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.


Sega Head said...

I kid you not. I thought I was the only guy in the world that thinks this is the greatest baseball game created. Your review on the mechanics and the psychology of the game is spot on. I remember playing with my brother and "no-hitting" him. It was one of my greatest moments in video games.

Timothy Andrews said...

I agree. I got this for ten bucks on clearance at toys r us in 98 when Saturn was being phased out. Blew my mind how good it was. Even the little touches like pulling players off the field for a rain delay and the seventh inning stretch were cool. Recently picked up a saturn off eBay and this game and having a blast.