MLB Slugfest 20-03
To the best of my foggy recollection, baseball was invented in the late 19th century as the result of a bet between James Naismith and Abner Cooperstown to see who could come up with the manlier sport. Naismith, of course, had the foresight to see past the peach baskets and ladders and realize what great media scandals and bad video games Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal would spawn, respectively. That man was a genius. The best Abner could come up with off the top of his head was Darryl Strawberry, and even he hasn’t done anything that warranted immediate media attention in the past year or so.
And so it was that baseball remained a civil sport throughout all of the 20th century with maybe five fights a year shown on ESPN tops (though two or three is probably closer to the average). Enter Midway and its recent series of sports games hepped up on a massive overdose of violent horseplay. These games are based on the concept that the tougher competitor should determine the outcome of the game. This is all good and well, but it’s not necessary to make games with maximum violence factors for sports that already have them, like football (NFL Blitz) and ice hockey (NHL Hitz). Fans of these sports have trouble balancing their desire to see bloody roughhousing and cheerleaders’ breasts, let alone balancing their beer and nachos. All the while, here lies baseball, the sport of the traditional fun-loving, blue collar man who has cookouts on the 4th of July and has a wife and 2.3 kids, with nary a memorable brawl to its name.
That’s why MLB Slugfest 20-03 (Midway, 2002; pronounced “twenty-oh-three”) is such a great game. Instead of making the hits harder than they were before, Slugfest adds hits that were never there. Suddenly, baseball isn’t the four-hour bore that more and more people today are suggesting it is. The tie doesn’t go to the runner, it goes to whoever can beat the tar out of the other guy. You know this game means business when you discover that one entire button is dedicated solely to pitching nothing but bean balls. Along with a faster pace and a healthy disregard for the established rules of the game, Slugfest provides Turbo meters for its batters and fielders. Charged up to a sufficient level, pitchers can throw fastballs registering upwards of 120 miles an hour on the radar gun, and batters miffed at balls thrown near their heads will charge the mound in a display of blind fury too gruesome for even the victim’s fellow teammates to watch. These breakneck changes of pace from the drab norm are a sight to see, but ultimately Slugfest succeeds on a very unexpected level: not the flashy base running and catching of pop flies, but the smaller nuances, the things you notice between pitches and innings. MLB Slugfest has fun tinkering with an otherwise docile sport and ups the ante without going temporarily insane and betting the ranch, and it’s the most pure unadulterated entertainment I’ve derived from a baseball game in a long time.
Expect inflated scores more akin to a pee-wee basketball game and more triples and home runs than Mark McGwire could hit in a lifetime in a normal round of Slugfest. To boost its claim of a more exciting nine innings of baseball, Slugfest makes the pitches move faster and the bats hit harder, all in an attempt to move the game along and score more points along the way. Pitching and batting are easy with the help of the menus that tell you which buttons throw what pitches or what will make you swing in such-and-such way, and it’s easy to find out what’s supposed to go on. There are many problems with actually does go on at the outset, however. You don’t know how to play dirty. The computer does. Watch as the other team, no matter how lowly ranked they are in the divisional standings, racks up scads of runs through rotten scoundrels’ pranks like knocking the ball out of your hands and you off your feet with a hard slide. Or setting themselves on fire and drop-kicking you at home plate. Your first couple of losses are very humiliating as you learn the many tricks the AI has up its sleeve. And all you can do is watch.
But watch and learn. Read up. Experiment with buttons. See what everything does. And in time you will learn the Zen of foul play. It is a fine art that must be learned through at least ten spectacular failures. You will see what happens to you, and a desire will flow through your bloodstream to do that exact same thing, and you will do everything in your power to learn it. All of a sudden, you will, and your score will be the one in the mid- to upper thirties while you leave you opponent in the vision-impairing dust of zero. And oh, the sweet glory that mere mortals have never known – the stratospheric speeds reached by a home run ball, smoke trailing behind with no hope of catching up. Bachman-Turner Overdrive said it most eloquently when they proclaimed in song, “B-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet.” Where else can you tag a runner out by socking him in the face or watch a batter you just clocked in the head flop on the plate like a beached guppy? Though the initial side-splitting hilarity soon subsides to chuckles when you see these things repeated throughout the innings, the basic humor never dies away from them, making the game worthy of something more than a casual rental.
The controls are implemented well but can be frustrating when teamed with the game’s awkward batting and fielding physics. You can choose the way you want to bat with assigned default buttons, and all pitches have their own button when you’re in the field. The usual ways to steal bases, throw certain other types of pitches, and get your men around the bag conform here to the Gamecube controller quite comfortably, and so do the new added tricks of the game like powerful slides and the combat techniques employed when beating up someone on base. You’ll start winning once you learn how to be cheap (sliding into the bag hard enough or punching someone while you’re on fire – literally – can make them drop the ball and will set you up for repeated easy steals), but your defense will take more time to polish than your offense. It’s difficult to get under many pop flies in time to catch them, and diving is a risky maneuver that rarely works, if ever. While it’s little victories like throwing strikes and hitting bloop singles that will raise your Turbo meter ever so slowly, you’ll never be as fast as you want to be or hit the ball quite as hard as you want to (unless, of course, you fire one out of the park with the bases loaded). As a result, it takes both devilish cunning and a realistic assessment of both your potential abilities and the other team’s – an amount of calculation that you wouldn’t expect from a game whose primary draw is the ability to knock the guy in the batter’s box senseless with a tap of a button.
The graphics have the same half-and-half quality as the control in that you’re pretty sure that that’s Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter up to bat, but sometimes the player just doesn’t look like himself, especially if you’re a hardcore fan of a particular team and actually take the time to look at the face of some upstart that came up from the minors just in time to be in this game, who look even weirder when they don’t quite hold a bat right or when it will seem to float when they hold it in one hand. Minor quibbles with character models aside, the ballparks all look fabulous, from Safeco Field to the Astrodome to Fenway Park. Midway has even managed (with hilarious results) to sneak in plugs for some of their recent releases on outfield wall advertisements. If someone hits a line drive out to right field, chances are you and the right fielder will see a banner announcing Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, while left field often boasts shameless plugs for their portable Joust/Defender twin-pack and the latest NFL Blitz release. You also get a healthy dose of glitzy light and polygon effects in the way the ball constantly has a neon tail attached to it and the flare of the smoke and flames that engulf a batter at the peak of his abilities. Of course, what would a Midway game be without plenty of buxom lasses in small baseball jerseys who have the wet-hair look that I hate so much going on? They’re here, along with uproarious fight sequences, an audience that actually moves around (!), players who look fantastic when injuring themselves and others, and more.
Probably the greatest irony of all is that this game’s greatest department is not its gameplay, graphics, or fast and furious baseball action, but its sound. After an exhaustive and weary search, I have finally found what I have sought long and hard after: color commentators that don’t bore me to death after hearing five sound bites from them. Jim Shortz (PUN ALERT!) is the greatest announcer to ever grace a video game, and I would dare to place him among the ranks of such greats as Vin Scully and Harry Caray. The banter between he and his partner makes you spit out anything you might be eating. Long loading times are quickly whiled away by their meaningless conversations about everything from sunflower seeds to specialty video stores to the question of why baseballs aren’t made in America. You’ll forget easily what the crack of a bat and the planting of one’s cleat in another’s face sound like when you hear Shortz and what’s-his-name talking (a clear indication of who upstages whom). Though the clips start to loop after a while, it takes a long time to hear the same one twice, and even the ones that wear themselves out are not totally drained of comedic value. Oddly enough, this duo transcends the standard ballpark organ, the roar of the crowd, the meeting of horsehide on wood, and the atmosphere of the sport itself to attract gamers ready for a day at the ballpark and a couple shovelfuls of humor, and frankly, who isn’t that kind of gamer? If you raised your hand, leave America now.
So after those who are packing their bags in anticipation of deportation are gone, we are left with video game fanatics who revel not only in the joy of a game that nails a sport’s most base intricacies well, but expounds upon those rudimentary concepts to offer a fun game wherein the violence doesn’t seem so much perfunctory to the experience as necessary, considering the declining love of the game in America today. Baseball gets a fresh burst of life from Midway’s defibrillators in Slugfest, and the shock is enough to get the baseball aspect right while adding an element that, while not new, is often foreign to baseball but that still works on many levels. There is a bit of a learning curve while you absorb the beatings – both in score and fist – from the other teams, but once you see what’s going on, pick up their habits for yourself, and immerse yourself in the spot-on ballpark models, player personalities, and announcers, MLB Slugfest 20-03 is almost impossible to put down. It’s not as complex as its more serious and dumpy counterparts (there’s no trading and a full season only lasts 52 games), but it’s great, simple fun that gives a weary old sport a new raison d’être. Plus, what could be more fun than meeting the catcher at home plate and beating the living daylights out of him while saying out loud with nobody else in the room, “Hey buddy, salary cap this!”?
That’s America to me.