Mister Raroo is our friend, native San Diegan, video game fanatic and contributor to several video game publications. He was kind enough to write an exclusive review of MLB 08: The Show for us. Please click on illustrations for larger version.
Introduction: Baseball on Both Sides of the Pacific
When it comes to the Great American Pastime of baseball, I really like Japan’s take on it. A couple years back, Missus Raroo and I were lucky enough to take in a Yomiyuri Giants game during our trip to Tokyo. That may very well have been the most entertaining game of baseball I’ve ever attended. Save for one inebriated American businessman who was at the game with a group of embarrassed locals, there was no booing to be heard nor rowdy behavior to be seen. Instead, the crowd was content to happily cheer in unison for their team, singing along to the catchy melodies played by each team’s small but spirited band of cheerleading squads. Missus Raroo and I couldn’t help but join in and cheer for the Giants because, after all, they were the home team, but we had to respect the Hiroshima Carp fans, who cheered on their losing team down to final out. Nobody left early, everyone was smiling, and when a nearby Giants fan spilled his beverage, he actually ran to get paper towels to wipe it up!
A few months after our return to the States, Missus Raroo and I spent
an evening at
Petco Park, enjoying a San Diego Padres game. While Padres fans are generally a relaxed and polite bunch, I couldn’t help but notice some striking differences from the experience I’d had at the Tokyo Dome. To begin with, there was a heck of a lot of booing and heckling to be heard. I’ve got nothing personally against it and often it can be a fun part of the overall atmosphere, but thinking back to how embarrassing it seemed when the drunk American was booing the Carp at the Tokyo Dome, not to mention the reaction from the Japanese fans sitting around him, hearing booing at Petco Park rang differently in my ears. On top of that, a woman sitting in front of us was eating garlic fries with a criminal amount of ketchup on them, dripping all over the ground in front of her and more or less grossing us out. Needless to say, she didn’t rush to grab any paper towels to clean up her mess.
It wouldn’t be true to say I completely prefer Japanese baseball over American baseball. After all, I was raised in San Diego and grew up attending Padres games. My dad has been a season ticket holder since I was a kid and growing up I went to most Friday and Sunday home games. In recent years I haven’t been as excited about sports in general, including baseball, but it still holds a special place in my heart and I enjoy keeping up with what’s happening with the Padres, even if I’m not religiously checking the box scores like I used to. All the same, there was definitely something about the baseball game we went to in Tokyo that made a lasting impression on me. The next time I’m at Petco Park and some drunk fan spills his beer and boos the opposing team, I’ll be thinking that he should hurry to grab some paper towels so he can wipe up his mess then apologize to everyone around him for being rude!
Japan: Dominating Baseball Videogames Since the 1980s
Now, despite my upbringing with American baseball, my videogame baseball background is strictly Japanese. A great deal of my youth was spent playing the likes of Baseball Stars II for the Neo Geo, World Class Baseball on the Turbografx-16, and World Series Baseball on the Sega Genesis, all of which were developed by Japanese game studios. I don’t think I ever even played any baseball games created by American developers until the Playstation era, and even then nothing appealed to me. I tried both Sony’s and Electronic Arts’ offerings and all I could think was that I missed the arcade-like style and gameplay purity of the games I grew up with. Put simply, I can’t say I’ve played an American-developed baseball game I’ve truly liked. In recent years, the only baseball games I’ve cared for are Mario Superstar Baseball and MLB Power Pros, both of which are based on long-running Japanese baseball game series, Namco’s Family Stadium series and Konami’s Jikkyō Powerful Pro Yakyū series, respectively.
There is simply that special something the Japanese developers capture when they create baseball games. In my experience, the American development teams have always focused a little too much on making their baseball titles more like simulations than actual games. I don’t necessarily expect their games to allow your pitcher to throw a Bob-omb in place of a baseball like in Mario Superstar Baseball, but it would be nice if the games didn’t feel so darn clinical. I suppose that the obvious problem is that the simulation-style games aren’t created with gamers like me in mind, and yet I consider MLB Power Pros to be just about perfect. It lacks wacky gimmicks and contains plenty of simulation-like aspects, but it manages to provide a purely enjoyable experience that harkens back to my favorite baseball games from my childhood. I think that the Japanese development teams know that baseball games are just that: games. Playing games is supposed to be enjoyable, and even if the approach to baseball is a bit more "Western" in MLB Power Pros than it is in other Japanese-developed baseball games, the core essence of gameplay boils down the pure elements that make the game fun. Thinking back to the American-developed baseball titles I’ve tried, I could appreciate when they were high quality, but it always felt like I had to sift through a lot of fluff to get to the fun.
It was with more than a little hesitation, then, that I approached MLB 08: The Show. I knew the game had been scoring favorable reviews from the gaming media and I was anxious to see how a baseball game taking advantage of the PS3’s power would fare, but I wasn’t sure if it would have the appeal to me that either Mario Superstar Baseball or MLB Power Pros hold. Still, I decided to keep an open mind and look at the game from every possible angle, trying to be as neutral as possible. I realize that MLB 08: The Show wouldn’t necessarily be directed at a gamer like me, but rather would probably appeal to serious baseball fanatics. Some gamers who are into sports videogames stick to one game and that is all they play until the next year’s version is released. Missus Raroo’s cousin, for example, is a Madden player, but that is all he’s interested in. He owns a PS3 but what does he play? Madden, Madden, and just Madden. I expected MLB 08: The Show to be a similar type of game and, in many ways it is, but you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that, beyond my initial expectations, I really enjoyed it.
What Makes MLB 08: The Show Appealing?
Two things make MLB 08: The Show instantly appealing to me: presentation and playability. However, the loading times I initially experienced almost caused me to give up on the game before I’d even started. When played for the first time, the game has an initial loading period of close to five minutes! Some of the game data is permanently installed on the PS3’s hard drive when the game is booted for the first time, which no doubt allows for less loading during actual gameplay. Thankfully the disc does not experience such extended loading periods after your first play, however loads before beginning a game are lengthy, too. Once the actual game begins, though, you’ll be hard pressed to find any loading times. Trading a long load time before a game begins in exchange for no loading during the rest of the game is a trade off I’m willing to make.
Once I got over my frustration with the load times and was finally able to dig in the actual game, my mood changed. The first thing that caught my attention was how much the game’s presentation made me feel like I was watching a baseball game on television. The three-man announcing team of Rex Hudler, Matt Vasgersian, and Dave Campbell deliver a play-by-play that is second to none. While many other sports games often have some hiccups and tonal shifts in transitions (example: "Now batting for the…. Padres… the shortstop… number… 3… Khalil Greene"), MLB 08: The Show sounds authentic, like you’re listening to a live broadcast. The on-screen interface and appearance also seem like they were taken directly from a television broadcast, right down to the pre-game lineup graphics and specific camera angles employed during replays. Honestly, if you gave MLB 08: The Show a quick glance, you’d really think you were watching a game on TV.
Additionally, the game has a wealth of tiny touches that really make add to the ambiance. Each stadium is beautifully rendered and features details that fans will instantly recognize, including many of the specific homerun traditions each stadium is famous for. Player models are highly-detailed and look exceptional when in motion. Most players’ specific batting stances are faithfully replicated, so fans will be able to easily spot their favorite players on sight alone. The motion-captured animations don’t end there, either. Everything, from fielding line drives to walking up to the plate, is fluidly animated and looks authentic. My only knock is that players’ faces don’t look quite right to me. In MLB Power Pros, where the character models are super deformed and cartoony, the developers captured a less-realistic look to the players, yet the few standout details they chose to highlight make the players very recognizable. MLB 08: The Show, on the other hand, has phenomenal character models but when viewed up close, their facial details and lack of emotion make them look a bit like androids. It’s a little creepy and the close-up shots take me out of the experience a little.
There are a mind-boggling amount of game modes that will no doubt give just about anyone what they’re looking for. You can jump right into exhibition games, play through a full season, or even create a player and follow his career from its humble beginnings to super stardom. No matter what type of game experience you’re looking for, MLB 08: The Show has something to offer. One of the most significant features offered by the game is the ability to play online, so gamers always have the option of playing against a live opponent if they so desire. Personally, I’m not a big fan of online play because frankly I just don’t have the time to commit to it, but the smooth online experience of MLB 08: The Show will surely be a huge selling point for many potential buyers.
The presentation wouldn’t mean a thing if the game didn’t play well, though, and MLB 08: The Show delivers in spades. To me, the success of baseball games ultimately comes down to the batting and pitching interface, and it doesn’t falter here. In fact, the game allows for as much depth as you want, so someone such as me who is looking for an arcade-like experience can be satisfied, whereas those seeking a richer simulation experience will find the depth they’re looking for. In other words, batting can be as simple as pressing a button to swing or going further and guessing the pitch and trying to focus on hitting balls in each player’s specific hot zone. Pitching, even more so than batting, is very satisfying. Employing a three-tap system in which you begin you wind-up, select the power of the pitch, then select the accuracy, MLB 08: The Show’s pitching mechanic is both fun and challenging. In fact, fans of golf videogames will find the pitching mechanic to be very similar to many golf games’ swinging systems. All in all, the batting and pitching are very well done and, even most importantly, very enjoyable.
Fielding is also solid and there was rarely a time in which I didn’t feel the responsiveness of the players and intuitiveness of the controls caused me to do anything other than field plays as I expected. It must be pointed out, though, that the motion-captured animations sometimes affect making plays. There doesn’t seem to be a way to interrupt animation cycles, so I experienced times when one of my fielders would go after a ball, miss it, and I’d have to wait until the motion-captured animation was finished before I could make him run to pick up the ball. Needless to say, those moments were frustrating, but they were few and far between, so I can’t knock the developers’ decision to put in realistic-looking animations at the very slight and seldom expense of affecting fielding gameplay. I don’t enjoy the fielding quite as much as the pitching and batting interface, but it certainly does much more than just get the job done.
Definitely Great, But Still Near Perfect
MLB 08: The Show turned out to be a game that I not only liked, but liked much more than I would’ve have otherwise guessed. It’s a solid baseball game and the first from an American development team that I’ve truly enjoyed. I am confident that any baseball fan will be ecstatic with all that MLB 08: The Show has to offer, and even the types of gamers like me who wouldn’t usually touch a game like this with a 10-foot pole will find plenty to like. All the same, there are some issues with the game that have kept me from putting it in league with the likes of MLB Power Pros.
As much as the presentation is second to none, there are still unfortunate details that stood out to me as missteps on the developers’ part. One of the most notable issues is the crowd, which despite being fully polygonal and moving with convincing fluidity, features many repeated character models that all cheer in the exact same animation routine at the exact same time. For example, you’ll be initially wowed as you watch an impressive rendition of your favorite player walking up to bat, but behind him in the crowd you’ll notice ten to fifteen clones of the same character model going through the same cheering animation in unison. It’s like synchronized cheering, and it looks completely bizarre and not at all lifelike.
I was also disappointed with some strange bugs that I encountered. Small annoyances such as players walking through umpires as if they were ghosts on the base paths is something I can overlook, but the unexpected swapping of character models is another thing. Let me highlight a particular instance. I was playing a game as the Seattle Mariners and Ichiro Suzuki hit a single, putting him on first base. No surprise there, but what did shock me is what happened next. With Adrian Beltre up to bat, I gave Ichiro the signal to steal second base while having Beltre swing away. Beltre fouled the ball off, but when the camera cut to Ichiro trotting back to first, what showed on screen Beltre’s character model in place of Ichiro’s. Bugs like that are downright inexcusable in a game with such a high budget. I understand that the massive amount of data being accessed at any one time can lead to bugs such as the one I experienced, but it doesn’t mean I automatically forgive it.
Finally, my largest regret is that the game’s pacing is a little on the slow side. The broadcast-like quality of the presentation leads to a slower game pace than I would like. Baseball fans looking to recreate the experience of a real game will be in hog heaven, but for players like me that don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming at any one moment, I found myself wishing the game would speed up just a tad. Thankfully there are options that do cut down on the game’s length, such as turning off batters’ walk-up animations, but it still feels a little on the long side. After playing through a 9-inning game in MLB 08: The Show, I decided to play a game of MLB Power Pros to compare the pacing and there was a notable speed difference in MLB Power Pros’ favor.
The Bottom Line
It’s nice to be surprised and end up liking something you’re sure you were going to hate, and MLB 08: The Show is a perfect example of just that. I went into the game with as open of a mind as possible, but something in the back of my head was convinced that I wasn’t going to like it at all. Thankfully, I can safely say that MLB 08: The Show is a game that will appeal not only to serious baseball fans, but fans of videogames in general. Unless someone complete loathes sports with a passion, there is a great deal of fun to be had for just about every type of gamer imaginable. While obviously a game like MLB 08: The Show will appeal the most to the hardest of the hardcore baseball fans, even gamers looking for an arcade-like experience will walk away pleased. The strength of the game lies in its ability to provide the level of depth that each particular player is looking for.
Does MLB 08: The Show knock MLB Power Pros out of the spot as my top pick for baseball games? Certainly not, and in fact I don’t even like it as much as my other previous favorites, namely Mario Superstar Baseball, Baseball Stars II, and World Class Baseball. But I can’t deny that MLB 08: The Show is an extremely high-quality game that delivers a solid gameplay experience along with a level of presentation and atmosphere that can’t be found elsewhere. MLB Power Pros remains my choice as the best recommendation for baseball fans, but MLB 08: The Show is not to be overlooked. And, for beer-spilling fans who like to boo the opposing team, chances are it’s a better choice for them, anyway! In the end, gamers can do much worse than MLB 08: The Show, and it certainly proves itself to be worthy of a purchase.
Thank you Mister Raroo !
Gaslamp Ball has been given some free copies of MLB 08: The Show (PS3) to give away to our readers. Stay tuned for more info.
- MLB 08 The Show is the long running officially licensed baseball title available exclusively on all PlayStation platforms: PLAYSTATION 3, PlayStation 2 and the portable PSP.
- MLB 08 The Show is available exclusively for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable consoles.
- MLB 08 The Show is the best-selling and most realistic baseball simulation available.
- MLB 08 The Show for PlayStation delivers the closest experience possible next to actually playing in the Majors.
- MLB 08 The Show is available right now wherever video games are available