World Series Baseball 98 (1997, Sega)

When you buy a Sega Saturn, the first videogame to get is the “3-in-1” package featuring Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Daytona. Then you get Sega Rally Championship. Then you get World Series Baseball 98.

I wrote about World Series Baseball 98 on one of my blogs three years ago, and more recently appeared in my book Pop Life. It stands as the finest baseball videogame ever created. I believed that two decades ago, and I still believe that today. Despite the advances in computer hardware and graphics powers, this title has never been surpassed, and still dominates the sport just like NHL 94 still dominates hockey games.

The genius to this game lies in its pitcher/batter duel. For the sport, this is the heart and soul of the game, but most videogame adaptations have reduced it to simple target practice. For the pitcher, you would simply press a button to throw the ball, and then waggle the joystick to move it in midair en route to the catcher’s mitt. For the batter, you simply press a button to swing the bat and try to hit the physics-defying ball. Nearly every single video baseball game going back to the Atari 2600 has copied this formula. In later years, software designers took away mid-air ball control in the name of “realism,” but the basics of the duel remained just that. Basic. Lacking all drama. Boring.

World Series Baseball 98 changes all of that. The pitcher chooses from his arsenal, aims the pitch during the windup, and lets it go. Available pitches are based on the real-life players’ skills, making their curveballs, sliders and sinkers very unique, and lose their effectiveness as the pitcher tires. One pitcher may have a monster slider that drops two feet at the last second, where another pitcher can barely make a wobble. Some curveballs hook, others slice. And as the pitcher’s arm tires, the more those pitches begin to straighten out and decay into a very modest “slowball” down the middle.

The batter, meanwhile, has two methods of attack. His first option is the “traditional” method. He can attempt to follow the pitch with the cursor just like all the other baseball games. You may swing and miss, or you may swing and get only a piece of the ball, resulting in easy pop-ups or grounders. However, if you are quick, your cursor will “lock on” at the correct destination. The guarantees a stronger swing and a more powerful hit. With practice, you can find a strategic balance between the two, where skillful swings can result in fly balls, grounders or curves, depending on where that cursor strikes.

The batter’s second option is something we shall call “the quadrants”. The batter’s box is broken into four equal quadrants, and each player has their unique “hot” and “cold” zones. “Hot” zones result in stronger swings, while “cold” zones result in weaker ones. By selecting a quadrant before the pitch is thrown, the batter will focus his attention on that area. If the pitch travels towards that quadrant, the batter will achieve a more powerful “lock” on the ball, guaranteeing the most powerful hit of all. These are essentially the “power” swings, the ones most likely to result in doubles, triples and home runs. On the other hand, if the batter guesses the wrong quadrant, he regains control over the basic cursor, but with only a fraction of time left to attempt a swing. These swings usually result in short panic attacks, especially when you’re staring down that third strike.

Here lies the genius of Sega’s design. We now have a true pitcher/batter duel, one that becomes a series of strategic and increasingly tense mind games and shootouts. No longer do you swing at every pitch, or just throw the ball wildly. Now you must think of the long game. The pitcher must lure batters away from their comfort zones, away from power swings that could result in home runs. His strategy is to keep his opponent guessing, trying to make him willing to swing at a bad pitch. For the batter, the strategy is to control the tempo of the duel, work to wear the pitcher down, drag that count as long as possible, play for time and wait for the perfect moment to strike. Too many pitches result in tired arms. Tired arms result in fat gopher balls. Gopher balls become easy pickings for “lock on” power swings that now can occur on any quadrant, resulting in huge hits and grand slams.

Your offensive strategy is to know when to use your weak (cursor) and normal (lock-on) swings, and when to aim for the power swings (quadrants). Get a hit, get a man on base, then try for a bunt or steal. It’s difficult to move around those bases, and home runs are thankfully uncommon. You need to work on singles and doubles and hustle your butt off. Likewise, your defensive strategy depends on knowing how long to keep your starters on the mound, and when to bring in the relievers, and how to respond to specific batters (southpaws are a nightmare). And you must know how deep or how shallow to move your outfielders, and hustle to catch those balls and make those double plays.

World Series Baseball 98 looks absolutely sensational by 1997 standards, with graphics that rival anything seen on the Saturn (or Playstation and Nintendo 64, for that matter). The players are all rendered in polygons, are very large and include many impressive animations. All of the baseball stadiums are recreated in impressive detail, and Sega got the dimensions right, which was always a bigger problem with video baseball than you’d realize. Everything looks very detailed and colorful, but also very clean. Quads look good on these players. Is this running in one of the 480 high resolution mode? Perhaps.

One unsung quality of this game is the audio, which features a highly professional play-by-play commentary (and not just by 1997 standards) and voice announcements for all the players. There are some nice embellishments for the star players that remind me of Marsh Nelson announcing “Kirrrrrby Puuuuucket” at Twins games (God Rest Their Souls). Umpire calls are short and, more importantly, not irritating. Sound effects are highly satisfying, from the thick crack of the bat on the power swings to the crackle of foul balls. The music fits the mood and is always catchy, giving me warm memories of the Genesis days.

Just this morning, I played a quick cpu-vs-cpu game for the purpose of taking these screenshots, an exhibition match with Minnesota Twins at Chicago Cubs. On the very first pitch in the first inning, Chuck Knoblauch cracked a home run into the left field stands, giving the Twins an easy lead that was soon widened to 2-0. After several quick innings, the Cubs meticulously clawed their way back, earning one run here, one run there, doing it the old fashioned way by rounding the bases. A home run by Sammy Sosa gave Chicago the lead with 3-2 in the eighth inning.

At the top of the ninth, with one out, the Twins had one out with the tying runner on third. A fastball was connected by a pop fly to the infield. Two outs. It all comes down to this. Matt Lawton at the plate. A pitch. Ball. Another pitch that goes outside and low. Ball Two. Then something miraculous happens. A third pitch comes right down the middle. Lawton swings. The ball is chipped, bounces backwards towards the catcher. He drops the ball, which then rolls back to the wall. Sudden shock as jaws drop. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! RUN, YOU FOOL, RUN!!

Lawton sprints towards first base as the tying run races towards home plate. The catcher chases after the ball, grabs it, spins around, fires a bullet to first base at the last possible second.

OUT!

Any programmer can simulate a sport. It takes truly gifted minds to create true drama. World Series Baseball 98 has that in spades. God Bless Sega.

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