Midway's inaugural offering in their new over-the-top baseball franchise turns out to be a surprisingly fun arcade experience. But will MLB Slugfest still be keeping your attention come spring training? Andy weighs in with his analysis.
It's not controversial to say that the first year of the GameCube was bereft of a high quality baseball game.
With Sega's World Series Baseball relegated to being an Xbox exclusive for this past season, Nintendo console owners had to make do with a pair of so-so titles: Acclaim's latest installment in their ever-buggy All-Star Baseball series and Sega's mediocre Home Run King. While both games were passable for die-hard baseball addicts, it's hard to figure that either will be holding the attentions of sports fans as we head into the off-season.
Now added into the mix --albeit belatedly-- is Midway's MLB Slugfest 2003, the first installment in the manufacturer's latest over-the-top sports franchise.
As you may expect, Slugfest takes the leisurely-paced game of baseball and enhances it with the hallmarks of Midway sports titles: big plays, huge hits, wacky commentary, and a high "fun factor."
Curiously, though, the game itself moves at roughly the same clip as virtually any other baseball title, and handles – more or less – in an identical fashion to its more reserved, sim-like competition. Where Slugfest differentiates itself is in its comedic touches and solid overall presentation, with graphics superior to either of the first-generation GameCube baseball titles.
Right from the opening of the game, you know you're playing a Midway title. The simple menus, boisterous music, and nutty announcers will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's played NFL Blitz, and the controls are in many ways similar.
Pitching is incredibly straightforward: an on-screen menu first lets you select your move (pitch, bean, etc.) and then the kind of pitch at your disposal (fastball, curveball, etc.). A pitches, B sends a bean directly at the player, while the control pad and Y button serve to pick off base runners. In keeping with Midway's arcade-styled action, you don't really have control over the pitch's precise location, though you can determine a general direction and the strength of the pitch can be heightened by utilizing that ever-present Midway staple: the Turbo (R shoulder) button.
The Turbo button has been used in past Midway games to provide players with an extra jolt of adrenaline, and its inclusion in Slugfest is what really makes this title stand apart from other baseball games. Use it for the pitcher and your slinger will gain an upper-hand on the batter. Likewise, use it while batting and you'll have a much better chance of hitting one out of the park.
Speaking of that, batting and running in Slugfest are also very straightforward. Make no mistake, swinging away in this game isn't going to cause the incredible amount of frustration a lot of us had when trying to make contact in All-Star Baseball 2003.
Another on-screen menu appears where you can choose from normal contact (A) and power (B) swings, a bunt (X) or changing sides for switch hitters (Y). The L and Z buttons are used to control runners on-base, while fielding is also easy. B selects the fielder, A is either a directional throw or a jump/dive, and X applies a hard tag.
If you're reading all of this, you're probably wondering just why MLB Slugfest is any different from your generic baseball video game.
The answer lies in the application of the Turbo button. If you utilize your Turbo button while base running – and then hit the X button – you can literally knock the stuffing out of your opponent, knock them off the bag as if you're playing NFL Blitz, or just apply a nice stiff arm to their head! It also helps you make great running catches and sprint like Michael Johnson around the bases – in other words, it's what makes Midway sports titles what they are.
Each player also has a power meter that increases/decreases based on your performance in the game. Make a great fielding play or throw a strikeout and your power meter goes up, which is, in turn, applied to your Turbo. Firing balls at the opposition, meanwhile, can either diminish their own power meters or make them enraged at your antics, actually increasing their own attributes in the process!
Throughout it all, Midway has incorporated several additional elements in an attempt to make the game more energetic and unpredictable. For example, "Texas league" singles can turn into outs in a hurry here. A few bean balls can cause the right player to rush the mound, and outrageous catches are a natural part of the game.
When it's all said and done, though, Slugfest is really just a solid baseball game augmented with a few Midway touches. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I sensed that the game seemed a little stuck in the middle here: it may not be quite over-the-top enough for Midway fanatics, and yet it's not realistic enough to satisfy die-hard sim fans. It's fun, but its longevity may be on the short side, particularly considering its relatively bare-bones modes and features.
Certainly, the game looks darn good. Stadiums are all nicely rendered and frame rate is generally consistent. Player faces aren't exactly on the All-Star Baseball level but do look pretty accurate, while the crowds are superior in their rendering to the Acclaim and Sega offerings from last spring. While Midway had a few more months to spend in creating this contest, they still deserve a lot of credit for coming up with a pleasing visual experience.
On the audio end, Slugfest is marked by easily one of the best commentaries I've heard in a sports game yet. The usual Midway play-by-play man is joined here by color commentator "Jim Shorts," and the banter of the two is truly funny. "Look at those girls. Aaah, to be young again," Shorts enthuses at one point. They bicker over vacation spots, share anecdotes during times that would be completely inappropriate on any network TV broadcast, and together make this one of those rare commentaries you won't be looking to turn off, but rather turn up.
Like a lot of Midway titles, the modes in Slugfest are very basic and there's not a whole lot of customization at your disposal. Yes, you can choose the length of games (7 innings is the default), but there are no Create-A-Player or Replay modes in this inaugural Slugfest outing. Quickplay is good for a single contest, while Tournament, Challenge and Season modes are available, the latter two with stat-tracking. While nobody is expecting Midway to make an EA-styled simulation here, it'd still be nice to have some kind of Franchise mode – the Season Mode lasts only a fraction of the real MLB season and will be over-and-done-with quickly if you play for long periods of time.
For no apparent reason, the load times on MLB Slugfest are longer than other Midway titles I've played on the GCN, but otherwise, the company has made a generally polished product that could use a little refinement for 2003. Create-A-Player, Instant Replay, and a more involving single player Season/Franchise mode would go a long way to increasing the game's overall appeal. With Sega's World Series Baseball confirmed for a GameCube release in 2003, it would certainly benefit Slugfest to at least include a few more options considering the competition.
That said, Slugfest is still a slick and enjoyable new entry into the Midway sports line-up. Despite its drawbacks, Slugfest looks good and is certainly fun to play, making it the most enjoyable baseball game on the GameCube for the time being. Batter up -- and better late than never, too.