A solid crack of the bat.
In more ways than one, game reviewers are a lot like Major League Baseball scouts (OK. I'm already fantasizing).The most obvious similarity is that both write reports to influence and inform the decisions of the big boys with the cash (Now you're dreaming). But the key similarity is that both game reviewer and baseball scout must consider the needs of the cash-holder and the variety of ways each prospect may be valuable.
That said, let's consider the Acclaim Sports title, All Star Baseball 99. My gut-instinct and years of experience as a video game scout suggest that All Star Baseball will be attract three very distinct types: 1) baseball purists, 2) Homerun Derby/Bandwagon jumpers, and 3) people with friends. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to satisfy all three types of players.
First things first--the purists. Put simply, All Star Baseball 99will make them wretch. The most fundamental problem here--one that really detracts from the realism--is the disparity between the speed of the runner and the speed of the ball. Though both look a little like they are moving in slow motion, the ball is usually hit and thrown so hard that infield grounders are almost never close plays. Likewise, what the commentator calls "High Fly Balls" rarely have hang time and instead reach the fielders at the speed of line drives.
The second most basic problem is that the computer controlled pitchers never (and I mean never) walk a batter. Related to this problem is pitcher fatigue. Since all pitchers (regardless of control and endurance ratings) seem to pitch strikes 90% of the time, pitch counts rarely get high enough to tire even an old timer with terrible ratings. Still, the game consistently reacts as if a pitch counts actually have reached 100 to 120 and so pitchers end up being removed from the game. Things get worse: if every computer controlled pitcher in All Star Baseball throws with the unbelievable control of Maddux, then they must have used Terry Mulholland's steroid-addicted brother as a model for a pick-off move. In other words, pick-off attempts result in outs about 60% of the time!
The final problem that will grate on the purists' desire for realism is the timid baserunning of the computer AI. Runners rarely break for second (even on fly balls hit to the gaps) and on deep sacrifice flies or bunts runners usually do NOT tag up or break for third.
I'm quite sure, however, that these cardinal sins won't bother a certain audience for this game: the Homerun Derby/Bandwagon jumpers--in other words, people excited about baseball because it's on the verge of becoming more hip than swing lessons. (Can't you just see the Mark McGwire GAP commercials now?) In fact, All Star Baseball 99 is so slick, I'm tempted to say that even the purists may sneak a game or two when no one is looking.
Here's what it's got going for it: the best hi-res graphics you've seen on the N64 or anywhere else, all 30 Major League teams and stadiums, over 700 MLBPA players (each with a uniquely drawn face), scouting reports courtesy of Larry Walker, over 100 distinct batting stances, strike zones that change in relation to player size, a top-notch pitcher/batter interface, the ability to create, trade and save players, and, finally, a control interface that works like the manual says it does and is not impossible to master.
This category of fan will probably not mind the gameplay issues - he or she will be more annoyed by the rather poor fielding animations, the repetitive announcers, the just-average sounds, and certain missing elements in the stadium graphics. (Where's the fountain in Anaheim?)
But perhaps the biggest appeal of All Star Baseball '99 is for the third category of player--that rare video game enthusiast who has actually managed not to alienate all his friends. When playing All Star Baseball against a human opponent, most of the AI issues disappear--after all, you are deciding whether or not to throw balls, walk batters, steal bases, break for second, and so on. Better yet, multiplay can utilize all four controllers and you can even choose to "roleplay" a certain position or group of positions.
As one of the first baseball games for the N64, I have to say that All-Star is a much better product than Ken Grifffey Baseball. If you're thinking about getting one, my recommendation is to leave The Kid on the shelf and spend your dough on All Star Baseball.
Our historical moment is truly unique: with the player strike now a distant memory, Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey rumours on the cover of the National Enquirer and the McGwire/Sosa homerun chase on the cover of everything else, baseball has been given a new life. Though All Star Baseball won't make all your diamond dreams come true, it is a beautiful looking and solid multiplayer game that's worth playing if you can forgive its lack of realism.