. Within a few weeks, my opinion completely turned around, and I saw this humble sports game as one of Saturn's early triumphs.

Pebble Beach Golf Links is still easily available at retro game stores for very little money, usually under five bucks. I think that's a great bargain, and heartily recommend it to any Sega Saturn owners or classic videogame collectors. It just plays a very solid game of golf, and even if only one 18-hole course is available, it's a very nice course, one of the best. You can't do much better than Pebble Beach.

One of the main selling points to this game is the inclusion of PGA golfer Craig "The Walrus" Stadler, who appears in video clips, narrating each upcoming hole on the course, and even competing against you. Now this is where I really love this game, and not for a reason you'd expect: Stadler is a real jerk.  He's a selfish, condescending know-it-all who knows you'll never play at his level, and we're all just lucky to bask in his greatness. And we all know that Stadler himself will never reach the heights of a Tiger Woods. Especially him. And so Walrus takes it out on us.

Playing against Stadler definitely brings out his bad side. I know the developers wanted to inject some friendly competition, but his snide comments and taunting just become comical. "You're gonna have to practice a lot more," he sneers when you botch that third hole. "Think you can beat that?" he boasts when his tee shot on the seventh lands inches from the hole. I suppose it's meant to inspire me. But I just want to whack him with my club and knock him into the ocean. In that sense, yes, it's very satisfying to beat him.

The graphics in Pebble Beach Golf Links serve as a time capsule of that era, when 3D polygon graphics and CD-ROM technology were new, and software developers had yet to figure it all out. There are digitized graphics and full-motion video clips (which Americans were obsessed with at the time), pre-rendered CGI sequences, and even some rudimentary polygon graphics that never quite held up. I tend to turn off the "ball cam" when playing, and stick with the basic view. Graphics are quite colorful, richly textured, and sprites of your golfer and other objects are very large. Much of the background artwork is pixelated, and this is, again, a snapshot of that era. It would have been nice if T&E Soft had rendered new graphics for the Saturn, instead of a simple PC port. But this is what launch titles are often like. Again, we're only passing time until Virtua Figher 2 drops.

Two of my favorite features in this game: the music, which is laid back, mellow, almost like "elevator music" but without the "please stay on the line" irritation; and the mid-game break, which shows off a series of digitized postcards of the Pebble Beach clubhouse, then allows you to get up and stretch your legs for a "coffee break." It's a very nice touch. This is especially helpful for a long session with your friends.

The only real complaint I ever had with Pebble Beach Golf Links was that judging the power of your swings was difficult to gauge; but that's true of just about every golf videogame ever made. This genre has barely changed at all since US Gold dropped Leaderboard Golf onto the 8-bit home computers 30 years ago. The Nintendo Wii Remote offered some needed innovations, but even then, the core gameplay hasn't budged. This is probably why I remember this title for its little intangibles; the little touches are all you've got. Pebble Beach is the textbook definition of "hidden gem," and Sega Saturn owners should definitely scrounge up the five bucks to add it to their software library.

Monday, January 26, 2015

DTVOL4 and Writing Update

This is just a quick message for my followers on this blog (all three of you). I've been telling myself to write more regularly on this site, but 2014 proved to be rather busy for me as a writer.  I'm going to try to publish more frequently, write more about turntables and music and videogames.

I'm also working towards publishing several manuscripts, all based on my blog writings since 2003. This is something that I've threatened to do many times, but always held back because of my own insecurities. I never felt that I had enough content. Well, nuts to that.  And so I'm working on a couple videogame volumes, one on Nintendo's "Virtual Console," another of critics' rants and raves. I definitely want to write a "Videogame Classics" book, but that requires a lot more work to complete, so it will have to move to the back burner for now. I also want a "kitchen sink" book that combines my essays on music and movies and politics and whatnot.

I always had this idea of stealing the album covers from Black Sabbath's Master of Reality and Vol 4. I just liked the graphic design of those two, and the way they complimented one another with the purples, oranges and blacks. Add in the Virtual Console book (now tentatively titled, "Zen Arcade Vol I"), and we've got the beginnings of a little publishing empire. Add in a book of essays from Ghibli Blog, and we've got the first four volumes.

Anyway, this is just an update for anyone lucky enough to stick around. My thanks to everyone who visits Vol 4 and Ghibli Blog. Now let's all take a break and play videogames!

You're Never Too Old to Play Sega Saturn

I've been pretty busy on the writing front lately, between Discotek Media's Horus, Prince of the Sun DVD and Ghibli Blog. This weekend, I put away the work and spent my time slacking off and playing video games. This becomes a rare luxury when you reach my age; being a grownup is a full-time job.

I dusted off my Sega Saturn, the Japanese model in the eggshell white, and spent most of my time playing through Steep Slope Sliders, Cave's excellent snowboarding game from 1997. The graphics still look wonderful, in that squarish Sega Saturn style; the gameplay is still sublime. I find myself competing endlessly for higher scores on the courses. Another hill over here, another drop over there. I could work in another 720 backflip over the railroad tracks if I time it right...

I can only imagine what today's teenager, with a new Playstation 4 and its earth-shattering technology, would think of this. Could they even stand to look at these old, blocky, chunky, ugly graphics? Could they bear the horror of a controller that doesn't have dual analog sticks and 18 buttons? Do they even have the gameplay skills, after years of sitting quietly, idly watching the millionth Call of Duty movie cut-scene? Who knows? Who cares. If they can't grok greatness, then it's their loss. I feel sorry that they missed out on arcade video games.

It's probably true that, as the old folks say, "you had to be there." Playing Sega Saturn in the Year of Our Lord 2015 is one part nostalgia, one part defiance. I'm rebelling against the passage of time and its erosion of all things I hold dear. But I'm also having a lot of fun playing Sega Saturn, and enjoying myself in the present. These are the greatest toys ever invented, and when its creators became obsessed with "creating art," something very crucial was lost in the equation.

Why can't Sega release a new video game system that plays all the old hits from their classic consoles? There has to be a market for a "Netflix of Video Games." Somebody just has to get off their butts and remember what video games were like, before the industry was taken over by Hollywood Envy. And I'll bet I could win those teenagers over to the charms of Sega Saturn. Just a couple runs on Steep Slope Sliders, enough to get the blood pumping. That should do the trick.