"Perhaps more than any other video game, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is firmly entrenched in a part of my mind from which it cannot be uprooted, forever connected to a reality that is experienced by most boys in childhood – one that involves baseball and summer days that arrived and parted too quickly. For this reason, I am not merely biased; I am so maniacally obsessed with Griffey, so overexposed to its elements from years of play, that, to me, it really has los..."
Perhaps more than any other video game, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is firmly entrenched in a part of my mind from which it cannot be uprooted, forever connected to a reality that is experienced by most boys in childhood – one that involves baseball and summer days that arrived and parted too quickly. For this reason, I am not merely biased; I am so maniacally obsessed with Griffey, so overexposed to its elements from years of play, that, to me, it really has lost all meaning as “just” a video game and has become a more palpable extension from my youth. I don’t know how to explain it for someone who doesn’t know the feeling, but this isn’t a video game to me – it’s a seasonal certainty, like any other natural phenomenon; with June comes baseball season, and with baseball season comes my instinctual return to Griffey.
If it hasn’t already, there is little doubt this essay will deteriorate into my incoherent ramblings understood maybe by only Leroux; for the sake of clarity, I’ll just say right now I’m pretty fond of the game.
There was a time for me, as I hope there was similarly for all young boys, where summer vacation meant escaping the drudgery of school, long days turning into nights with friends and, the national pastime, baseball. It is so crystal clear, even now, that I could almost return to this place if I concentrated hard enough:
It’s my grandfather’s house, just outside of town, about an acre of clean-cut grass and open yard extending out the north side of the property. I spent my summer days here while both parents worked, and so the grandfather is incidentally a victim of my routine. Breakfast cereal; the grass, freshly cut and still coated with cold dew form the night before, isn’t ready to be trampled yet. My Super Nintendo, lugged from my house to help keep me busy throughout the day, sits on the living room floor, hooked up but not yet played, a copy of Griffey already plugged into the slot. It’s too early for that – it’s time for breakfast and Sportscenter, which starts at the top of the hour and reruns from 6AM until 1PM. How many times did I watch it in a given day, recalling the quips of Keith Oberman, Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen from earlier viewings? I would say at least four times; still red-eyed from getting up early, not yet ready to head outside for the real-life rounds of baseball, I could re-watch the same day of baseball highlights, all of the nice defensive plays and homeruns, multiple times without growing tired of them. Anything to see that inning where Griffey made the diving catch in left-center, then hit a majestic bomb in the bottom half.
I remember the cool, wet mornings that turned into scorching afternoons, the wet grass sticking to my sneakers, the smell of that house, the sounds of ESPN, as if it were yesterday, and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is as strong a reminder as any sight or smell that God has had the good grace to leave me with to this day. Griffey is not just the incredible baseball game that it is, nimble and fast-paced; it is a bridge to my past, forever associated with the baseball-filled days in the depths of mid-summer. That it returns from winter migration to my life every year like clockwork, even to this day, is a testament to its brilliance.
Having been exposed to Griffey so much, it is difficult for me to even really pinpoint what is so endearing and timeless about it. I can only deliver the individual elements of the experience in a piecemeal fashion in writing, but the experience on the whole is something on another level.
Maybe it’s the fact that this is not baseball as the uninitiated would think of it – extremely methodical, long, and perhaps downright tedious. This is baseball of an arcade flavor at a breakneck speed. I recall sitting there and watching Sportcenter’s Top 10 Plays of the day from baseball, diving catches and ripped line drives and soaring blasts; then I’d turn on Griffey, and I could create a Top 10 Plays from just one game--500 foot homeruns clearing the greatest reaches of Yankee Stadium, diving stops in the hole and long throws to beat the runner at first, the diving catch of my left fielder to dodge a 3-run bullet into the gap. Every single round of Griffey, exhibition game, all-star battle, or the classic season mode, had the potential to develop into a shootout in Arlington or a pitcher’s duel ready to erupt in the vast home of the Detroit Tigers.
This isn’t a game that’s difficult to get into, either – we’re talking about a swing button that doubles as a dive and throw button when playing the field, and, if you want to get real complicated, perhaps a bunt and some lead-offs for baserunners will satisfy you. There are screaming line drives, but your reaction time to them will increase as you play more, to the point where you’re lunging with your third baseman to cut off a potential double down the line without even realizing you’re doing it.
As odd as it is, one of the most memorable qualities about Griffey is that, outside of Ken Griffey Jr. himself, no other real life baseball player names were used; there is no MLBPA license, and the expected ’93-’94 era players appear to be missing, replaced by scrubs like R. BALBOA and H. FACE. Where is the utterly infuriating Kenny Lofton? He’s replaced by H. BLACKMON! What, no powerhouse Frank Thomas bolstering the middle of the White Sox lineup? Who is this U. JOSH? Each team has fabricated player names based on some theme – things former presidents, actors and performers, New York landmark and catchphrase references, maybe even some brilliant Rocky references on the Phillies. But a little research has revealed that, despite the fake names, almost every player on these teams is a representation of the real player for that team; H. BLACKMON is the lightning-fast Indians center-fielder, always a threat to rip doubles and triples and irritate you on the basepaths, and U. JOSH is the monstrous homerun-threat that looms in the middle of the ChiSox order – the only difference is that their names aren’t spelled Lofton and Thomas. What does this mean? Nothing – true fans will recognize stars of the era, novices could care less, and everyone is treated to some humorous player names. (There is also a definitive piece of research on this matter, authored by Leroux/Bension: http://db.gamefaqs.com/console/snes/file/ken_griffey_jr_mlb_roster.txt).
Each player’s ability is rated in four separate categories – batting, power, speed, and fielding – on a scale of 1 to 10. This simplistic method of differentiating the abilities of the players lends the game its one true source for strategy in terms of team selection and line-up organizing to best plan your offensive attack. There are some other quirks presented in the Griffey system, the main one being that any player can play any position. The Texas Rangers can put their Ivan Rodriguez clone in left field and use his ridiculous fielding ability to gun out runners at home plate form the warning track. Focusing your defensive weaknesses into the less important positions, such as catcher and first base, may mean the difference between victory and defeat! The other main ‘quirk’ is the simple fact that the ‘power’ statistic of a player is infinitely more important than his ‘batting’ attribute. Griffey, Bonds, and Frank Thomas may be perfect 10 studs in both categories, but the reality of this game is that a player with a 3 in batting and a 10 in power will be slugging missiles, while one with a 10 in batting and dismal power simply won’t see the same kind of dazzling offensive prowess. Either way, in a run at season mode, don’t be surprised to see batting averages well into the .400s (and higher, if your team features a star slugger).
Perhaps one of the serious weaknesses of many sports games is that it simply is not as enjoyable to play defense as it is offense, and sidestepping this issue is one of Griffey’s most graceful moves. Batting is an addictive but simplistic matter of timing a pitch and swinging; playing the field, running down drives into the gap and getting off the quick throw to nail the greedy runner at third, making the leaping catches at the wall – this stuff is perhaps even more exciting. This is a crisp, clean, snappy game of baseball, with flawless mechanics as shortstops and second basemen turn two, left fielders gun down the slower runners at home. If nothing else, this game is a highlight reel waiting to happen, set in impressive representations of the real-life ballparks that the big leaguers patrol everyday. The short porch and abundant blue of Yankee Stadium, the elaborate outfield fountains of Kansas City, and that pesky Green Monster, forever turning rocket homeruns into singles, lend more to the experience than can really be imagined. Road games in season mode are given that much more flavor, and many parks play differently.
For the most part, I’ve laid out the surface level of the experience. One fast-paced theme will serve as background noise for the experience, game in and game out, but with this comes the controlled mumblings of the crowd, at the park for a lazy summer afternoon ballgame. Their cheers will rumble louder as runners circle the bases, balls leave the park, and double plays are turned. This is something you learn to appreciate as you play more. The endearing look of it all, the clean grass and turf, beautiful, expansive stadiums, and the player sprites, ranging from thin and lanky for the smaller players, to hulking, musclebound sluggers with cannonball arms, is incredibly inviting. This is a fluid experience with colorfully drawn characters, and the entire experience has the majesty of a summer day at the park.
For those willing to break through the wall that separates ‘occasional player’ and ‘obsessive fanatic,’ there lies even more to discover, more to analyze. Which team do you choose for your run at the title in season mode? The Yankees are stacked with a mix of batting and power, but are merely average in speed and defense. The champion Blue Jays are an offensive powerhouse, but how much fun can it be to play with them? The White Sox have a mix of slugging and golden fielding arms (if you’re willing to shift Ron Karkovice from catcher to right field). The Mariners have, well, Griffey and Buhner. What kind of changes would make the Boston Red Sox, stuck in the oddly shaped Fenway Park and possessing perhaps the slowest, weakest-throwing outfield in the American League, into a legitimate contender?
These are the types of questions you can attack once you give Griffey the attention it deserves, and there are many others. Is successful batting strictly reliant on making contact with the ball and your batter’s offensive attributes, or does more carefully timing your swing, late or early, make a difference? (This particular question I’ve battled with for years). How do we overcome the offensive dearth that can characterize the long mid-summer afternoons, when at the beginning of the season, fresh from winter, our team was scoring in the double digits four times a week?
Griffey has the potential to be whatever you want to make of it – a quick twenty minute game of one-pitch at-bats that you’ll return to every couple of months, a gateway for a flood of memories from an earlier time, or anything in between. Even with the now somewhat archaic 1993-1994 rosters, there is nothing left to ask of the game; it serves as a time capsule of an earlier era of baseball, much like Tecmo Super Bowl does for late 1980’s football. But for those familiar with emulation, there is perhaps the single greatest game editing tool ever created in the Ken Griffey Baseball Editor (http://jggames.tecmosuperbowl.org/kgb.html). With this program, a Godsend for us, the obsessive minority, all of the teams’ players can be edited, from batting stance, skin color and statistics to his actual skill attributes on the field. What this means is that you can effectively update the roster of all of the 28 teams in existence at the time of Griffey’s creation (sorry to say, there were no Arizona Diamondbacks at the time, and the Washington Nationals are stuck in Montreal purgatory). If there were ever any complaint associated with trudging through another season with the same old 1993 rosters, they have forever been alleviated.
I don’t expect everyone will find Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball to be a source of the same magic it was (and still is) for me, serving as another hardball outlet to accompany my real games outside and my early hours indoors spent re-watching Sportscenter five times. What I do expect is that anyone can find whatever they want to find in Griffey -- the experience is that malleable. There’s nothing like a relaxing day at the ballpark to watch some fastballs soar into the upper deck, or feeding off childhood memories for years, when winter passes and the boys of summer return.
Featured community review by dogma (August 24, 2006)
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