First off, before we get any further, I should announce that every in-game screenshot I’m using features the Baseball Jesus, Cal Ripken, Jr. Why? To paraphrase Chris Matthews, my forehead, my rules.
Alas, baseball season in America drew to a close last month, with my beloved Baltimore Orioles falling decidedly short of the World Series, and depriving Oriole fans of the opportunity to get loaded drunk and flip cars. Despite the real-world Birds being relegated to mediocrity again, there remains the one consistent outlet for the fans of underachieving squads to get a measure of revenge against their sporting tormentors: the sports video game…so with the disappointment of another lost season at Camden Yards fresh in my memory, we fire up today’s game, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.
Released in 1994, when, ironically enough, the baseball season was cut short and the World Series cancelled due to a players’s strike, Griffey (the game, not the actual player) attempts to walk the line between simple fun and relatively deep simulation mode, and does so rather well. You start out by selecting between exhibitions, the All-Star Game, World Series, Home Run Derby, or, if you’re as inclined to keep things as close to reality as I am, you can play a full season (normally 162 games, although shortened versions are available for those not willing to commit to playing out six months’ worth of baseball). All the MLB teams are available, although the actual players are not, their names replaced by generic ones designed to reflect the city they play in, so the L.A. Dodgers players have names of Hollywood stars, the Texas Rangers have a lot of Old West lawmen, and so on. They can all be renamed, although doing so for all the teams takes A WHILE, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably just rename your own players and insert curse words instead for the names of players you hated…not that I would do such a thing…
Gameplay itself pretty much revolves around the B button. It swings the bat, throws the pitch, dives for ground balls and leaps at the fence to rob home runs. Keeping in the theme of baseball games of the era, you don’t actually select different pitches, you release the ball and then move it around or change speed with the control pad. Strikeouts are very rare, and walks are even more scarce; you’re pretty much encouraged to swing at every first pitch while batting, and pitchers are basically hoping to pitch for bad contact and bloop outs, which despite being somewhat unrealistic, does keep the game chugging along quickly.
Batting is a bit more true-to-life; swinging early or late will pull/push the ball, and timing your swing well will put it up the middle. There are some variations based on a player’s batting attributes, but it’ doesn’t feel like a dice roll as to where you put the ball in play. Bunting is an option for those that want to try a bit of small-ball, but base-stealing is pretty much out of the question, as CPU pitchers will try to pick you off almost every time you take one step off the base, so you’re basically left to try to string hits together to score instead of trying to truly manufacture runs.
Visually, Griffey is quite strong, especially stacked up against its competitors at the time. Each stadium has different dimensions and angles and quirks, like Fenway Park’s mammoth Green Monster. Players are large and have subtle animations like blowing bubble gum while waiting for the next pitch or an exhausted pitcher panting and slumping his shoulders. Uniforms are handled pretty well, like the O’s jerseys featured a rather well-rendered script “Orioles” and the Yankees’ classic pinstripes at home. Ken Griffey has his authentic batting stance, but everyone else is assigned one out of a generic pool, so sadly, there’s no Rickey Henderson squat or Gary Sheffield frantic bat-waggle.
There’s only one music track that plays during the actual games, a weird funk/jazz song that doesn’t get terribly annoying unless you really focused on it. Also, before each game, there’s a little snippet of the national anthem (including “O Canada” for games played in Toronto or Montreal) that adds a nice little touch. The umpire makes his calls verbally, but it sounds like whoever did the voice tried to sound a little too…umpirey, as outs tend to be announced with calls of “yeerrrowww!” Also, after each game, a newspaper wrapup is shown, with a little headline from around the league that tends to be nonsensical, but hey, again, it’s the subtle things sometimes.
I do have some nitpicks here, to be sure. First, I think Nintendo may have been a bit of a homer when it came to the Mariners themselves: Griffey himself has almost across-the-board perfect attributes, and the rest of the team seems a bit better than I seem to remember them being. During seasons, everyone pretty much sticks with the same rosters the entire time, there’s never any AI trades, and there are no injuries, so you can play through an entire season without anyone on your bench ever seeing a pitch. Like I said, strikeouts and walks are non-existent, and it’s rather obvious the game was built simply to be a slugfest instead of a methodical baseball simulation, although most people probably preferred it that way. Also, there’s not a whole lot of replay value after you take your team to the World Series the first time…you’ve pretty much seen everything there is to see at that point.
Overall, though, this was a really strong showing. Aside from its own sequel, this is probably the best baseball game on the Super Nintendo. There’s way more than enough good to balance out the problems, and for lack of a better term, it’s just plain fun. If you like baseball, or even if you think it’s an antiquated waste of time that old folks listen to on the radio and people watch while intermittently reading a book, you should be able to appreciate this one.
Fast, fun, and with enough character to differentiate it from the other baseball games of the era.
Missing MLBPA license, the phrase “pitcher’s duel” is nowhere to be found here. Also, on a personal level, the Orioles are grossly underpowered here. WE WERE BETTER THAN THIS, DAMMIT.