Star League Baseball
Writing a sports simulation must be really tough on a programmer because he or she doesn't get to invent the rules of the game. At the same time, the positions, actions, and interactions of the members of the opposing teams have to be smoothly coordinated—according to those rules—and convincingly animated. On top of that, the programmer's work is ultimately judged on how effectively those rules are implemented in the game without sacrificing playability.
It's even possible to err on the side of authenticity. Starbowl Football, the previous effort from the same company that produced this entry, was too realistic: Tossing and receiving a pass required moving the receiver exactly under the flying ball and pressing the fire button at precisely the right instant—a near-impossible, frustrating maneuver that took even the most adept joystick maestros a long time to master. Fortunately for the sports-minded, the ball handling techniques in Star League Baseball are more accommodating.
In fact, it's one of the most enjoyable sports simulations ever, offering an unusual perspective on the diamond—the view you'd get if you were sitting up in the grandstands behind first base. Joysticks control the action with logically designed patterns. When you're in the field, the ball can be thrown to any of the infielders by pressing the fire button once and moving the stick in the direction of the base's actual position. The location of the man throwing the ball is irrelevant; this makes it easy to learn and execute the moves.
Hit the button twice to return the ball from any player to the pitcher. When he's got the ball, the same action puts him in pitching mode, and he crouches to look for the catcher's signal. Then you hold the button down and move the stick in one of eight directions, each indicating a different type of pitch, to send the ball flying across the plate. The pitcher has the option of changing his mind by releasing the button. This enables him to try to pick off a base runner who looks eager to steal second or third.
At the start of the game, you select from three pitchers, each with his own specialties, which include sinkers, curves, fast balls, and sliders of varying speeds and height. You're better off holding "Knuckles" in the bullpen as a relief pitcher, though. That's right, there's a seventh inning stretch that allows for this option.
To swing the bat, just press the fire button. In addition to visualizing the ball's trajectory, it helps if you glance at its shadow. The distance between the two provides a fair gauge of whether the ball's high, low, or in the strike zone. A batting practice option is convenient for honing this skill to perfection.
You can also bunt, and then control the direction in which the ball travels. After each pitch, big block letters display the results (strike, out, ball, home run, etc.) at the top of the screen. When the catcher tosses the ball back to the pitcher, this display is replaced by the number of strikes, balls and outs, the current inning, and other vital information. A Scoreboard also appears between innings, posting the runs scored in each inning.
The batter automatically runs to first upon hitting a fair ball, but you'll soon learn that placement—where the ball lands—makes a big difference in whether you get thrown out or not. Infield hits generally result in failure. Hit to the outfield, and you'll have more time to make it to first; the offense gets joystick control of the outfielder nearest the ball, and must race after the ball. He can snare a fly ball by watching its shadow to figure out where it will land.
A runner won't advance to the next base unless you move the stick to the right. This allows you to lead off the base, or even steal. But watch out, because it's easy to get caught in a rundown between a pair of infielders. Episodes like this spark genuine excitement when you're playing the computer or a friend, but the two-player games are definitely more fun. Strategy is as important a role as eye-hand coordination, because it pays to figure out the pitcher's pattern. If he just tossed a ball right down the middle and the count's now three and two, will he repeat himself, or try to fake you out with a high slider? You have only split seconds to make the same decisions you would in the batter's box.
The SID chip recreates the smack of a ball connecting with a piece of ash, or plopping into a leather glove. And you'll hear some familiar ballpark sounds when the bases are loaded or one of the heavy hitters approaches the plate. The crisply defined characters wear clearly recognizable hats, and are well animated when you put them through their paces. It's impossible to forget which player has the ball, because he's always black instead of his team's color of white or yellow. Until you've learned the ropes, taking on the computer is only good for humiliation, but the satisfaction of pulling off a successful double play or hitting a grand slam against a human opponent is infinitely more exhilarating than shooting down a thousand flying saucers from the planet Mongo.
Star League Baseball
1302 State Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Disk or Tape
$31.95 Atari; $29.95 Commodore 64