Nostalgia Tripping is a column in which Dan Tallarico explores his collection of retro games to see how well they hold up. You can expect heartbreak, childhood flashbacks and a ton of Capcom games. Want to yell at him about old games? Find him on Twitter.
What I remember
Like most children, I was forced into sports. While there are worst things to be forced into, it wasn’t pleasant. My worst sport as a child was baseball. At my young age, I had as much energy as a bob-omb ready to blow, and standing in the outfield waiting for an object to be hit in my direction wasn’t my idea of fun. It was when I gave up an in-the-park homerun to the only girl in the league on a bunt that I knew for sure I had no future in this sport. It was like my body was momentarily possessed by Abbot and Costello, and they made me act like a complete fool.
Thanks to video games, I was able to learn the mechanics of baseball as a child in the safety of a basement. My friends and I would gather around the SNES and play game after game of Home Run Derby, hosted by Ken Griffey Jr. I’m concerned that there was actually nothing else on that cartridge. We would fight over who got to play as Griffey, then we’d just blast home runs. For summers on end, we opted out of playing baseball with the other rascals to swing the digital club until the cartridge burned like a pie forgotten in an oven.
Playing it now
I can’t tell you the last time I touched a baseball. No, I mean legally. I’m not allowed near most organized sports, so if I need to unleash my competitive spirit, it’s through the wonders of video games and Street Fighter. Returning to Ken Griffey Jr’s Winning Run was a shocking experience. I jammed the cartridge into the SNES and fired the game up. I turned my back to the screen to take some notes on my computer when a familiar noise sucked the joy out of the air. There was synthesized eruption from my TV that mirrored the sounds from Killer Instinct. For a moment, I was hoping it was a poltergeist.
I looked up to see the Rare logo spinning on the screen. At least I thought it was the Rare logo. It vanished so quickly that I was doubting my senses. Following the logo was Ken Griffey Jr. His photorealistic character model dominated the screen–well, 1996 photorealistic, which requires a poor grasp of reality to think that image is real. Griffey was standing in front of a baseball field ready to slam some homers with his Seattle Mariner’s jersey on and a smile as wide as a jack-o-lantern’s. I went to high-five the screen, excited to see Griffey, when the theme song began playing. It was just a guy (who sounded possessed) beatboxing about baseball. Maybe this was demon baseball? I checked the cartridge to make sure. It was not. It was just a game made by a team at Rare that must have used the Killer Instinct engine, because what else were they going to do with it?
From the character models to the soundtrack, this game screams Killer Instinct. The same 3D effects that were “cutting edge” back then are in full force here. Unfortunately, it clashes miserably with the 3D backgrounds. It’s an eyesore that rudimentary character animations and primitive baseball mechanics can’t hide.
This is a good time to remind you that Rare, the company that developed this baseball game, is based in the UK, a country that did not see release of this game due to lack of national interest.
I panicked trying to find a menu or mode I could enter to escape the theme song. I found sanctuary in an exhibition match where I hurriedly chose my Pittsburgh Pirates to play against the New York Mets. Rare had official MLB license to use the teams and stadiums, but they weren’t able to use any of the player’s names except for Ken Griffey Jr’s. What you get is a pitcher named Bolt Lighting and a batter named Typhoon Kuroi (for those unfamiliar with baseball, those aren’t real names).
The exhibition match began with a haunting rendition of the National Anthem. I was bursting with national pride when the National Anthem finished and wanted more than ever to slam home runs and bake an apple pie. The game started, and I found myself at bat where I did nothing but swing and miss. This pitcher was anything but a belly itcher. While most pitches began in a straight line, they would quickly make a sharp turn as they approached the plate. It was frustrating, and in the entire time I played I didn’t manage to get any of my Pirates on base. If I managed to connect with the ball, it had a 100 percent chance of landing in an opponent’s glove. Defensively, my pitcher, Raccoon Davis, gave up a number of runs, and the outfielders were as effective as a team of rattlesnakes. It was 6-0 in the first inning. I’d much rather brave the awful menu screen music than finish this exhibition.
I reset the game and hurriedly found my way into the Home Run Derby. I picked Ken Griffey Jr., and we were off to the races. “This is where the game was going to redeem itself,” I said out loud to Griffey. Try as I might, hitting a homerun was as difficult as grabbing a slippery toad with an already greasy hand. Every swing seemed perfect, but they resulted in a meager chip or a foul ball. Eventually, I got the rhythm down and scored a few runs (where I was treated to a Killer Instinct billboard!), but my gusto was gone.
To accompany the barren field during the Home Run Derby was the crowd’s banshee shouting. Instead of a soundtrack, there’s a constant shrieking from the crowd that only stops to allow a concession guy frantically shout “soda pop” or “popcorn” as if his life depended on it. It does not create the best ambiance.
For a game that came out in 1996, the same year that the Nintendo 64 launched, I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe some old fashioned fun? The simplicity of home runs and an adoring crowd? I have fond memories of most sports games as a kid, though I despise them now. They were simple, arcadey and so unrealistic that they offered the fantasy I yearned for as a child. I was never a fan of baseball, but those games weren’t baseball. It was just a homerun simulator, a machine that opened the dopamine gates to my brain with every swing of the bat.