Genre: Sports (Baseball)
Year of Release: 1989
Date Reviewed: 4-17-99
A poll taken at Loogaroo’s NES Lair elected this title the superior of all other NES baseball games, according it twice as many votes as its nearest competition. Now, I’m aware that a poll of twenty-one people cannot determine conclusively what installment in said genre was the most preferred (no offense, Loog), but Baseball Stars’ sheer margin of victory forced me to blink almost compulsively, expending a chunk of time I would far rather have passed trying to “stare into the subliminal”* than at a computer screen in the effort to convince myself that I was seeing what I was actually seeing. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I harbor any malice toward the poll’s respondents. I just don’t get it. Baseball Stars is an adequate game, but adequacy does not explain how it DOUBLED the popularity of Baseball Simulator 1.000. Either some simultaneously bored and fervent individual stuffed the box, or the popular reception of this game is contrary to my own. Personally, I view BS (if I could change the acronym, I would) as a promising but ultimately problematic work, and one of the few games for the NES with a palpable ego problem. Its greatest handicap, as far as I’m concerned, arises not from any traditional department, but several extras that I feel tint its presentation a putrid greenish brown**. Though not through any fault of its own, this game rubs me the wrong way.
I will admit up front that the majority of my gripes with BS are quite picayune. However, since they are the salient influence of my perception, I have to give them full weight (and probably more than that, considering how little I weigh.)
As I said, Baseball Stars strikes me as being a tad too big for its britches. Part of this feeling’s pervasiveness stems from the fact that the egomania*** precedes the actual game. After the traditional “SNK” symbol fades away, the words “Baseball Stars” slowly fade onto the screen in a standard ASCII font. Then that text fades out, and the title screen appears, accompanied by an obnoxiously declaratory song. I suppose the programmers expected me to use that little prelude to sound a clarion, adorn my set in miniver, and role out the red carpet in anticipation of the game’s momentous arrival. But frankly, BS doesn’t merit any preliminary announcement whatsoever, nor does that sort of thing fit well into a game of this type. Ninja Gaiden was able to pull it off because the entire game was set up to emulate a movie, and it actually was a great game. In this vehicle, such an overture just seems out of place -- clumsily inserted to make the player believe the game is better than it is. Sure, a stroke of the start button will bypass it, but it never should have been included in the first place. (And if SNK was going to do that, then why wasn’t it used in Crystalis? That game actually deserved it.)
So, if after viewing the little “opener” the player is not already disgusted (read: not as absurdly pedantic as I am), he/she goes on to play the actual game. His/her first observation will likely be that, though it doesn’t live up to the portrait-laden title screen, the game’s appearance is fairly impressive. The sprites are large and aptly animated. That is, unlike most baseball games of the day, BS features players who do not by necessity have to face the screen whenever they catch the ball. Sometimes they reach for it, and others they kneel, having just plucked it out of the air. Also, the game features a pleasant array of colors that make it a mite more desirable to control the otherwise insipid teams (other than the Ninja Blacksox, that is -- why in blazes would the designers deliberately fashion a team whose uniforms render all the highlighting invisible?) The only real problem is that the game carries its value of “size” a bit too far. As a result, the pixels can be inconsistently scaled. In places, the players look blockish; and in places, they seem fine. The font and the cursors are also unnecessarily large -- as though the artists had some fixation on making everything big to the point of clumsiness (they put stars in some of the O’s, too -- I hate that.)
This translates into what almost all oversized visuals have historically caused -- sloppy, often startling play control resulting from a confined view. While the ball flies up in the air, the player often CANNOT FIND HIS BLASTED OUTFIELDER. More than a few times, one will have no choice but to blindly guess which defender is nearer to the ball (translation: give up a hit, a couple of runs, and, thereby, the prospect of victory.) That never becomes the problem it could have, though. For the most part, the best outfielder to direct will be a fairly obvious selection. Plus, since one controls all players at once, a margin for error is provided (unlike BaseWars, in which I’ve been known to spend upwards of ten minutes trying to direct my defender onto the screen just to pick up the ball and send the program back to the pitching interface.)
Another control discrepancy is evident, but this one actually arises from one of the game’s more desirable aspects. At the center of Baseball Stars is the team-creation option, through which, with a little diligence and luck, one’s team can evolve from a blundering, amateurish squad into a conglomeration of supermen. However, in the beginning, one must grapple with arguably the slowest outfielders ever to inhabit the Earth. If the ball is not hit in their restricted vicinity, they won’t be able to reach it. Additionally, nobody on any novice squad can throw worth his weight in potato salad -- meaning that, if a ball hit into the outfield is not caught on the fly, extra-base hits and multiple runs ensue as a matter of course. Oh well, no one ever said the ascent from rags to riches was an easy undertaking (except possibly for Horatio Alger.)
Money is at the center of this game, and from that simple truth stems yet another of my complaints. Not what one would call an ardent capitalist, nor even one with a very high regard for money, I’m rather put off by the manner in which the teams improve. With victory, a squad will earn a given amount of money. This cash enables the player to “buy” ability for his/her existing players (as though it were a tangible commodity, like corn or soybeans), or just fire them and sign a more glamorous individual. Sure, maybe I’m being too caustic, but this stereotypical, modernist, almost cynical depiction of baseball robs BS of the Ruthian heroism I invariably seek. I would far prefer to aspire toward victory for the sake of triumph, but in this game I can’t escape the financial undercurrents. If I don’t make money, my team won’t improve. If my team won’t improve, I won’t be able to win satisfactorily. I have to continue making money until my team is at its utmost capacity -- the cash will just pile up if I don’t keep plugging it into new resources, after all. Thus, I cannot be reasonably satisfied until my team is comprised entirely of perfect people. It’s all too unsentimental for my taste...
As an alternative, I can assume control of one of the game’s provided teams. Those, however, are far too inanely-plotted to be enjoyable. The World Powers are the only group that exudes clear inspiration, and even their novelty wears off like a lather of Number 0.3 suntan lotion. Plus, this game adds to its already pervasive sense of ego by including a team modeled after the people who designed it (the SNK Crushers.) They may not be as omnipotent as some of the “EA” teams -- in fact, they’re not very good at all -- but a credits sequence would have more than suited this purpose. Again, I would have been willing to sit idly by while SNK patted itself on the back IF they had put as much effort into the game as they put into celebrating it within itself.
For a game this disappointing, an accessible difficulty curve is something of a necessity. Thankfully, Baseball Stars provides just that. A few games are needed to become accustomed to the title’s various quirks (the limited view, etc.), but victory soon becomes possible -- shallow and avaricious as it is. Plus, since the outfielders are able to climb the wall, the prevention of homeruns allows for a slightly more thrilling experience, and supplies overmatched players with a needed ditch effort.
This thrill, however, is a necessary compensation, not a pleasant addition. The soundtrack, which would ordinarily be expected to supply the ballpark passion required of a game like this, instead just lays flat. The majority of the songs are simply static reiterations of what the player already knows -- that he/she is playing baseball, and that he/she is not exactly captivated by it. Maybe if the “top of the inning” song sounded a little less like the semi-rhythmic mumbles of a drunk staggering down a narrow hallway, and the “runner in scoring position” tune had an actual background, the game would not so frequently have to rely on funky but insufficient novelties.
Be it meager or not, though, I would be remiss if I did not make this statement in the game’s defense -- the team edit feature is at least peer to the others of its day. Though the player cannot parcel out ability willy-nilly, he/she can, within monetary reason, customize the players’ skills. Also, there is more available space for the team and player names than usual, and uniforms are actually determined as a matter of the player’s discretion (even in BS1K, one had to accept the uniform of the team being replaced.) Each of these options enhances the sense of freedom, allowing the player to create full and unique leagues as the produce of his/her own whims (nothing quite like watching Voltaire hurl a fastball past Bunsen Honeydew, let me tell ya.) Scrolling through the oversized alphabet to spell these names is something of a chore, however. It takes two sluggish turns just to reach “L”, two in the other direction to reach “A”, three more to get to “R”, and... well, by that point, the player will likely have abandoned naming his character “Larry” as some sort of puerile fantasy.
I applaud SNK’s effort to create a baseball game founded on present-day stardom (don’t smirk like that -- I really do.) In the end, though, my priggishness about money and its adulteration of natural enjoyment prevents me from enjoying the commercialist angle, and the game itself seems to be more desire than effort. I actually can enjoy BS in small increments. It just doesn’t have that curiously “magical” strain of fun or the user-friendliness necessary to attain a place of honor in my rotation. And frankly, I’m a little put off by the self-promoting way in which it attempts to redeem itself. You can put a prom dress on a duck, but it will still be a duck. If this duck spent less time quacking at me to “Be a Champ!” and more time giving me reasons to want to be one, I would enjoy it a heck of a lot more.
* By now, it should be apparent that any literature, music, or philosophy for which I have a fondness can pop up in my reviews at random -- like they’re some kind of weird referential mole-boppin’ game. In this case, the reference is intended to convey (and exaggerate, to some degree) how agape I was at those results. I had to pick a hobby to express (in total hyperbole, I admit) how much of my leisure that took up -- so I chose Transcendentalism (and having listened to the song just before I started the review, it was fresh in my mind.)
** I just chose a color at random -- requiring only that it be commonly viewed as ugly. Actually, I kind of like this combination when it has more green than brown -- but “greenish brown” tends to imply the reverse of that.
*** Trust me on this. I have an intimate familiarity with egomania.
Plot: not considered
Play Control: 6
Intangibles (misdirected pride): -1.5
Intangibles (team edit mode): +1
Intangibles (monetary undertones): -.5
Analytic Score: 5.9 (rounded)
Personal Score: 6
Can I be sued for this?
Fozzie: "Wocka wocka!"
Voltaire: "I may not laugh at a damn thing you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
How wonderful. "SS" can also stand for "Shakespeare."
"With thee aloft, white sphere, I must ask this:
'Wherefore would Doctor Honeydew not miss?'
Of him I needed that, and only that.
He got his obstinacy from the rat."
(He didn't really write that.)
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