“Oh, the ‘World’ Series, that thing that isn’t open to the whole world”, as tiresome people tend to say. Yep, that begins on the 24th of October, so presumably it’s time for a load of green screenshots with brown or yellow diamonds in the middle. The Master System can do 8 or 9 shades of green, perhaps we’ll use them all. I’m as thrilled as you are. Enough of the Englishman’s pessimistic pre-game build-up, let’s… PLAY BALL!
In the interest of full disclosure, I did used to watch baseball on Channel 5 here in the UK, but I don’t believe they’ve done late night sports for a very long time, with only NFL coverage happening once a week on terrestrial TV. As I refuse to pay over the odds for subscription TV, given that I barely watch it (although am very open to a sports-only subscription model), I haven’t seen a baseball game for at least 5 years. However, that’s not to say I don’t know how it works.
We find ourselves in a strange situation here. All four Master System baseball games that I could find appear to have been developed and published by Sega. No doubt, if Konami had bothered with the Master System, we’d have at least one or two Powerful Pro games to look at, but they didn’t, so we don’t.
Baseball is absolutely perfect for translation to video games due to the d-pad being representative of a diamond, meaning pitches and base throws are easily selectable without your opponent being able to see what you’re up to via on-screen menus. This should make 2-player games fun and competitive, and I’m looking for an arcadey home-run-happy angle here, rather than getting bogged down in stat-heavy simulation. I’ve played a full nine innings game on each to capture the whole experience.
Played Before: Yes
Also on: Master System Exclusive
Great Baseball (JP) is a game I had a long time ago on a 16-in-1 GameGear pirate cartridge that contained quite a few Sega Mark III games, so I’m very familiar with it.
There are three game modes available, 1- or 2-player games with three difficulty levels, and a home run contest with two difficulty levels. I have no idea why a difficult level is required in 2-player games but maybe it makes the ball harder to hit, which is no fun at all.
In the 1-player game, once you win a game, you go on to face another of the remaining four, and so on. Yes, there are only six teams to choose from, designated as C, D, G, T, W and S. I can’t match these up to a selection of 1985 teams in the Japanese or US leagues and the selection is very poor as extra teams would only require a new letter and palette change.
As is to be expected with these baseball games, pitches are selected by holding up or down on the d-pad to select the speed (or leaving it neutral for a medium pace) and pressing button I, then pressing left or right during flight to apply curve if needed. Fielding is generally automated as far as retrieving the ball goes, then the base to throw to is chosen by holding one of the cardinal directions and pressing a button. This also applies if the ball is held on a base and you can throw the ball around the diamond at will. It’s possible to restrict a base runner in the same way during pitching by selecting a direction and pressing button II.
At bat, I found it quite difficult to make decent contact with the ball, often hitting within or near the diamond and getting out fairly quickly. It is possible to be walked to first base by being hit by a pitch but runners won’t dive or slide for a base if they’re near and risk being run out.
This is a very early game, so strikes, balls and fouls are designated with bell-like sound effects in an effort to sound speech-like. The only music during the game itself occurs on a home run and isn’t up to much as it’s a monotonous bell ringing, and the crowd decides to wake up at this point to make a bit of celebratory noise, which is an uninspiring and repetitive low-level drone that sounds more like a car cycling downwards through its gears than congratulatory cheering.
Graphics are also rudimentary block men in a simple stadium with no superfluous touches and arguably do an effective job but are limited to one of only two in-game screens; the pitching/batting screen and the outfield.
It’s definitely baseball, although not a particularly exciting representation of the sport and the whole game, while not being markedly terrible, is all very basic with no nuance to play. This one isn’t worth bothering with.
Final score of the game I played: 0-3
AKA: The Pro Yakyuu: Pennant Race (JP)
Played Before: No
Also on: Master System Exclusive
Great Baseball, not to be confused with the Japanese version of the same name, appears to be an upgraded version of the previous game. I have no idea why they didn’t think this one through and call this The Pro Baseball: Pennant Race outside of Japan as well, but they probably didn’t bank on anyone outside of Japan knowing about the other game.
The same three game modes are available as before, with a reduction in difficulty levels, so this time there’s a choice between 1- or 2-player games and a home run contest, all with two levels of difficulty.
Presentation values have been upped a few notches over the other Great Baseball. Sampled speech, something which appears to occur in approximately 1/7th of the Master System’s library, does feature here, although perhaps isn’t as good as it could be. Most pitch outcomes are catered for but leave a little to be desired. “Strike” is cut off and only gets as far as “stri”, “ball” sounds like “foul” and “foul” sounds like someone’s fallen from the top tier of the stadium, but it is nice that the effort was made.
We appear to have stepped into some sort of semi-licenced territory here, as there are now 26 city-based teams to choose from, split into two leagues, A and N, approximating the Major League Baseball teams of the time. If this is a licenced game, there’s little acknowledgement of that fact. There doesn’t appear to be any MLB or MLBPA logo or licence text in sight, so presumably Sega were able to avoid litigation with city abbreviations, even though it’s obvious what’s being implied.
After selecting a team, you’re able to compare stats and choose your starting pitcher from four available, his speciality pitch and stamina. I’m not sure what benefit there is to not choosing the best stamina rating. A speciality pitch is thrown by pressing the pitch button while leaving the d-pad neutral. Other than that, pitching is as before. You’re then straight into the action, viewed from behind the pitching mound and at a slight angle. This perspective makes it a little difficult to judge the flight of the ball when batting and I find myself often fouling hits. It is possible to bunt by taking a half swing and letting go of the button before the bat travels the whole way, a risky tactic as in-diamond throws are very quick and will likely make it to bases before your runners do. Ground balls appear to stop artificially instead of running on, which means it’s easy to misjudge and send a runner to a further base when he should be held. Runners will slide into bases if they’re at risk of being run out and that contributes more to the feeling that there’s a competitive game going on.
After each out, a screen shows the batting team, who’s up next and his stats, but you’ll need to be a quick reader as you only get two seconds to look at it before it disappears. It would have been nice to have longer to examine this screen for what it’s worth, but the stats presented don’t appear to change during the game, largely rendering this meaningless. While fielding, there’s still no direct control until it’s time to choose the base to throw to and the ball will sail past if fielder and ball aren’t lined up.
There’s no music to be heard during gameplay except during a home run and there’s no crowd noise except for fly balls hit and during home run celebrations. The crowd effect has improved slightly and now sounds like what you’d expect to hear from an 8-bit space shuttle taking off. The crowd will occasionally move without making any noise, which is odd to see.
Overall, Sega upped their game with this release. There are many more improved presentational touches, even if they don’t entirely hit the mark, and some areas are inexplicably sparse, but it’s a lot better than the previous offering.
Final score of the game I played: 5-10
AKA: Reggie Jackson Baseball (US)
Played Before: No
Also on: Master System Exclusive
American Baseball appears to be the third iteration in Sega’s non-series of Master System baseball games. They’ve taken the improvements from Great Baseball and gone even further, packing plenty into the game’s available 256K, double the size of the previous instalment, and it’s not difficult to see where this extra space has been used.
A three step full screen animated introduction appears, the US version featuring the already-retired Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, while the European version ended up with… is that Charlie Sheen? It sure looks like it, although this game was released a little early to be a tie-in to the Major League film.
As should be standard in a sport game, there’s again an option for one or two human players and this time there are four game modes to choose from: Exhibition game, tournament, watch mode (for some odd reason) and the requisite home run contest.
We also return to the choice of 26 American city teams split into A and N leagues, on a very similar screen as in Great Baseball, and not a licence in sight.
Speech has improved greatly, being clearer and more prevalent. Among the samples to enjoy are play ball, out, strike, safe and ball, but there is strangely not any speech for a home run, which is the time you’d think all the fireworks should happen.
The pre-game selection of pitchers with different stats makes a return and this is now followed by a screen showing the scoreboard, some “play ball” speech and a bit of music to establish some atmosphere. The scoreboard view is also shown in between each team’s at-bat and features various things on the big screen such as dancing mascots, cheerleaders and something that looks suspiciously like a Coca-Cola advert.
There are lots of in-game background touches this time around, such as windows to show base runners while the pitch takes place, cheerleaders and team mascots bouncing about, pitchers and catchers practicing on the sidelines, the next batter waiting in the circle, and the relief pitcher will arrive in a cart that looks like amusingly similar to a child’s pushchair. There’s even an absolutely hilarious scene if the batter’s hit by a pitch; the commentary will announce “hit by a pitch!” and players from both teams will rush to the pitching mound in an angry fashion while the injured man is removed from the field on a stretcher.
The action is now viewed from straight behind the batter, making it so much easier to judge the flight of the ball. Pitches are selected in the same way as before and travel more quickly to compensate for the simple viewpoint, without making it much harder to get a successful hit or making the game any less enjoyable. To the pitcher’s advantage, the curve of the ball’s flight is controllable in mid-air, which can be used for hilarious mind games in a 2-player game. Runners will now steal bases during a pitch, even when they’re not visible on the screen, which means paying a lot more attention to movement on the radar in the bottom left of the screen and hoping your catcher’s throw makes it to the chosen base in time to prevent a runner advancing.
It’s also now possible to manually control outfielders when they’re running, they’ll dive automatically if the ball’s rolling in range and you can even press a button to make them jump for a catch. This goes a great way to increase the player’s involvement with the game instead of semi-automated fielding.
There are three heights of swing to select when at bat, using up, neutral and down on the d-pad, although I haven’t quite figured out how to judge a pitch’s height so tend to leave it at neutral and concentrate on my timing instead. When a successful hit is made, a small portion of the outfield is shown at a time instead of the previous wide angle view, and the radar is once again used to decide where to throw the ball to once your fielder’s caught up with it.
The crowd are a bit more involved this time, getting rowdy whenever when a player safely slides into base, but again they don’t get too worked up over a home run. On the occasion that a home run is hit, an extra screen with large sprites will show the batter running in to score, which is a nice touch and adds to the achievement of knocking the ball out of the park.
Various music plays at all times during the game and isn’t intrusive, with the only thing really missing from the sound being a good bat on ball noise.
American Baseball is a big surprise to me. What could an 8-bit baseball game possibly offer above a fair-to-middling arcade simulation? This is indeed an arcade simulation with very little in the way of team and player management, but the overall package comes together beautifully and is well worthy of the awarded score.
Final score of the game I played: 8-15
Played Before: No
Also on: Master System Exclusive
Nekkyuu Koushien doesn’t appear to be related in any way to the other three games here, despite seemingly having been developed by Sega, and presentation style is completely different with an emphasis on bigger and louder is better.
Games are 1- or 2-player with two selectable levels. It’s disappointing that there’s no home run derby option.
There’s nothing pretending to be an official licence here, so you instead have to choose from 49 teams representing every Japanese prefecture (Hokkaido and Tokyo are represented by two teams each) and can give your team any nickname you like, which I think is a better compromise than fictional teams and adds a personal element to the game.
Speech in the game is Japanese accented and very enthusiastic, especially “striiiieeeeke”, which is a theme that pervades the whole game. Nekkyuu Koushien is many times more hectic and lively than the games we’ve already looked at, but it does go too far thanks to the music, which is repetitive, whistle and drum based and sounds like a cheerleading style. This ends up getting a bit irritating but I assume it’s based on a Japanese baseball song and, if this is the sort of thing that goes on at a Japanese baseball game, I really must go and see one. The music speeds up when a runner is on base, which doesn’t serve to improve the situation.
Lots of effort has been put into the presentation away from the field, with interstitial screens appearing when a successful hit is made including a screen with female cheerleaders or a very enthusiastic male ouendan with all sorts of banners, dancing animals and other things going on. This being a very Japanese game, cheerleaders’ knickers are visible for the lonely among you who appreciate such touches.
It seems that pitching is handled in the same way as previously, although I didn’t feel as much in control of my pitch as in American Baseball. You can select relief pitchers and even the slower pitches travel at quite a high speed. Having said this, it’s easier to get runners on base once you’ve adjusted, but home runs were still scarce during the game I played. When one did occur, it wasn’t celebrated with anything particularly special except some on-screen writing, a surprise given the over-the-top attitude presented elsewhere. Sprites on the pitching screen are large, with the action zoomed to view home base and 2nd, with runners on 1st and 3rd shown in box-outs.
Overall, this is a very lively and enjoyable game, but the rough edges such as pitching control and grating music ultimately leave it lagging slightly behind American Baseball.
Final score of the game I played: 7-9
Unbelievable scenes, as far as I’m concerned, as an 8-bit sports game – baseball, no less – rates highly! As you can see above, my enjoyment of each game generally correlated with accessibility and higher run count, despite not being able to win any of the games. I was very pleasantly surprised by American Baseball and it seems that Sega’s iterations prior to this release really paid off. If you’re into baseball and the Sega Master System, I would definitely recommend you find yourself a copy. It’s not quite a Grand Slam, but it is a Home Run, American Baseball really is that good.
Exciting SEGA ratings:
Great Baseball (JP)