Thursday, June 18, 2009

All-Star Roster of Video Game Stars

Thinking back on baseball growing up, I was reminded of all of the various baseball video games that were out at the time. Unlike sports games today, where a new title is released on an annual basis (think Madden NFL 10, NBA 2K9, MLB: The Show, etc.), the sports video game world back then was a little more hectic. There weren't any established companies like EA, and games seemed to come out whenever they wanted to.

What made that schedule interesting, though, was the steady stream of player endorsed games. Sure, these were generic games with generic titles (Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball, Nolan Ryan's Baseball), but they weren't trying to be the end-all, be-all of the baseball gaming world. Instead, they were hoping to sell a certain number of copies based on the player's name, and go from there, though some did try to push the envelope in their gameplay or graphics in an attempt to gain traction.

As I was thinking about these games, it occurred to me that there were probably enough different games out there with enough different endorsers to field an entire All-Star roster of video game stars. I set out to do just that, looking for endorsers from each position on the field. The only rule I set myself for this was that I was looking for games that the player endorsed as their own rather than games in which the player appeared on the cover of a perennial franchise. That rules out games like MVP Baseball or MLB 2K9. I'm only interested in the specific player-endorsed games, and the constant renewal of cover boys on these franchises just doesn't fit into that.

With that said, I present to you the:

All-Star Roster of Video Game Stars

Catcher: Mike Piazza's Strike Zone
About the Game: Mike Piazza leads off our list with his 1998 video game for the Nintendo 64. This is one of the most recent examples that we'll find, and, as such, it has a few more features that most of the other games do not. Licensed by Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Players' Association (MLBPA), the game offered players plenty of options.

The Nintendo 64 never found its way into my house, so I never really got a chance to play Mike Piazza's Strike Zone. It sounds like a pretty standard N64 baseball game of the time. More importantly, though, it represents the only instance that I could find of a catcher-endorsed video game. I guess being a good-looking Italian guy in Los Angeles had its perks when it came to endorsements like this.

First Base: Frank Thomas' Big Hurt Baseball
About the Game: This 1995 SNES game from Acclaim featured the Big Hurt and his colleagues in the Players' Association, but was not licensed by MLB. The screenshots tell me that it was a pretty good looking game for its day, but I can't really say how it played. It claims to be a sim game, which must've set it apart from most of the games of the day. It has a great name, though. "Big Hurt" has got to be one of the best nicknames of the last generation, and it was brilliant marketing to use the nickname in the title.

Second Base: Ryne Sandberg Plays Bases Loaded 3
About the Game: The Bases Loaded franchise is one of the earliest and most successful baseball franchises. Many people like me remember playing these games in the late '80s between teams like Omaha, Hawaii, and Texas and starring such luminaries as Freida, Norkus, and Oko. The first two games had generic ballplayers on the cover but, for the third one, Jaleco went all out and got Ryne Sandberg to endorse the game. It then became "Ryne Sandberg Plays Bases Loaded 3". He also endorsed the SNES version of the game with "Ryne Sandberg Plays Super Bases Loaded".

I know I said that I'm not looking to add the EA Sports-like "cover boy" players to this list, but there are two things at work here: 1) there are no other second basemen to put in Sandberg's place and 2) the situations are slightly different. With the Bases Loaded games, they weren't switching cover boys from one year to the next. Instead, they took an already established game and added Sandberg to it (and only for 2 of its 8 iterations). It's a small distinction, but a notable one.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball
About the Game: Cal was my favorite player as a kid, so you'd think that I'd have been all over this game. You'd be wrong, though. First, it came out early in the SNES run, and, in my house, we were always 3 or 4 years behind when it came to video game systems. Plus, from what I understand, the game wasn't all that good, so it was neither all that easy to find nor all that desirable in the first place. With no MLB or MLBPA licenses, the game looks to have been incredibly generic. It's no surprise that a sequel was never made.

Third Base: --none--
About the Game: This is the only positionthat I failed to find a player for. I suppose I could claim Cal Ripken Jr. as a third baseman and then use Derek Jeter Pro Baseball 2005 as my shortstop pick, but that seems to be cheating. I tried searching for games with third base stars from the 1985-1998 time period (George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, etc.), but I came up with nothing. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

Left Field: Bo Jackson Baseball
About the Game: Let's all take a minute to remember just how incredibly big Bo was for the first few years of his career. When you remember that, it makes perfect sense that he would get his own baseball game. Released for the NES in 1991, the game tried to give the player some advanced options, including different pitch types. I had never actually heard of the game before today, so I have no first hand knowledge of how it played. From what I can tell online, though, it was a little clunky, as you might expect for an original Nintendo game.

From the original packaging:
"Bo Jackson Baseball is the most complete baseball game ever available for your NES! If you've played the others, you know that some have a little of this and some of that - but never everything a real baseball fanatic needs in only one Game Pack... until now. Because Bo knows exactly what you're looking for in a baseball game."
Center Field: Ken Griffey Jr.'s Winning Run
About the Game: Probably my favorite game on this list, Griffey's Winning Run was the second of four games for the main Nintendo systems. The game was licensed by MLB (but not MLBPA) and looked pretty fantastic for a SNES game. The pitches and game play could go a little over the top, but it was usually a fun playing experience. The game came out in 1996, soon after Seattle's exciting finish to the '95 season. The name was a reference to Griffey's big play in Game 5 of the '95 ALDS.

Right Field: Reggie Jackson Baseball
Other Possibilities: Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001
About the Game: The earliest game found on this list, Reggie Jackson Baseball was released for the Sega Master System (ie, the system before the Sega Genesis) in 1988. Jackson played his last game in 1987, so one can only assume that he signed on to the game before he knew that it would be his last season and that Sega, being Nintendo's distant competitor, was looking to sign any big name to their catalog of games. The screenshots show a game very similar to other 8-bit offerings, but with better sprites. My favorite thing about this game is the title screen.

Pitcher: Roger Clemens' MVP Baseball & Nolan Ryan's Baseball
About the Game: These days, Clemens and Ryan seems to be lumped together as hard-throwing Texans who pitched well into their 40s. It's a valid comparison, but probably not one that would've been made when these two games came out. The Clemens game was released for the NES in 1991, while Ryan's game came out on the SNES in 1992. Neither game featured MLB or MLBPA licenses. They also both offered substandard playing experiences from what I've read. The two Texas hurlers do fit this list rather well, though.

Manager: Earl Weaver Baseball
Other Possibilities: Tommy LaSorda Baseball, Tony La Russa Baseball
About the Game: A very early entry into the baseball genre (it's a computer game released in 1987), Earl Weaver Baseball is still looked on with extreme fondness today, due to its incredible detail and flexibility. From the game information page linked above:
"Earl Weaver Baseball...was the first baseball game released on any gaming platform to feature full statistics tracking and player customization abilities. You can edit existing players' statistics, create new players, or trade between teams. Team attributes and entire leagues can be edited, and stadiums modified or created from scratch with unique characteristics.
[The game's] graphics are severely outdated, but the game has one of the most flexible baseball game engines available on any gaming platform. Thanks to the customization options, the game has depth comparable to modern baseball games. After more than 15 years, and in an age of nearly photo-realistic 3D graphics and gigabyte processors, some aspects of Earl Weaver Baseball's custom gameplay are still astounding."
Overall, I think we did a pretty good job here. The roster that we come up with proves to be a pretty formidable one, with the biggest weakness being an aging Reggie Jackson. I'd take that roster any day of the week.

I'm actually surprised that I didn't find more games, though. I expected to have to choose between two or three endorsers at most of the positions, but that just didn't pan out. Either I didn't look for these the right way, or I was just plain wrong. So which is it? Do you know of some other games that I missed that would either fill in the roster (still need a third baseman!) or would be a better fit? And, of the games that I never played (most of them), were any of them good? Did I miss out?

Whatever the case, this list has made me nostalgic. I might just have to find an emulator somewhere and see what I can do with some Bases Loaded. I'll probably just end up hitting those ridiculously long singles off the wall with Freida. That's what always happened. Freakin' Bases Loaded...


tHeMARksMiTh said...

Cool stuff.

I remember Chipper Jones being on the cover for, I think, 1998 World Series Baseball. That doesn't have his name in the title, but it does have him on the cover.

Bill said...

I owned at least Big Hurt (though mine was for Sega Game Gear, I think), Bases Loaded 3 and Roger Clemens. I think I had one of the Griffey-endorsed games, too, but not that one.

I was talking to somebody about the Clemens game just a few weeks ago. It was truly terrible, but they were a little more creative with the lack of a license than most were. The majority of players, or at least the stars, were readily identifiable as real-life players because their names were terrible puns based on their real-life names. Juan Gonzalez was something like Joe (or maybe just J.) Gonezo, for example. It was painful and fascinating.

Fish said...

Tony La Russa baseball was probably my favorite. It's very notable to me because it's the first time I recall seeing a game where (i) pitch counts were tracked and (ii) you had to actually go to the bullpen and warm up the pitcher before bringing him in.

Paul said...

Here is one I never heard of until just now:

Steve Garvey vs. Jose Canseco in Grand Slam Baseball

lar said...

Wow. That's a fantastic find, Paul. I would love to play the "Grand Slam" version of baseball.

Check out this review of the game that someone wrote last summer. Good stuff.

edddom said...

Thanks for including Earl Weaver Baseball as the manager!

Just a point of clarification for Fish, though. From the first version (in 1987), Earl Weaver included pitch count and strategy around managing pitchers in the bullpen... including the ASK EARL feature where he told when to get guys up!

Again, thanks!

- Eddie

DM said...

Aaron vs. Ruth, released in 1997 by Mindscape, would certainly add to the outfield mix.

That's the only big one I think you're missing.