Sports Illustrated for Kids Baseball
If hypothetically given a little more awareness of some of the merchandise being pushed at them, I wonder if children would possibly resent being treated as if they had a big red bull’s-eye painted on their shirts. Assuming that were the case, then Sports Illustrated for Kids Baseball is a homing missile, an arrow guaranteed not to miss under even the most inclement conditions. Don’t kid me by saying that Bam! (presumably Emeril Lagasse’s video game company, if I had to guess) targeted this at even one single solitary teenager. If they did, then they were pretty far off base, so to speak. Even when trying to appease younger gamers, however, porting America’s cherished pastime to the Game Boy Advance is quite a tall order. Fortunately, publisher Bam! and developer Sennari Interactive provide a game that will happily distract any small boy or girl for a few hours while thankfully (if barely) doing enough of the right things to ward off the mockery of adolescents and receive passing marks.
Any kid befuddled by the trading processes and roster options of big and bad next-gen games will be pleased to find out that this is as cut-and-dry as baseball cartridges come. Some of the nips and tucks imply a hefty sacrifice for the sake of space, while others are there to make sure the young’uns won’t get lost. Choosing from any of a small list of fictitious teams or creating one of your own, you can either dive headfirst into season play or go only one game in a standard exhibition match. Teams consist only of nine people – no more, no less. This cuts away more fat in the form of pitching changes, bullpen warm-ups, and pinch hitters. Without utility infielders and roster changes to make, you can play a full nine innings without ever caring a whit about the stamina of your starting pitcher. For those who crave simplicity and accessibility, this cart is a good starting point. After selecting or putting together a ragtag group of ballplayers, it’s time to get your hands dirty out on that field.
On the diamond is where the leanness of the game manifests itself most clearly and in more detrimental ways than beneficial. Pitching is not a hard affair when your guy is on the mound, and the D-pad allows for four different pitches which are not at all distinguishable from each other. Provided you can give the D-pad the Midas touch, you can get it to curve every now and then, but an infinite barrage of straight fastballs will be the road that the average player takes. The B button and a direction toss the ball to a base, while just B returns it to the pitcher. Since for the most part the ball remains restricted to the infield when hit, anyone who can moderately tame the controls will see many ”three up, three down” innings. When a ball reaches the outfield, it’s merely a matter of staying under the shadow to catch it. The scales tip slightly in your favor once your men take to the batter’s box. When you finally get to see the miserable AI in action, you’ll be astounded at how quickly you formulate a strategy centered around base hits. As with computer opponents, bloop singles comprise the majority of successful starts to trips around the bags. Oddly, there is a peculiar lack of a catcher, as you’ll see when some of your hits travel only feet from home. Running with the speed of the arrival of Christmas, the computer makes it to the ball eventually, albeit often a good four or five seconds after you reach first. Despite this vicious cycle of singles with no more distance to them than a normal bunt, only one thing keeps this from being a game that a hamster with spina bifida could master.
After second base, your players do not automatically run the baseline. Pressing a combination of the D-pad directions and the L button, you manually drag your runners along the last half of the diamond as if it were a brambly thicket. If you don’t know this, you’ll never get past the old can of corn once. This has the potential to make this a game that the kids sure won’t touch knowing they’ll never score a run within their lifetimes. A lot of outs because of two men on base at once result from this, along with those that come from getting caught in a pickle once you find yourself finally out of the dark and partially in the light. Should you manage to weave your way around this horrible design flaw, you’ll be winning games left and right.
Now, my limited vision (20/100) makes it a little tough to see the Game Boy Advance’s backlit screen; hence, the washed-out appearance equals a malady now doubled in impact. Perhaps Sennari and Bam! thought overcompensating for the GBA’s inherent glaring blindness was the answer. Tripling the difficulty of sight is what they get for thinking. First of all, to praise the game where due, the character models are the best I’ve ever seen on a system of this handheld’s caliber. Nailing the illusion of three-dimensionality with uncanny precision and skillfully evading most animation problems, the sprites definitely come out on top. In regards to the scenery, though, I don’t think most of the games are played at night, but how dark it is outside sure makes it appear to be so! Daytime looks like early evening and early evening looks like the moon exploded and rolling blackouts hit the stadium. Invest in a worm light just to get the palette to its normal shades. It’s not fun to play a baseball game feeling like the shortstop is going to jump me and steal my wallet. Also, perspective becomes more skewed as you go back to the outfield. Destinations of fly balls are difficult to pinpoint when you’re given the view from the nosebleed seats. Unless these faults frustrate you into putting the game away, laser eye correction surgery and a good light source can correct them with ease.
Sound and music suffer not only from that MIDI feel but from a bit of plagiarism as well. I’ve heard that ”Play ball!” sound bite before, and the organ doesn’t even try to sound like an organ. Perhaps it’s so dark out that the organist can’t find the right settings (or keys). These songs do nothing to remind me of a sunny Saturday at the park, but rather just that they are cheap syntheses of something supposed to stand in for the thrills provided by ”Charge” and the adrenaline-pumping but tragically clichéd ”We Will Rock You.” Mute it and find a copy of Jock Jams now.
SIfKB performs many feats well in spite of the fact that it has been pared down to its lowest common denominator for the juvenile set. With very few pitches, batting styles, and team options to fret over, this makes it the perfect resemblance to something like The Sandlot with unlicensed professional teams in lieu of the engaging children. It took my brother and I ten months to touch this game after receiving it as a Christmas gift. Seeing how fun it is to play and how the season mode is handled rather dependably for such a diminutive cartridge is a relief. Playing this after experiencing something like MLB 2003 is akin to living the bustling city life and then joining a commune. Primarily attracting preteens along with possibly a few grown folks, it’s also a fair showing all around. It lacks too much for the hardcore baseball gamer but could nurse a small following for those looking for, as my Excitebike tagline states so eloquently, “excellence in simplicity.”