Home Run King Review (NGC)
Its April, what a great time of year to be a sports fan. The Detroit Red Wings have already captured the Presidents Trophy. The Pistons are a lock for winning the Central and still have an outside shot at best record in the East. The Lions are gearing up for the April draft. The Detroit Tigers have just kicked off another successful season. Wait a minute, the Tigers have not kicked off a successful season in almost a decade. That is why we have videogames. No matter how bad my beloved Tigers are in real life I can still make them a competitive team in my world. This year has already seen releases from some other franchises and now it is time for Sega to deliver their brand new franchise to the Nintendo GameCube in the form of Home Run King.
When dealing with the hardcore sports gamers, one of the main areas of concern is whether the game is arcade or a sim. HR King was billed as arcade baseball in all of the advertising and previews posted around the Internet. To my surprise, when I got HR King I got a lot more of a simulation than I could have imagined. I figured by the title alone I would be jacking home runs and scoring 10+ runs a game with the greatest of ease. What I got was a game that has my team average under .300, my leading HR hitter at 4, and my top R.B.I. guy at 11, and that is 19 games into my first season. This can all be attributed to the pitcher\batter\fielding aids that Sega has incorporated into the game. These aids are fully adjustable to suit the user’s style of play. They can also be turned completely off, if you are not into that sort of game. There are also 5 levels of play, so with the combination of the playing aids and skill levels you can get pretty much exactly what you want out of this title.
Modes, there are not too many here. Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, and HR Derby are all you get. Exhibition is just that, you pick two teams and away you go on a game of baseball of your liking. You can select the difficulty, number of innings, injuries, weather, etc. There is a Quick Start mode, but that is Exhibition without the option to change the settings. Playoffs are self-explanatory and so is Season. It has all the options of Exhibition and allows you to select the number of games and if you want to include the All-Star game. Only one user controlled team is allowed per season. HR Derby is pretty fun and consists of a maximum of 8 participants. It is done in rounds like a tournament, and the user gets to decide on the number of outs per round.
Let’s start with the pitcher\batter interface. First off the game uses a cursor approach to batting but it does it in a different way than other games. Before every pitch your cursor is a circle. You can choose to guess the pitch type if you desire and this is where the new feature comes in. In other baseball games if you guess the pitch your cursor just changes in size pending on if you have guessed the correct pitch. In HR King your cursor changes to the type of pitch you are looking for. For example if you are looking for a fastball the cursor stays as a circle. On the other hand, if you are looking for a curve ball, the cursor is stretched to replicate the type of break you are looking for. So for example, if you are looking for a changeup the cursor is stretched into an oval, to replicate the drop that will come into effect with a typical pitch of that type. Then after the cursor stretches to the desired pitch type, the color changes to let you know if you have guessed the correct pitch. If the cursor changes to red, then you know what to expect, if it remains blue you are out of luck. Sega has also added different swing types that affect the cursor as well. Normal, power, and contact swings are all mapped to different buttons and can be decided on while the pitch is on its way to the plate. This gives the batter more control over the situation. If you guess a fast ball and you are correct you can decide on using a power swing and try and smash one out of the park. Selecting a power swing diminishes the size of your hitting area to only the sweet spot, and makes it much harder to get good wood on the ball. Conversely, selecting a contact swing will enlarge your cursor giving you a better chance to hit the pitch.
Now let’s look at the pitching side of things. Much like Sega baseball titles in the past, there is a pitch selector displayed on the screen, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what type of pitch you are actually going to throw. You push a direction to select the pitch type. Up for fastball, down for changeup, etc. The type of pitch is mapped the same for all right handed pitchers while the mapping is slightly different for lefties. After you select the pitch type, it is time to select the speed you wish to throw the pitch. A power bar is on the interface that allows you to select your speed. Just press the corresponding button and you are all set. Much like the three types of swings, there are three types of pitches: slow, fast, and normal. Your pitcher will have better control of his pitch depending on the type of pitch you select. The pitch selector also shows you how effective a certain pitch type will be and the length of the pitch type represents this. The more you throw a certain pitch the less effective it will be. Then you just use your control stick to place the pitch. There is no graphic on the screen telling you exactly where the pitch is going to end up, so it may take some time to get use to. This pitching system may sound a little confusing on paper but is very good. It gives the user so much control over the velocity used with each pitch that it gives a typical fastball many variations and keeps the hitters on there toes. Just guessing the correct pitch will not guarantee you a great hit. You have to get the speed down as well.
Base running can also be an issue in baseball games and HR King is no different. You run with the shoulder buttons and that is no problem. The problem is that every time you hit a ball, the runners take off. This can make for some base running mistakes on your part that you have no control over. If the batter hits a line drive directly to an infielder, you are pretty much guaranteed to get doubled up. The only real solution to this is to hit the back base running button as soon as you hit the ball, but then you hit a grounder and have no chance of avoiding a double play that way. I have also had some issues with controlling a single runner on the base paths instead of a group of them. Just hitting the shoulder buttons with no corresponding base will cause all runners to execute that command. If you push the control stick to the destination base you are trying to get to only that runner is supposed to run. Sometimes this works flawlessly and other times I have no luck in using this feature.
Those are the main areas of game play. It plays very well but there are little things that are missing from this game and that is what gives it an arcade flavor. First off the rosters are pretty small, the starters are all there but your bench has about 5 people on it. Leaving off a big chunk of the real major league roster. Also there are little things like not warming up the relief pitcher, being able to use the same starter as often as you like, and some other minute things.
The graphics in Home Run King are a mixed bag. The player models are absolutely incredible. I have never seen players faces replicated like this in a baseball game before. Frank Thomas looks exactly like he does in real life. I cannot put into words how beautiful the players were done in this game. Then to counteract the great looking players you get one of the worst looking crowds ever in a next-gen game. 2-D sprites just do not have a place in sports games anymore. There is nothing worse than seeing a beautifully animated double play and then seeing a card board cutout cheering in the stands.
Speaking of double plays let’s talk about the animations in HR King. I would first like to state that they are some of the best I have ever seen. Second I would like to say the timing of some of them is down right ridiculous. By that I mean I will turn two and the player receiving the ball on second will be already past the bag and getting ready to throw to first. The runner going to second is still called out so you never get cheated by the animation; it just looks really out of place. Double plays are not the only place that these happen. Throwing the ball to a running first baseman will sometimes have him sliding over the base before the ball gets there. The runner is still called out but Sega’s love of animations can make some plays look a little goofy. Animation also plays a big part in the outfield. When a fly ball is hit you control the fielder and try and place him on the target of where the ball will land. If you get your player on the target the computer will take over with another fielding animation and take control away from the player. This is normally not a big deal but if the wind is blowing hard it takes some of the skill of catching a fly ball out of the game. Before you start to think that this is just the fielding aids kicking in I am playing with all the aids turned off.
There are also some other little things missing from the graphics department. Your players never get dirty; even when playing in the rain and sliding, you look like you just got the uniform out of the wash. I have yet to see a collision at home plate, with all the animations that Sega has put into the game you figured this would be a sure thing. Some of the fields also look a little washed out. The grass at Pac Bell Park is so washed out that is makes it hard to see the ball. Other parks have some other minor background issues but to go into detail would be overkill.
Home Runs in HR King are graphically represented wonderfully. If you hit the ball into McCovey Cove you see the boaters going after the ball, in Shea the apple rises, and in Detroit the sprinklers shoot off into the Detroit skyline. Playing an exhibition game in all the stadiums is worth it just to see the HR sequences. In Home Run derby all these little extras are turned off, so to get the full effect you have to play in all the stadiums.
The next area we will tackle in this review is the sound. The commentating in Home Run King is nothing to get excited or disappointed about. It is just your standard 2-man booth that calls the game. It does not get that repetitive but it says some crazy things at times. For example, it will talk about my team needing to get back into the game with my offense when I have just taken the field. I do not have exact quotes but when you hear them you kind of wonder what the hell the announcers are talking about. Also sometimes the PA announcer and the commentators say a different player name than who is up to bat. For example the Tigers shortstop is Shane Halter. Every time he comes up to bat the PA announcer gets his name correct but the commentators refer to him as Shawn.
The sounds of the game are done very well. The crack of the bat in HR King is just awesome. You can tell if you got good wood on the ball just by the sound. It sounds very realistic. I do not know a better way to describe it, but once you hear it you will love it. Other sounds like sliding players and weakly hit balls sound very good.
In the end I am impressed with Home Run King. I think it makes a great addition to the sports lacking GameCube library. It does not have all the bells and whistles that some games on the market have, but it plays great. The bottom line is this game is a joy to play and can be played anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. Great job Sega!!