Stephen: Yeah, same here. I've gotta be up early in the morning, playing baseball. Del: Oh, baseball! Yeah! No... I love it. I always watch it on Channel Four. Rodney: You don't like baseball! You've always called it silly boys rounders! Del: Yeah, that was before that I knew it was 'in'! Nowadays it's the sort of game that guys like uh, me and Stephen enjoy. Stephen: How d'you mean? Guys like me and Stephen?
Silly Boys Rounders
December 25th 1989. Another traditional Christmas special of Only Fools and Horses has just aired on BBC1. I was literally a couple of days from my 10th birthday and yet now, and with fast approaching nearly 30 years having passed since that day, I still recall that gag being recited on the television screen as I struggled to muster a belly laugh amongst the vast quantities of turkey, vegetables and chocolate scoffed throughout the day. I recall it so vividly because a) the episode in question The Jolly Boys Outing is a timeless classic. Endlessly revered and in many circles touted as one of the greatest episodes of televised comedy ever. Oh and b) I chuckled hard because I knew at the time that American sports such as gridiron and baseball, and to a different extent the short lived airing of kabaddi were popular on British television network Channel 4.
In fact it was thanks to the Channel 4 broadcasts that my interest in US sports was piqued. Not long after the first few games had aired I’d already developed a desire to pledge my US sporting allegiances to the New York Giants, New York Mets and the Los Angeles Rams. Everyone at school picked a favourite team. If you were lucky enough you’d have a team jersey, perhaps a book or two or some stickers.
US sports merchandise, at least in the circles I frequented in the 80’s and 90’s, was seen as a bit of a luxury. That foreign import that won you insta-friends in the playground. You know the type. The kid who’s dad works on the rigs and got pirate tapes from Malta and Greece. The kid who was lucky enough to go to Florida on holiday during the Summer break and came back with a WWF wrestling ring and a stack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures before anyone else had even heard of them.
We all knew ‘that kid’.
Playing Hard(ball) To Get
When it comes to sports and video games, today we are spoiled for choice. Think of a sport, chances are there will be a game made about it. Heck, there’s even a drone racing game for crying out loud. Back in the day, when it came to US sports and you lived outside of the US, choice was somewhat limited due to what I assume was the fear of a lack of an established core audience therefor leading to small (ergo; lack of) sales leading to no money being made leading to no profit leading to business foreclosure. To put it bluntly.
I have talked at length about the wonderful 4th & Inches in a previous article, and from the very same studio we were treated to the glorious Hardball on the Commodore 64. Should that not be enough to suppress your lust for the ‘aul ball yard there was the infamous R.B.I. Baseball and later Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on the Super Nintendo. This is, of course, naming but a mere few in the grand scheme of things.
Yet given that we’ve had the best part of three decades to develop, sculpt and nurture an industry, from early, simple coin-guzzlers to AAA multi-million Euro, ultra-realistic blockbuster titles complete with VR experience, I personally don’t think much has been applied, nay even needed in the development of a good baseball game. It’s something that to be perfectly honest, I’d overlooked. How difficult can it be to perfect a baseball game? There’s not much to it is there? Look back over the years and you’ll notice that a lot of the titles made, especially earlier ones, all follow the same path. Static screen, a few stats, same mechanics and a bit of spit and polish to separate each. That, at least in my opinion, appears to be it.
At least with, say, the Madden NFL games you can see some sort of extra complexity, some sort of visible evolution. I’m not talking merely about visuals here by the way. It just feels to me like baseball has been dealt a bit of a rough hand. Have we genuinely explored the boundaries of a good baseball game? Have we pushed the limits of what is currently possible? Well, a couple of months ago Sony San Diego released MLB The Show 17 the latest iteration of a popular baseball video game series released on the PlayStation 4.
Now, I’ve been out of the saddle on baseball games for a while now, but believe me when I tell you that this is possibly the greatest baseball game ever made to date.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Diehards will be keen to pick me off early, however recall I’ve not played a baseball game in years so I’ve come in to The Show blind. The last decent baseball games I remember were the Powerful Pro titles by Konami on the Super Famicom and PlayStation 2. MLB The Show 17 is not your typical baseball game. Well it is, but at the same time it isn’t.
It’s reasonably pretty. It’s accessible for beginners. It’s a delight for the hardcore, balls-deep statisticians. It’s deep, real deep. It’s so deep it’s virtually infinite. It’s got more modes than an astronauts flight stick. It is, without question, an utter marvel. But why? It’s just baseball right? How do you make a baseball game about, well, baseball, any more interesting? How do you make a game about a sport not many folks outside the USA, Cuba and Japan care for one of the most interesting and addictive titles ever made in the history of everything ever times infinity plus one?
It’s quite simple really. The developers of MLB The Show 17 had a meeting and have basically all appeared to say differing versions of “I want to make a baseball version of XYZ” to which those in charge have basically said “Sure, go ahead. If you build it, they will come”. This is precisely what they have done.
Fire up a copy of MLB The Show 17 for the first time and prepare to be completely overwhelmed by the sheer choice of options, game modes, mini modes, diddlybops and doodahs you’ve ever seen. I’ve owned the game nearly a month now, played it every day pretty much and I’ve still genuinely not clicked on every game mode, menu option or setting. The choice made available to you is truly mind-blowing.
Want a quick exhibition match? Done. Battle Royale? Done. Fancy playing a baseball version of Risk? Done. Wanna play a fully fleshed out retro baseball game complete with an 8 bit (well, it looks more like a PlayStation 1 game to be fair) filter? Done. Do you want to collect, trade and sell baseball cards? Done. Career mode that plays out like a tragic reality TV show complete with shaky camera work? Done. Want live rosters and the ability to play the very fixtures played that day, even if they are live and join the game mid-game as if you were right there playing the game as it happens?
There’s ranked modes, gold modes, bronze modes, diamond modes, conquest modes, epic modes, dynasty modes, player modes, silver modes and Depeche modes. OK, well not Depeche Mode but literally everything you can think of that can be baseballified is contained within this game. It’s astonishing. It’s revelatory. It’s addicting. It will lose you hours and hours. You will go to bed at 2am and be tired at work the following day, the whole time looking up baseball stats, browsing books on Amazon and pre-ordering the 2018 Baseball Prospectus. You will be looking forward to the MLB Draft which starts tomorrow. You will spend every minute that you cannot use the television in the family home on your PlayStation Vita with remote play firmly switched on. You will eat, sleep and live baseball in one hundred and seventy eight trillion incarnations.
Nothing else matters. Only baseball.
Field Of Dreams
Now, I know you are reading this thinking I’ve quite clearly gone insane. Maybe I have. But I will tell you right now that I, hand on heart, have not come across a sports video game that is quite as vast, varied and lovely to play as this. To be quite honest MLB The Show 17 took me completely off guard. It gently nudged, awoke and massaged a nostalgia buzz inside me, and at the same time a passion for baseball that I genuinely didn’t know I had. Maybe that is why I’m so taken with this game?
Well yes and no. The key factor for me, being a completely perfect non-hardcore candidate coming to this game, is accessibility. MLB The Show 17 is a game for everyone. You like stats, hard talk and heavy jargon? You want it as hardcore as can be? Done. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. But for a beginner, like me. A casual. A nobody. An utter buffoon with not an inkling of an idea of the difference between a short stop and a catcher. This game opens it’s doors, lays out the welcome mat and a fresh bottle of red top milk. Tells the dog to fetch your slippers, light the fire, fetch you the Sunday paper and welcomes you. Totally, unequivocally and completely.
Not sure what team to field? Flick on assist mode. Need a bit of help with substitutions? The manager will give you a nudge when the time is right, if you wish. Can’t tell the difference between a 2SFB and a 4SFB? You’ll be given a helping hand every step of the way. MLB The Show 17 never judges you. It never assumes you are some hardcore nerdist or sports jock. It doesn’t set out to embarrass you or make you feel inferior. It is just a beautiful video game about baseball by baseball fanatics and a team of extremely talented video games folk. Perfect blends of this ilk are extraordinarily rare.
All of this gushing and blubbering does not come without a slight tint of ready-mix negativity paint. For if there is a flaw to be found with this game, it is within its virtual currency, or stubs and tickets. Baseball cards are a staple part of being a fan of the sport. Like a lime and a coconut (I still don’t understand that but hey). However to really make big gains in the game, you will find that simply earning cards by completing missions and playing different modes is simply not enough. At some point that moth-eaten wallet will need to be pried open with a crowbar and real monies will need to be spent in order to obtain a half decent squad.Now that’s fine and dandy, nobody minds a little bit of that, especially when anything you do within MLB The Show 17 should be able to be imported to MLB The Show 18 (should said game be made, for you can import MLB The Show 16 content directly in to MLB The Show 17 to carry on where you left off, which is nice). However what is not so nice is the used market for cards and inventory items. I don’t know about you, but the last time I played a video game of this ilk I don’t recall having to pick up the phone to Christie’s and make an anonymous telephone bid in order to secure a common as muck baseball card. Some of the ‘community’ pricing is bordering ridiculous and you are ultimately resigned to knowing you will likely never own a specific card to complete a set because some git, or gits, are destroying the selling market.
This is probably nothing new to you. I’m old and don’t play much in the way of modern games only having purchased a PlayStation 4 Pro within the last couple of months and played little before that. Sure the news is littered with scores of stories about FIFA ultimate team exploitation, gamers spending family savings on MMORPG titles and so on. It’s all the same bag of grapefruits to me. I don’t like it. Something needs to be done about it.
I’ve waffled now for a good couple of thousand words and I really do have nothing but overwhelming positivity to bestow upon this game. It’s so rare, so off-kilter, so… bizarre. A baseball game is this powerful it’s provoked me to write down my thoughts and share them with you?
It’s not on. It’s not right. But somehow it just is. If you pick up a copy of the game off of the back of this and end up following the same path, don’t fight it, just accept it. You like baseball games. Like buying a car, or a FIFA game, you’re in negative equity the second you click BUY NOW or leave your local games store. But none of that matters because unlike the latest FIFA, the latest NHL or NBA, NFL, NCAA or what have you, MLB The Show 17 is so vast, so gargantuan and ultimately so enjoyable that you’ll still be playing long past post-season.
And you know what? That’s great because by then the next game will be around the corner for you to import all your hard-earned data and begin slugging away for another year.
I am besotted. A flame has re-ignited, dead for some 30 years, out of nowhere. I now live for baseball and it is entirely the fault of that glorious video game MLB The Show 17.
I don’t care. I love baseball. I love MLB The Show 17.