If there's one lesson to be learned from this year's historical subway series between the Mets and Yankees (other than the fact that this country isn't interested in watching two New York teams compete), it's that little things make all the difference between winning and losing in a game of baseball. Take for example game one, when Todd Zeile—up at bat in the sixth inning—hit what initially appeared to the be a home run. The ball ended up bouncing off the top of the fence, falling back into the outfield and was ruled a fair play.
So many pivotal things could have happened on that one particular at-bat. Had the ball climbed a mere couple of more inches as the result of a gust of wind, a micro fraction of more bat contact or even fan intervention (like last year's World Series controversy), it could have been a home run. Had Timo Perez, currently on base at the time, sprinted aggressively rather than casually perusing the base pads, he could have scored what might have been a crucial run. The entire complexion of the series could have shifted dramatically depending on the outcome of that single play, and the Mets could have just as well became World Series champs instead of chumps.
It's those little things—which are at times almost intangible and uncontrollable—that make all the difference in determining victory in baseball, and it's what also makes the game such an exciting and lively sport at times.
So what shocks me most about nearly all video baseball games to date (or at least as far back as I can recollect) is that none of them capture those important "little things." Baseball games since the early 8-bit days have been content to reinterpret the game of baseball as if it was purely about mechanical physics, mathematical precision and statistical probability devoid of human error. Consequently, most of these games may have looked like the game of baseball, but very few actually felt like it when playing. That extra element of "chance" just isn't there.
Fortunately for us all, that is no longer the case. The developers at High Voltage have ended the streak of games that lacked that sense of liveliness and raised the bar for all baseball games in the process. The latest edition to their popular series, All-Star Baseball 2001, is not only the most fundamentally sound baseball game ever made, but it also miraculously captures those "little things" that make the sport so unpredictable and special.
Unlike so many other baseball games before it, All-Star Baseball 2001 simply takes the time to put elements of the game that so many other games choose to ignore. This means that pitchers actually throw wild pitches that get away from the catcher or fielders misplay balls by overthrowing the receiver or booting the ball. Base runners get picked off for leading too far or caught stealing on a pitch out. Batters develop hot and cold streaks. Weather and wind conditions also play a factor by blowing foul balls fair or keeping deep fly balls from getting over the fence. That's not to say that the physics of the game aren't realistic either. The physics are in fact finely tuned (finally a game where you can't gun the runner out at first base off a line drive into right field). None of the aforementioned plays are greatly exaggerated nor do they happen too frequently, but the key is that these things do actually occur realistically enough throughout any game. Like the real sport itself, players make errors. There are certain conditions that are simply uncontrollable (like weather), and these "little" situations can play a vital factor at crucial moments. As a result, every game I played in All-Star Baseball seemed to have its own rhythm and pace, and I never knew what to expect inning to inning.
With all of these seemingly random or uncontrollable situations that I keep touting, you would think that the developers would be tempted to allow the computer to "cheat" these events like so many other sports to make up for poor AI. Much to my own surprise, that's not the case with All-Star Baseball 2001—which turns out to be one of the most challenging and properly balanced sports games ever. The computer-controlled players are smart, but are just as prone to making fielding and base running errors as human controlled players. Nor does the weather or any other computer influenced conditions seem to show favoritism. Instead, both human and computer-controlled players seem to deal with their own equal share of typical mistakes and uncontrollable incidents. Much like the real sport of baseball, it's the team that manages and perseveres through those unanticipated problems that end up victorious. And again, it reinforces the notion that almost anything can happen during the game, and you need to stay on your toes if you want to be successful.
If capturing that "chance" element of baseball wasn't enough, All-Star Baseball 2001 also manages to trump the competition in almost every conceivable feature as well.
Presentation wise, All-Star Baseball 2001 is understandably second to only World Series Baseball 2K1 on the Dreamcast, but that doesn't mean this title doesn't look and sound great either. Utilizing the hi-res expansion pak, All-Star Baseball 2001 still manages to put together some snappy sound effects and fine-looking, double-take visuals that not only look stunningly realistic at times, but also animate with life-like fluidity. Like the gameplay, this is one of the few baseball games that simply takes the time to make things look and sound the way they're supposed to. Pitches coming at that batter are consistently recognizable; batters who strike out looking at close pitches have angry gestures for the umpire; base runners spike fielders and home runs evoke the obvious crowd cheers—fist-pumping gestures and fireworks.
As far as the control scheme is concerned, All-Star Baseball 2001 is the best. No other game has a more complete, accurate and satisfying pitcher-batter interface that captures the strategic elements of guessing pitches and working the count, as well as the excitement of tattooing a ball out of the park. Fielding is also a joy because accomplishing feats like diving catches and leaps-off-the-wall-grabs are easily performed by the touch of a button. Throwing to a respective base is also equally intuitive—facilitated by the diamond-shaped layout of C-buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller. Just about every other single control option (with the minor exception of base running—more on that later) like leading runners, stealing bases, pick-offs, bunts, and pitch-outs is handled exceptionally well.
The final icing on the cake is that the developers even addressed one of my main complaints about last year's edition, the confusing menus and overly complex options. For the 2001 version, all the same great features like quick arcade-style play, simulation season modes, fantasy league drafting options and home run derbies are still there. The difference is that this year, all the features are better organized. Navigating the well-designed menus are a snap, and all the complex options (most notably in the create-a-player feature) have also been streamlined or clarified so there is less confusion.
If that weren't enough, the developers went to the trouble of including one other noteworthy feature. In addition to all rosters from the MLB 2000 season, theres also the inclusion of the Cooperstown Legends team (complete with their own cornfield stadium). Surprisingly, you're not going to find typical greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Mickey Mantle in it. Instead, the team is composed of some of the more recent and untraditional Hall of Famers (mostly from the 1970s) like my all-time favorite, Nolan Ryan, and other legends like Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Rollie Fingers. The team or any of its individual players can't be utilized or drafted into the season mode, but it's still a nice and respectful gesture to assemble such a thoughtfully composed squad.
So with all the love and praise that I have showered on this title, why doesn't it reach the pinnacle 10 rating? For one, precise base running with two or more players is overly difficult to manage. All-Star Baseball 2001 doesn't follow the old tried and true formula that most baseball games use for navigating the diamond. Instead, the game uses a unique control scheme corresponding to the C-buttons, which seemed like a good idea if not for one issue. Commands to an individual runner are often confused with the "advance all" feature, which resulted in one too many base running mishaps. Another thing that also bugged me was that once I drafted my own fantasy league and started a new season, that team roster that I picked wasn't accessible outside of the season mode. Upon finishing or exiting the season mode, all in-season rosters are lost and restored to their default states. This means that if you wanted to enter the same team in a new season or match up your team against a buddy's in the exhibition mode, you're out of luck.
These are some minor and highly forgivable flaws that keep All-Star Baseball 2001 from reaching that ultimate distinction. None the less, even if it misses the moon, this is one heck of game that ends up really high up among the stars. The difference between winning and losing in a game of baseball very often comes down to a crucial fielding error (sorry Bill Bruckner), a bad pitch, a mere swing of the bat or a fluke play. All-Star Baseball 2001, unlike any other title before it, understands that small yet vital part of the game. They've somehow managed to capture that element into bits and bytes, and the results, like the actual game of baseball itself, is pure magic.