Due to societal and cultural factors, on the web there is a dearth of consumer copy for the sports gamer in general and the baseball fan in particular. And that shortage extends from popular review mags to trade shows. Due to the interactive immersion and non-linear replay value of role playing games, it would seem that violence and mayhem take precedence over ball games. Add to that steroid controversy surrounding the national pastime as well as new age sports game firm monopolies, and baseball gaming is in a serious slump.
But that doesn’t mean serious diehard fans can’t resort to window shopping the universe of E store and auction listings as a retro old school candy store for nostalgic consumers. Back in the 90s, it’s safe to say baseball gaming was at its zenith and the choices and multitude of titles reflected that. This goldmine guide is a throwback to the good old days, a salute to the evolution of the baseball video game and a boon to collectors. It is meant to reevaluate A listers, weed out pretenders, celebrate jewels, and separate wheat from chaffe.
For sake of space, clarity and a sense of exclusive coverage, I cannot include in these listings any and every baseball video game ever made on all media formats. Moreover, my compilation does not extend to stat sims and I am more of an eye candy enthusiast than a data realist. If I want the real thing I’ll take in a pick up game or reserve a ticket to a MLB contest.
Also, I can only cover the best of the major franchise players, the rank pretenders and eccentric standouts that still might be available online at various cyberspace outlets or web toy malls.
1. A dozen popular PC/console game series will get collective reviews with significant others singled out in separate categories.
2. Reviews will rank in chronological order or historical context descending from time past to present day.
3. Take special note. Rare, hard to find titles may make the grade, so mind your search engine skills.
4. Only 1 pic is to be featured up front with this list – – that of my pick for the greatest baseball video game of all time.
5. Ratings from 1-5 will be in asterisks, symbolic of this the baseball era of juiced bats, bodies and balls.
1 Asterisk * This game is on fruit juice. It’s a lime lush or bitter lemon.
2 Asterisks ** You been slipped a coolaid mickey. Almost as dull as the aftertaste.
3 Asterisks *** Wine cooler buzz. Pick-me-up potential. Just add more slice and less ice.
4 Asterisks **** Power aid energy drink. Spirited front runner. Get jazzed on the fizz, whiz!
5 Asterisks***** Hire Bonkin’ Barry, Slammin’ Sammy or Marky Mac as video game cover boys!
And now without any further adieu…
I. Franchise Series Vets
In the beginning, the baseball video game Gods said, let there be stats. But other than 80s stat based board games and dinosaur home console arcade generation entrants not meriting mention herein, the first noteworthy video simulation variety to add visual graphics to a comprehensive gameplay database was…
The Earl Weaver Baseball series.
** With 2 asterisks this dated pioneer gets minimal points for the early effort. If you could put up with the stick figure graphics, this was an early game that gave you a competitive gameplay outcome for your baseball sim dollar. EW 3, the late great closer volume was the best of the lot. The rest were but a pet pastime for an easily amused and pleased 80s contingent of fans
endurable for their nostalgia if nothing else. Old Earl Weaver was no young Tony La Russa.
Not to be outdone, the console had its share of contenders. Simplicity minus tweeking interactivity lead to relaxed gameplay for casual fans. As long as you could lay in bed and play a console while PC play was like home office video gaming, there would always be room for multiple media formats like…
The Sega World Series Baseball series
*** Mechanical yet colorful, this was the first game to merge an intuitive batting interface with daunting pitch speeds. Heavily digitized sound was a weak point, but evolving graphics and finger friendly joystick buttons were enough of a boon to make this a crowd favorite. WSB 98 was the Genesis yardstick before series made the jump to Saturn and Dreamcast. By the time it
sold out to the dual console heavyweights, it wasn’t quite the same game in name or fame.
Somewhere in between the quest for stat data realism and eye candy balance gaming powers that be decided to upgrade both graphics and audio on an even scale. Flat 2D was still the visual palate of the day but there were too many announcing legends not to dabble in sound. Add perrenial sports vocalist Al Michaels into the brew and you had…
The Accolade Hardball series
*** Balanced for stat junkies and seeing eye enthusiasts, there were so many edit features in this game that the replay value alone vaulted it above the competition. You could create your own logos, leagues and what not. And what the visuals lacked in geometry and depth of field they gained in neon color. The series hit its stride with Hardball 5, with the remainer 3D
pretenders thereafter victims of poor AI physics and a deadpan sleeping pill of an announcer.
By the time the 90s came around, a MLB strategy whiz skipper would turn the baseball video game world upside down with an award winning series that pushed the graphical envelope yet maintained a semblance of statistical reliability. This was the last gasp of the 2D set but it proved to catapult the baseball sim to the sports gaming A list in…
The Tony La Russa Baseball series
****1/2 If my bias shows on this one, it’s well deserved. For this personal teeth cutting baseball sim intro, graphic artists captured the soul of the national pastime paired up with a small ball managerial brain who made the video game big time. So many volumes spawned from this series that it was a PC franchise without peer, the console retreads of which were juvenile at best. TLRB 3 took the cake as numero uno while Oldtime was memorable for a one of a kind historical database.
At the height of the Tony ball domination, other baseball titles still co-existed with whimsical character of their own if they could not compete on a level budget plane. Gaming firms that couldn’t afford a crack team of graphic artists, full MLB license and ballpark inclusion had to make due with an offbeat interface and oddball gameplay like…
The MicroSports Pro League Baseball series
*** More than any other game series, this is the one that spanned the chasm between kiddie arcade cuteness and stat data simulation. Whereas it lacked serious graphical polish, a windowed multiplex gameplay interface set it apart. The ’97 version was the leader of the pack with a rare baseball century player database only equaled by La Russa’s Oldtime Baseball spinoff. If you happen to find this title online in a virtual bargain bin, bid on or buy it now ASAP.
By the mid the 90s, athletic video gaming would mind meld with the sports steroid zeitgeist. If the show was juiced, was it that much of a stretch for the ultimate arcade game to have homeruns come easy as a sign of the times? To mirror a show fast becoming a victim of the surreal, the wisdom of stat data realism took a back seat to wired play action in…
The EA Sports Triple Play series
*** The games that serious baseballers love to hate, these nonetheless served a purpose in catering to casual fans with a mix of visual fluff and audio grandstanding. The obnoxious announcing team of Buck Martinez and Co. got on your nerves, but the long ball sound effects were a saving grace. Critics and laymen agree the 99 and 2000 games rank best due to interactive options and camera angle cheats. But even without more settings options and less stat inflation, EA Sports TP was a video game monolith.
While the PC enjoyed a baseball gaming renaissance not seen since the age of the handheld toys and home computer hybrids, the console market was flooded by a numeric competitor fit with a superior ad campaign and seasoned by the best baseball voice in broadcasting history. It was a long series a long way in coming, yet every diehard fan was a sucker for…
The MLB 989 series
***1/2 A higher batting camera angle affording depth of perception and down to earthiness of Vin Scully’s announcing skills gave this series staying power across gaming generations. For almost too long, they just threw in extra animation and camera angles and skimped on upgrading the graphics. But by the time 989 had decided to overhaul the visuals and drop Scully, MLB’s greatest hits and evolutionary rebirth thererafter from ’04 to ’06 proved to be the final competition when baseball gaming fell prey to a mediocre monopoly.
While advanced consoles got by on lackluster annual entries, a jewel in the rough made for an oldie but goodie console seized a moment in time to gain widespread credibility as the new age baseball video “it” game. It would outdo contemporaries in almost every statistical and graphic visual category. Regardless of loyalties, you couldn’t deny that vitually everybody liked…
Nintendo 64’s All Star Baseball series
**** There was a buzz about these games with dim night game lighting, fluid animation, unintruding announcing and sabermetric stat tracking. All Star was a step ahead of nearly every baseball video game of its time. Via a 99/200/2001 power trio lineup, Nintendo scored a sports coup winning over critics and consumers alike with a dated console flagship game. But once it went to PX2 and Xbox, failure to upgrade eye candy didn’t do ASB justice. Collectors who still buy old N64s for ASB are a testament to its greatness.
In the late 90 entrepreneurial gaming hinterlands, an also-ran console maker realized a game designer dream quest in cooking up a most ambitious if not auspicious baseball sim. Stat data fans would lick their chops given his rare respect for AI and gameplay. And for the first time a baseball video game would make serious strides toward big league realism in…
3DO’s High Heat Baseball series
***1/2 This game was the one that was supposed to win the creative grand prize for all around consumer satisfaction. Developer even went so far as to offer a money back guarantee at one point. But the revolutionary gameplay was never enough to offset unsightly graphics. Code tweeking options added to interactive replay value. And HH almost realized visual art parity with the 03/04 volumes. But by then it was too late. The graphically challenged HH franchise was sold to MS and 3DO went out of business.
In bandwagon limbo or out of step, fledgling drummer beat gaming companies used other mad methods to breathe life into sports gaming. This was done at the expense of obnoxious, wreckless, diamond dream depictions that didn’t translate well to the national pastime. But the result was that you got stunning artwork eye candy as displayed in…
Midway’s MLB Slugfest series
*** An expansion series with no one trick pony, Slugfest was the no holds barred, in-your-face baseball version of the NFL Blitz games. A best seller included in the big fanchise ranks despite its aberration of gameplay and kiddie target market, it stakes its niche due to stunning graphics so much of a blast that it was as if the MLB show had been transported into a Marvel superhero landscape. The downside was limited trade options and only in later volumes could serious fans turn off the high octane wrestling gameplay.
Astride the frey operating from a budget windfall, the mega Microsoft label bullied its way into the sports gaming arena with some stellar stylistic PC sports titles. Their MO was to play to eye candy fans. So while a chorus of stat studs sang the praises of baseball simulation without player interaction, MS window dressed the competition with…
The Microsoft Baseball series
**1/2 Athough the new millenniun run of this listing was brief, a photo realistic debut before its time almost bridged the gap between the camps of pretty video and gameplay realism. But not quite. Static gameplay stopped the hooplah in its tracks. Not willing to leave well enough alone, the fave MSB 3D title version was followed by 2 more shown the wear and tear of framerate skipping bugs. If MS settled for a one shot wonder, the 3D one and only would have stood in a class all its own.
If the market was saturated by gaming mover shakers upping the gameplay realizism ante, this made room for low budget rank ventures that couldn’t match graphic media standards but would find a way to co-exist amidst the genre by appealing to half the fan base. With a busy interface, physics based AI plus inventive camera angle options, interactive fans had a ball with…
The Front Page Sports Baseball Pro series
*** With so many immersive, intricate GM settings, you could look past the fact that after you hit the ball, field graphics turned to line drawing mush with these games. Indeed, multi cam views through this video looking glass were outdated at best. And the Sierra Baseball Pro lineup didn’t advance far in its mid to late 90s run. Upgrades along the way concerned only AI bugs. While you expected Sierra to reinvent the baseball sim wheel like with its inventive golf series, from 94 to 98, it was not to be. But this game was still a stat data stud’s dream.
II. Expansion Game Contenders
Since not every baseball title in existence can be part of a gaming firm conglomerate, specialized production or a popular media series, here’s to the wannabe also-rans, fledgling flies in the ointment, proud pretenders and various individual lone wolf releases that fall under the label umbrella of “other games”, be they good, bad, controversial or mediocre like…
Aaron Vs. Ruth
** With a title like this as well as the artwork on the CD cover, you expect a powerhouse gaming experience.Instead all this game offers is comic book gameplay and low octane graphics. Mindscape Sports Advantage’s “Battle Of The Big Bats” is a video game preschool portrait of the national pastime that takes advantage of the trademark of two all time classics and mails in the AI and eye candy effort. It’s a shame because no other sports game I know of matches such a promising marketing coup with such lackluster final product results.
ESPN Baseball Tonight
**1/2 Back, back, back, back, back…GONE! Chris “Boomer” Berman’s famous homerun call is the default sound bite from the booth and takes what would have been a console toy of the month choice and lets its ESPN charm grow on you. But of course, there are some other features that make it worth a purchase. Pitch speeds and trajectories as well as batting timing are tricky enough to afford replay value and depth perception in the outfield is in perfect sync with play calling. And no video game with “Booming” audio could ever be a bomb.
Acclaim All Star ’97
*** As either the genesis of the ASB series or a stand alone title, this one shines as a rare arcade oldie. Whatever you wanna call it, the combination of play-by-play by Jon Miller and the action rush of the zoom ball cams strutted its stride when the Triple Play series was in the midst of redefining the genre. Acclaim can be accused of having a tinker toy template or temperament to the gameplay action, but if taken within the scope of its retro competition, this console All Star was an earlybird contender 2nd only to franchise behemoths.
Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball
*1/2 It’s a coincidence that both this game and latter review feature Thomas as the baseball cover boy. But where the similarity ends is in the complete package. It’s almost as if this evil twisted sister was an afterthought spinoff. But if it was, then too much was left out except the player sponsor and nothing was done to upgrade the product to hide the inferior quality. Don’t let the star power of the Big Hurt fool you. Indeed, this game is so bad, that it’s not even worth buying so you have to worry about PC compatibility. Pass on all counts.
MLB Pennant Race
***1/2 A popular favorite regarded as one of the better early titles for the PSX, this game featured reverse angle mound or plate gameplay at a time when most baseball video gaming was limited to behind the catcher backstops. Joystick button maps were multi press saving also. There was just nothing about this game that was lacking except for that fact that it could only play by the graphic pixel limitations of its time. Colorful with its interface, field POV and other extras, Pennant Race made the grade when MLB old school was still in.
* A Virgin Interactive entry that was little more than a barebones, elementary begrudging add-on to the sports gaming universe that just sought to latch onto and cash in on a time when video baseball was so hot that you could release anything and collector enthusiasts would bite. Everything about this game, childish graphics, chainlink interface and what have you was at least a decade behind the times and almost as cheezy as shoestring pioneers of yesteryear. It’s a marketing wonder that it was made for the PC and console alike.
VR Interplay Sports Baseball
*1/2 Despite a new Messiah tech standard for graphic resolution stalwarts, the interface and artwork of this game set baseball video gaming back some 5 years. Batting animation didn’t sync with plate or pitch location, fielders looked like crouched hunchback crustaceans with osteoporosis and the overall gameplay had a tin cup audio visual feel to it. Critics say this was a console cheapie that was poorly ported to the PC or vice verse. Consumer consensus? It was the big little baseball video game series that couldn’t.
Home Run King
*** An unforgiving port from an unwieldly Dreamcast WSB predecessor victim of a poor controller, the Gamecube incarnation didn’t deserve all the bad press. Detractors panned it because the difficulty level was too hard for casual fans unwilling to put in the time to turn the learning curve. HRK played like a middle of the road game whose A1 graphics couldn’t make up for lax button reaction time. But given time to master controller map idiosyncracies, good fun could be had by unflappable gaming diehards with patience, determination and guile.
**1/2 With XBox’s exclusive entrant into the baseball gaming fracas, you couldn’t make up your mind whether this game came up short due to poor visuals or static gameplay. Be that as it may, way dim lightbulb graphics and a somewhat mechanical pitching/batting interface gave IP a rushed feel. Almost as if the developers forgot to turn on the lights for the graphics or the AI for the stat data crowd. There was damage control hearsay that MS’s purchase of the High Heat source code was meant to bring this up to snuff. But old rumors die hard.
Nintendo Pennant Chase Baseball
**** In short, Baseball Mogul for arcade fans. Big Papi was the long over due Gamecube cover boy while a trade show teased us into a frenzy of anticipation. How could I review a game that was never released? There was enough buzz about it to go ga-ga. It was said to include a quick sim interface, hands-on play and other interactive extras. That it never saw the light of day was the biggest blooper in the history of gaming. Now and then you see it pop up for sale online. Are there bootleggers, ghosts out there or is there a blackmarket for it? We may never know, folks.
2K Sports Major League Baseball
**1/2 Best described as the evil empire of baseball video gaming, this was the game and the series that was supposed to unite the genre under one label, one roof and one monopoly. So much for wishful thinking. For the record, this used to be ESPN Baseball which in turn also used to be World Series Baseball. Needless to say, with the loss of Giambi as cover boy and the ESPN logo, style and substance, the market was cornered to remove competitors. Bad move. Such power plays explain why gaming is in a slump. Less competition is not more fun.
MVP NCAA Baseball
*** I’m being kind with the rating here. This kneejerk release was MVP’s last gasp in the baseball video game wars. That it made use of an unrepresented sports milieu to extend what was once a stellar series is no marketing crime. But the effort was too understated to merit the shortcoming. Especially since loyal fans have supported online modding communities that have given away upgrades that EA Sports could not sell. Plans for the future are as of yet unknown. But if EA Sports would only go generic, they would save baseball video gaming as we know it.
The Greatest Baseball Video Game (Of All Time)
MVP Baseball 2004
***** I left out inclusion of the MVP series for a reason. Spurred on by a Triple Play fan base that encouraged and inspired it to new heights, EA Sports took the lead and brought PC/console baseball into the 21st century. While ’03 had minor buggs and ’05 was rushed given sad news of the 2K Sports market grab, ’04 was the big bang of sweet science gaming. The first MLB game to blend awesome graphics with evolved AI and gameplay. The fact that the code could be tweeked a la the old High Heat series was icing on the cake. Mission Accomplished, EA Sports!