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ESPN Baseball Tonight

Genre: Sports Developer: Park Place Productions Publisher: Sony Imagesoft Players: 1-2 Released: 1995

The Genesis was the console for sports gamers back in the day, and for good reasoning. That’s right, Blast Processing, baby. Joking aside, the SNES did sport some excellent first party sports titles (I’m mainly thinking of the Griffey Jr. baseball games), but exclusive athletics were few and far between on Nintendo’s juggernaut. Sega was right on the ball with innovative basketball and boxing games (Greatest Heavyweights remains a favorite of mine to this day) and its stalwart football title kept on trucking right into a 1998 edition. Tommy Lasorda gave way to Sports Talk, which gave way to the legendary World Series Baseball for the Big S, and the Genesis was easily a match made in heaven for a young baseball fan back in the ’90s.

Of course, that’s not to discourage the third party efforts that came out on the console. ESPN Baseball Tonight was released on both systems in 1995 by Sony Imagesoft, and developed by our old friends at Park Place Productions. Boasting an ESPN license complete with speaking Chris “Boomer” Berman and a Major League Baseball license, Baseball Tonight unfortunately didn’t go the extra step and also acquire the MLBPA license, which means the guys you’re playing as are all just numbers.

Graphically, Baseball Tonight is somewhat impressive. Players are large and, although they lack much detail, they’re decently animated. Unfortunately, there only appears to be two character sprites, one for a black guy and one for a white guy. Despite sporting the full MLB license, you won’t feel the full effect of it because all of the uniforms are the same, except for the colors, which sometimes aren’t even fully correct. All batters also share the same stance, which in my mind is unforgivable, as Sports Talk Baseball sported different stances some four years earlier – and yes, I know World Series Baseball has the same problem.

Unlike most baseball titles of the era, there isn’t a separate camera view for batting and fielding. Everything is viewed from a steady behind the catcher view, which leads to some pretty cool scaling effects when you need to hike your left fielder back from mid field to the wall. Unfortunately, this camera view leads to its fair share of fielding blunders from time to time. The camera itself is slow to rotate to the left or the right upon the ball’s contact with the bat, so you’ll frequently be controlling a fielder off screen and hoping you position yourself correctly to make the play. Fortunately, the game has the option to turn on computer assisted fielding, which is very much appreciated.

On the mound, you have decent control over your pitcher’s pitches. You can position him on the mound and control the break of the ball after you’ve hurled it (some sort of psychic ball control many games of the day seemed to think Major League pitchers possessed) and there’s not much to it. Unlike the innovative World Series Baseball, which gave you full reign of the strike zone, this is more in line with most of its baseball gaming peers. For some reason, whether it’s due to a glitch or greater control on the Genesis, there exists an exploit that can lead you to striking out at least 20 batters each game. Try as I might, I couldn’t replicate this on the Super Nintendo port. Curious as to what it is? Just position your pitcher all the way to the right on the mound, hold right for a slider, and right after release press left to break it just over the corner of the plate. The batter takes it every time. Hardly fair once you learn it, but against a human opponent you’ll have a tougher time. Behind the bat, you can move your batter left and right, but not up and down. One interesting aspect is that you have three types of swings; a medium swing, a high swing, and a low swing. If you nail a high thrown ball with a high swing, you’ll get some great wood on it. If you swing at it with a medium swing, it’s up to chance. If you swing with a low swing, you’ll miss. There’s an interesting give and take to the pitching/batting interface that makes it a little more unique.

One cool thing the game contains is a batting practice mode, if you’re having trouble getting the timing down. It’s the first game I can remember where the batting practice included the protective fence in front of the pitcher. Against the CPU, the game is far too easy. I can frequently put 20 up on the board against the hapless AI with dinger after dinger over the stadium wall. That’s even with the spotty fielding and base-running. It doesn’t matter if you have Rickey Henderson in his prime on the bases, the runner is entirely too slow. This leads to some really ridiculous and improbable double plays, like hitting a surefire bloop single into middle field that leads to a double play somehow with the fielder throwing out the tagging runner at second and then the guy at first. Hustle, dammit!

To cap off my list of complaints, there’s only one stadium in the game. One! One generic, blue stadium plastered with an incredibly ’90s Little Caesar’s advertisement. Audio-wise, there’s not much to write home about. We get a version of the ESPN Baseball Tonight theme, which is nice to go with the license, and during the game itself we have a standard announcer that pipes in with balls and strikes calls. Berman himself also pops up with quips during gameplay, and bids you a farewell after the game is completed. The standard modes are present – it surely breaks no ground in that manner. In fact, ESPN Baseball Tonight breaks ground in no manner whatsoever. There is no “franchise” mode or even a season mode – all you can do is hop into the playoffs. That’s it. There’s also a home run derby, but that’s all the game offers. You can’t rename players to give them their proper names, or even trade them, which is really disappointing.

Suffice to say, the game doesn’t do much. What it does do, however, is provide a solid baseball playing experience. While playing with the CPU may not lead to nail biting classics, playing with a buddy leads to some really fun contests. Some cool visuals and tight controls make this one worth playing for any baseball fan. While it’s not the best baseball title on the Genesis, it’s a fun and cheap title for any sports fan.

SCORE: 6 out of 10

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