Backyard Baseball 09 Review
The Backyard sports games for kids have turned out to be moderate success for Atari, which is the reason why we now have Backyard Baseball 09. It features real-life stars along with regular ol’ fictional kids, and all of you head out to a variety of – you guessed it – backyards to compete in pickup games of our glorious pastime. But there is some depth, as you can start up a Season or a Tournament, and you can also track player performance along with a variety of other relevant statistics. Unfortunately, due to the numerous and sometimes severe technical glitches, this year’s Backyard Baseball will only appeal to the youngest gamers; those who just want to knock the ball around in a simple baseball game. For everyone else, it can be entertaining for a while, but there’s really not enough here to appeal to a wide demographic, just because the gameplay suffers from issues that can’t be excused just because it’s a PS2 game.
The graphics are poor even for a last-generation title due to lackluster character design and relatively bland backgrounds. You do have more than a few fields to select from, and there is some vague similarity between the real-life David Ortiz and the Backyard Ortiz, but beyond that, these visuals are better off accepted and/or ignored rather than dissected. Clearly, due to the fact these games are simple budget titles and aren’t expected to sell a million copies, the budget for development and production is always quite low. And besides, does a 6-year-old really care about clipping and animation glitching? Given the target audience, we won’t harp on the bad graphics too much, but for the sake of a detailed review, they must be addressed. There’s plenty of good color and we did appreciate the effort put forth by Humongous Entertainment in creating some diverse playing fields. They range from simple backyard settings to big-city stadiums, and there’s even some background stuff going on; boats, trains, cars, etc, etc, etc. But we certainly could’ve used more detail and clarity the whole way ‘round; everything is just very mediocre.
The sound is worse, even though the color commentators desperately attempt to be funny during the course of a game. We assume that some of what they say will amuse the younger players out there, but the problem is, the commentary doesn’t always match the gameplay. If you’re flying right along in a game, the announcers are almost always late on a call; they’ll say there’s “none out and two men on” when you’re already circling the bases after hitting a home run with the next batter. Furthermore, the soundtrack is mostly a joke, as it’s either non-existent or they repeat the same ol’ upbeat tune, over and over again. The sound effects are okay, and they can shine when the special powers are utilized. For example, nailing a pitch with the Orbiter (explained below) sounds appropriately nutty, and the Freeze pitch sounds exactly as it should…or however a frozen, shattering baseball may sound. But that’s where the good news ends, as the sound is one of the low points of Backyard Baseball 09. If the gameplay was better, it might not matter so much, but…
The gameplay starts off simple, solid, and responsive, but after about an hour of play, it downgrades to frustrating, erratic, and slow. This is the biggest downfall of the game, primarily because we’re talking about the foundation on which every title is built: control. At first, the entire concept is easy to grasp. On defense, you select which pitch you would like to throw, aim the pitch, then press X to throw the ball. On offense, you select what kind of swing you wish to execute, then step into the box and try to get a hit by pressing X. You can press L1 to bring up a list of special Power-Up abilities to add some flavor to the experience, but you can only use them once per inning, and they end up being more irritating than anything else. Batting and pitching is easy enough, but it’s way too easy to get a hit – seemingly especially for the opposing team, when placed on Medium difficulty – and most games just turn into massive slugfests as a result of insane offense and pathetic defense. Even if you field a grounder cleanly, there’s still a good chance the runner will beat out the throw, and for some bizarre reason, the players move outrageously slow.
Slow, and stupid. Fielders will inexplicably hold onto the ball before moving to throw it, which in turn causes a whole lot of infield hits. Furthermore, the computer doesn’t always automatically select the best player to go after the ball, and you have to hit the R1 button to switch to the closer player…who won’t start to move until make the switch. Home runs are easy to hit, but due to the size of the fields, doubles and triples are extremely tough to come by. The computer will attempt to steal both second and third after a base hit about 75-80% of the time (exceedingly strange), fielders will make terrible decisions on their own (men on second and third, slow roller to third, third baseman runs back to try to tag the runner rather than simply stepping on the base), and hitters almost always have the advantage over the pitcher. Obviously, this isn’t supposed to be a simulator, but if we’re showing young kids how to play the game of baseball, perhaps we shouldn’t lie. There’s a reason why the best hitters in the world still only get a hit once every three trips to the plate.
Granted, pitching battles probably wouldn’t be too much fun for kids, but then again, perhaps the challenge of selecting the correct pitch and positioning it correctly would up the entertainment level. Sadly, it almost doesn’t seem to matter where you put the ball, as the batter will get the better of you about half the time. After finishing a 9-inning game with the score 20-7 and a 6-inning game with the score 16-12, it quickly became clear that defense doesn’t really factor into the equation. But the Home Run Derby is always lots of fun, both the Tournament and Season modes are good for the long run, and the All-Star game is a decent addition to the game mode lineup. Unfortunately, serious issues plague every one of those modes. In the Home Run Derby, for instance, you can smack a shot to left in one particular field, only to have the ball never come down onto the tall building, thereby causing the game to become stuck for an eternity. Quit, try again. In games, herky-jerky animations will throw you off, and the cumbersome players are never any match for the rocket shots the batters often hit. It’s just so unbalanced.
Backyard Baseball 09 might not be a bad purchase for those who have young kids who won’t notice (or care about) the problems discussed in this review. It has the budget price tag, the controls are simple and accessible, and even though we found it immensely frustrating, that’s just because we’re used to the best of the best in the new generation already. And besides, how cool is it to have those Power-Up skills? Like the Orbiter? It’s a special bat that – duh – sends any ball you hit into “orbit.” It’s an automatic home run and they tell you the distance when you smack one; the Orbiter puts a ball out 186,000 miles. Now that’s funny. Than there’s the Teleporter, the Freeze, the Meteor, and the Juice for pitchers; you can probably guess what each Power-Up does. If you throw the Meteor, it’s gonna be super silly fast, and the batter probably won’t have a shot at it. You can only use these skills every once in a while, but as we mentioned earlier, they do add some spice to a pretty straightforward and even bland baseball game. We just think the significant balance and control issues might even miss Atari’s target audience.
But you parents can be the judge. It might be worth the $20 risk if you really believe your kids will get some fun out of Backyard Baseball 09.
8/7/2008 Ben Dutka