Tackling a pack of sports videogames
For most of my videogame-playing life, I have resisted one of the field’s most popular genres: the athlete-endorsed, allegedly ultrarealistic sports simulation game. It’s not a matter of being a Star Wars-weaned, exercise-phobic geek; I also happen to be an unabashed sports nerd, albeit one whose SportsCenter-addicted, ref-bashing passion has always stopped at videogames. The stiffly animated athlete avatars bugged me, while the multifaceted gameplay struck me as impossibly daunting. It’s one thing to armchair-quarterback my hometown Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoons. Actually designing diagrammatic passing routes, coaching complicated defensive schemes, and managing unwieldy team rosters on John Madden’s legendary football game? Please. I’m not that big of a nerd.
Yet, recently, I’ve finally become a total virtual jock. The catalyst for my conversion has been MLB Power Pros 2008, a charming and addictive baseball game, originally created for the Japanese market, that renders the likes of Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ichiro Suzuki as round and wobbly figures with owl eyes and clamshell shoes — part Peanuts, part South Park. But don’t let the kid stuff fool you: The pick-your-aptitude gameplay, though stripped down to button-pushing basics, is legit, while the array of ballfield environments, from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium, are richly realized. Yet liberated from photo-realism, Power Pros presents an idiosyncratically idealized experience of baseball that is immersive and innocent, challenging yet inviting, and it captured my imagination.
Which means the game did exactly what it was supposed to do. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that sports games have become too intimidating for their own good. Among this year’s new models, there is an emphasis on accessibility, as game companies attempt to win back frustrated fans, turn kids into annual buyers, and woo the ”casual gamers” who’ve invested in Xboxes and PlayStations thanks to mainstream crossover phenoms like Guitar Hero.
Power Pros certainly inspired me to play the current field of sports games, though I’ve learned I should take it slow, especially when playing with a Wii, widely considered the console of choice by the casual set. 2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2K8 — the current state of the art in super-realistic baseball simulation — requires players to actually swing the Wii’s wireless, motion-detecting wand fast and hard to hit the ball. Similarly, Sega’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (a nifty novelty, worth seeking out if you are nostalgic for the Beijing Games) demands that you pump and shake the controls to run, swim, or jump. These games were so taxing, I had to put myself on a 15-day DL to recover. But at least I’ve finally gained some measurable biceps.
Some of this heavily hyped accessibility isn’t as simplified as they’d have you believe. Case in point: EA Sports’ NASCAR 09. This is one fast and furiously fun racing game — if you know what the hell you’re doing. Yes, the new novice-friendly ”family play” for the PS2 is technically easier than the game’s standard ”pro play,” but judging from my blistered thumb and consistently poor finishes, there is no sum total difference. Future iterations could afford to dumb it down even more for Sunday drivers like me.
For a smarter, more engaging approach to courting newbies, I suggest Madden NFL 09 All-Play, the exhilarating Wii-exclusive version of the vaunted franchise I long feared to play. The Wii’s two-handed controls are easy to master (flick to hike with one, toggle to run with the other) and much more fun. The best thing about this Madden edition is its ”neighborhood style” five-on-five mode, a blitzkrieg-paced, down-and-dirty version of run-and-shoot football. The fat heads on the characters are a whimsical touch that will amuse the kids, and the pigskin-on-Red Bull gameplay will be satisfying to all. Are you ready for some football? If it’s Madden, always.
Power Pros 2008: A
Major League Baseball 2K8: B+
Mario & Sonic: B-
NASCAR 09: B+