[2 October 2008]
Baseball fever is hitting its season high. The pennant races have been decided, the pretenders have been eliminated, and the games that “count” are starting to get underway. As such, it’s no surprise that August is such a popular time for the release of second tier baseball games—that is, the ones with less emphasis on simulation than arcade-ready fun. Parents want to spend time sharing baseball experiences with their children, and one of the ways that parents can do this with their kids is through a video game that both demographics can play. These arcade-style games may not have the depth, the stats, or even the teams that the majors do, but at least they have the baseball action that parents and their children are hungry for.
As such, it’s not much of a surprise to see something like Little League World Series Baseball 2008 on the shelves. Little League World Series is actually an officially-licensed game, even if it’s not a Major League Baseball license. The thing is, there’s not a whole lot that you can do with a Little League World Series license, since even if you do know who the players are and what teams they played for in this year’s Little League World Series, it would be impossible (not to mention ethically questionable) to include the names of these young amateurs in such a game. It’s not like there’s a Player’s Association that’ll give a license to those.
What you end up with instead, then, is the Little League World Series name with all of the regions around the world that compete in the annual tournament. This gives the game something of the feel of Olympic baseball, in that you identify with a country (or, if you pick from the USA, a region) and try to take that country to the big prestigious championship.
The basic game mechanic here is a minimalized stylus-based one. If you’re pitching, you pick a pitch to throw and then you move the stylus along the little path given to you to throw the ball. If you move the stylus quickly, you’ll pitch fast. If you miss the path, the ball is likely to end up right in the middle of the strike zone (and, thus, easily hit out of the park). It’s a fairly simple mechanic, easy for adults and children alike to master, and it keeps the options limited and the game moving. Fielding is done pretty much automatically, save for the necessary stylus swipe when the ball needs to be thrown, reducing the learning curve even further.
Where things get a bit dicey, though, is the hitting. Granted, I didn’t expect to walk all over the game when i first put it into my DS, but I didn’t expect to throw my DS in frustration, either. All hitting requires, on the surface, is a quick swipe of the stylus when the ball appears. As easy as that sounds, the problem is this: it doesn’t always work. At least, that’s how it seems. Perhaps I’m missing some integral part of just how the swipe has to happen, or where the start and endpoints of the swipe need to be, or even the limits on the direction. Regardless of the reasons, though, the mere idea that it feels as though the game is at all responsible for my poor hitting is a strike (ha!) against it.
The resulting difficulty in the hitting is only compounded by the fact that these little league teams are no pushovers. I thought it would be fun to play the American Northeast region vs. Japan right off the bat, and, of course, I was easily handled and brushed aside by the Japanese team. A familiar result happened the next four times I tried to play, and while it occasionally felt as though I was making some progress via actually managing a home run or three, or winning one of the game’s “trophies” (read: achievements) by striking out all three batters in an inning, I never felt like I was getting better.
I can guarantee that I’m going to have a lot more patience for a video game than the average member of the target audience for Little League World Series Baseball 2008. This is a game targeted at the tween set, the same kids who would be playing actual little league baseball when they’re not playing a little league baseball video game. The problem is, kids of that age generally don’t have much patience for a game that offers a frustrating challenge, especially when the perception is that the game mechanics are at fault for much of the frustration. This is especially true when there’s little other than the gameplay itself to hook those players. The graphical flash is nonexistent, coming off as something between an EA baseball simulation and RBI Baseball, the sounds are functional but minimal, and the novelty of the controls wears off about halfway through the first six-inning game you’ll play. The game tries to increase its replay value through the aforementioned trophies and minigame modes, but these are simply frosting on a stale cupcake; it tastes better going down, but it still gives you a stomach ache when you’re done.
Whether a game centered on the Little League World Series was strictly necessary is up for debate, but regardless, here it is. The primary problem is that the Little League World Series is simply not a lucrative enough license to hang a gaming franchise on. When it’s actually happening, it’s largely relegated to ESPN2 if it gets any coverage at all, and most gamers, even the ones who are tremendous baseball fans, would be hard pressed to even name the finalists in this year’s Series. Without the benefit of a true draw, whether it be one of a name brand, or a flashy graphical engine (as flashy as the DS gets, anyway), or even a truly groundbreaking control scheme (though it’s close), Little League World Series Baseball 2008 is destined to be forgotten. As it turns out, in a video baseball climate with no shortage of arcade baseball games and simulations, there’s little need for something in between the two.