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MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr.

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Reviewed by Scott McCall It took three years and countless delays to get here, but MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. has finally hit the market. So was it worth the wait? Well, it's not the greatest baseball game ever, which is disappointing, but it's still an extremely fun and polished title for non-baseball fans or arcade baseball fans. Die-hard baseball fans, on the other hand, will probably be slightly disappointed in the game, even though it's better than All-Star Baseball '99 in some ways. Be sure to check out my review of All-Star Baseball '99 for even more comparisons. As with the Griffey games on the Super NES, MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is a hybrid baseball game. It leans more on the action side, but there is still enough simulation here to whet my baseball appetite. In fact, there are many more simulation aspects in the N64 version compared to the old Super NES versions. Let's start with the control first. MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is much more responsive, intuitive, and comfortable than the control scheme of All-Star Baseball '99. True, there aren't as many things to do in MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr., but most of the extra options in All-Star Baseball '99 are rarely used. One of the best things about MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is the choice of hitting systems. You can choose between "Classic" and "Arcade." Classic is the old timing system used on nearly all the previous baseball games on the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles. Arcade is a new system in which you have to match the batting cursor with the pitching cursor. I personally still like the old classic system. What's great is that both players can choose their own preferences. Then it's a simple matter of pressing A to hit or holding B to bunt. The pitching interface in MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is also sweet. It's quick, it's realistic, and it's easy-to-understand. Pitches are chosen by pressing A, B, Z + A, or Z + B. While pressing the corresponding button(s) for a pitch, you use the Control Stick to aim. It's as simple as that. It's easy enough for non-baseball fans and gives enough control for the die-hard. You can also turn Pitch Graphics on or off in the options screen. Basically, if it's on (depending on the batting style), then a box for the strike zone will appear and a crosshair matching the pitcher's heart beat will appear. Fielding and running control are also much easier than in All-Star Baseball '99. To advance a runner, all you have to press is a corresponding C button (i.e., Top C for second base). To go back, just hold down Z while pressing a C button. Leading off is also accomplished with the C buttons. In the batting/pitcher screen, you can press a C button up to three times before the runner will take off. To advance multiple runners on base, just use the R button instead of multiple C buttons. On the downside, it seems as if your button pressing doesn't always register. Sometimes there is just a delay and other times you're forced to try again. Also, if you press the C button at the wrong time or too quickly, your guy will take off. Fielding is very easy, too. The A button dives, the B button jumps, the C buttons are used to throw to the bases, and if you hold down Z while pressing a C button, then you'll run to a base. A few pitching options include holding down Z while pressing C to look at a base and pressing the R button to bring up your pitch selection/fatigue meter box. While MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. could benefit from more statistics (it has 30+ categories while All-Star Baseball '99 has 200+ categories), larger and more up-to-date rosters, and more features and options, there is a decent amount of simulation here. Unlike the previous Griffey games, there are statistics shown before each at-bat that are updated as the game progresses. Of course, you got the standard Exhibition, World Series, Season, and Home Run Derby modes. Inside those, you can tweak, change, and edit your pitching and batting rosters at any time. You can make substitutions, including defensive substitutions. There are trading and free agent options, and you can even make your own Fantasy League. The most major option MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is missing is the Create-a-Player feature. Graphically, MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. can't really match All-Star Baseball '99, can it? Well, sort of. The low resolution graphics can be slightly fuzzy and do not seem as detailed. For instance, the stadiums in All-Star Baseball '99 seem more realistic because they have more textures. And there certainly aren't as many special animation situations or batting styles in here. But MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. does have a few things going for it. First of all, just the basic animation of running, throwing, and swinging is more accurate. The most impressive facet of the graphics, however, is the intelligent camera system. While All-Star Baseball '99 has multiple camera angles, they are fixed for the entire game and only change if the user changes them. In MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr., there are smooth transitions from one angle to another with each play. So there's different camera work for when a player comes up to bat, there are multiple angles for plays at each base, and the camera will even switch to a first-person perspective on high fly balls. The dynamic camera is simply awesome. I'm sure there was a lot of time spent on perfecting the camera angles. What probably impressed me the most about MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is the sound. It's surprisingly fantastic. The various menu and the title screen musical selections aren't that good, but the in-game sound is wonderful. You just have to make sure you turn on the background music in the options screen. First of all, there is excellent PA announcing in the game (the announcer says the player's batting number in the inning, position, and name), good umpire voices, and an occasional comment from Griffey himself. Second, there is a pretty decent crowd -- definitely much better than the one in All-Star Baseball '99. The crowd will cheer and jeer accurately and even has different decibel levels for various situations. You can also hear comments from fans in the crowd and vendors selling items. My favorite part of the sound, though, is when you turn on the background music. There is always the uninteresting background music played at a very low level, but it shouldn't get in the way. What's cool is that there's a short music clip (in stereo) played for each batter on the home team. And there are probably 20 or 30 of these three- to five-second clips! The music consists of organ music, crowd rousing songs, and even some more rock- or rap-like themes. It's kind of hard to explain, but they're very cool. I only wish the music would continue into the at-bat (sometimes it gets cut off if the pitcher is ready to go). There are also some nifty aural clues as to when someone is stealing a base or has committed an error. What's interesting about the gameplay of MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is that it's often more realistic than All-Star Baseball '99. The ball physics, for instance, are much, much better. The ball flies and rolls at a realistic speed and can take lots of different bounces. The players also move at more realistic speeds. Another interesting point is that there are actually errors in the game! How many baseball games actually have errors occurring in seemingly normal situations (i.e., fielding it wrong or dropping a fly ball)? I had two errors in the same game against the computer! But it's not like errors are easy to commit. They're usually the result of randomness for a certain situation rather than it being the user's fault. As stated, MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is not the best baseball game ever, so there have to be some faults. For starters, sometimes I noticed the wrong type of animation/throw in certain situations. For example, when a shortstop was close to second base, he whipped the ball there when it should have been an underhand toss or a lob. There are also some weird underhand tosses to first base. Another problem is when the game won't switch to the proper guy to field a ball for those weird, slow rolls. For example, if the ball rolls slowly by the pitcher, the shortstop would probably be better to get the ball, but the game will make you continue to control the pitcher until it's too late. This can result in frustrating infield singles. In line with the switching problem, if you have one of your outfielders dive for a ball and miss, then the other outfielders aren't backing him up in this game. In real life, if the guy in left field missed, then the center fielder would be there to get the ball. Not in this game. You have to wait until the guy you had dive gets up to go get it. I've also had a few too many throwouts from right field to first base on what should have been a single. That rarely happens in real baseball. The other major problem with MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is that two-player games can be too high scoring. When playing against the computer, the game has realistic scores and is challenging, but two-player games often end in games with scores that are in double digits for each side. Finally, there are some minor annoyances/quirks that should be mentioned. First, although the multiple home run celebrations are pretty cool, many of the home run distances are unrealistic in this game as well. Second, the rosters are much more out-of-date than in All-Star Baseball '99. The rosters seem to be based on spring training lineups rather than the opening day lineups. But if these guys are real baseball fans, then they should have been able to predict many of the changes that weren't included. Third, I feel kind of chaffed that there's no Control Pad support even though it does nothing. Some casual players still prefer it, you know. Since MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is my favorite baseball game and I think it has the potential to be the best in future editions, I've put together a little list of minor additions/improvements that could complement the changes to the negatives from above that should be made. This goes without saying that more simulation aspects should be added that don't sacrifice the fun, arcade-like nature of the game. First, we shouldn't have to wait for a tired pitcher to go through his "tired" animation. By the same token as that, it would be nice to have a stamina meter along the lines of All-Star Baseball '99 instead of a word signifying his energy. Second, there needs to be more animation and crowd reaction to strikes and strikeouts. Third, all player names should be on the back of the jerseys (except when tradition is involved), even if the player's name is long. Just use a smaller font. Fourth, although the game can get challenging, it would be nice to have multiple difficulty levels to choose from in the season mode. Fifth, the ability to do double switching and pinch running needs be added. Sixth, it would be nice to see some field degradation (base lines wearing out, etc.) and to see uniforms get dirty. Seventh, it would be more realistic if the pitchers had their actual pitches rather than the three standard + one specialty scheme the game uses Eight, it would be nice to look at the CPU's lineup and bullpen -- not to change them but to just to see who's playing and who's sitting. Finally, although MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. has a very cool attendance feature, it needs to be more realistic (i.e., not as many people as it says for some teams). Trust me, I can relate to this because the Pittsburgh Pirates don't exactly get all that many people to the ball park, especially on certain days of the week. When it's all said and done, I prefer MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. over the competition. For some reason, the game is just extremely fun, especially more so than the slow-paced All-Star Baseball '99. In fact, I've noticed many reviewers mention this but not seem to factor it into their final score. Coupling the fun factor along with the better sound, atmosphere, ball physics, and control make MLB Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. a more formidable competitor than one might imagine. And there are more simulation elements in here than you might have originally thought, too. But neither baseball game is excellent, and both could be improved a lot. Just play both and decide for yourself.

Graphics: 4.0 out of 5 Sound: 4.4 out of 5 Control: 4.5 out of 5 Gameplay: 4.2 out of 5 Lastability: 4.4 out of 5 Overall: 4.3 out of 5

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