Pop Quiz: Name The Game!
- Clue 1: It's one of the most enduring video game series of all time.
- Clue 2: More than 60 iterations have been released since 1994
- Clue 3: Versions of the game have appeared on nearly every major post-NES gaming system, including SNES, PC, N64, PS1, PS2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Gamecube, Wii, DS, PSP, iPhone, and a card game version.
- Clue 4: It features big-head characters with no mouths, ears, noses, or legs.
If you guessed Jikkyō Powerful Pro Yakyū (lit. "Live Powerful Pro Baseball"), you win. You peeked at the picture, didn't you?
It's become fashionable for the western games media to roll its collective eyes at the Japanese market and its endless appetite for cute games we wouldn't be caught dead playing. Those silly Japanese consumers are gullible too, mindlessly gobbling up the latest Tales of Super-Robot-Pokémon-Yu-Gi-Oh-Gundam tossed at them by an industry mired in expired ideas. So sad.
If we let go of the arrogance that often clouds our perceptions of Japanese games, a certain patronizing attitude that allows easy dismissal of games that appear childish or cartoony, we may occasionally discover a game that surprises us with its depth and sophistication - a game that employs visual abstraction as a deliberate design ideal, rather than a concession. Power Pros Baseball, as it's known outside of Japan, is such a game.
Why play a sports game that goes out of its way, not only to avoid visual verisimilitude, but defeat it? If graphics hold no interest, why not just play a text sim like the terrific Out of the Park Baseball? In other words, why would an adult gamer (and self-confessed baseball nut) find a big-headed chibi version of Albert Pujols preferable, even superior, to a version that strives to capture his likeness?
Two reasons. One is simple, and the other requires more explanation.
The simple answer is that Power Pros Baseball is an incredibly deep and feature-rich game of baseball. Its pick-up-and-play controls connect to a complex and highly-configurable simulation that incorporates deep, stat-driven season and franchise modes; the best create-a-player system I've seen; and two separate RPG modes, each a blast to play.
So, Power Pros Baseball is a fun, insanely detailed game that succeeds best where it matters most: under the hood. That's the simple part.
Trickier to explain is why, 15 years after their first appearance on the SNES, the original cartoony player designs still serve the game so beautifully. Tricky, because we're about to take a tumble with aesthetics, and that's where things get a little, well, abstract.
With sheepish nods to Picasso and Pollock, I'm hardly the first to suggest that abstraction can reveal a more truthful truth than realism. Despite their limited features, Power Pros' character models easily convey the players they're meant to depict, and they do so far more expressively than their rubber-faced photographic counterparts in games like MLB 2K9.
Massive-polygon-count Albert may appear more human-like than big-head Albert, but I would hardly call his next-gen incarnation more 'believable.' I've seen Pujols play in-person several times, and Power Pros' smiling, playful, glowering, angry mini-Albert comes much closer to the truth of the man than the animation-looped mo-capped version, in my view.
If we limit our scope to batting stances and swing mechanics, MLB 2K9 has it all over Power Pros. Except when it doesn't. The problem with verisimilitude is its insistence on perfection. Every little inconsistency is a failure. Every blip in the fielding animation a lie. Power Pros' tight controls and smooth animations are meant to enable the player playing the game, not re-enact a particular MLB player's quirks. In this way, Power Pros tells a more useful truth about the game of baseball than MLB 2K9.
Power Pros embraces a visual aesthetic that communicates fun. And, wait a minute, aren't these games supposed to be fun? I've been a devoted console baseball player since RBI Baseball on the NES, and if there's one thing I can say with certainty about the evolution of the genre, it's that realism delivered through graphical muscle has not, in fact, made playing baseball sims more fun. Quite the contrary, actually.
I'm not here to suggest designers stop building sports sims that strive for high degrees of visual realism. MLB 09: The Show was one of my favorite games last year - I love the grass and the sunlight and the sounds of the crowd it conveys. We're getting there. I think. Maybe.
I'm simply suggesting that a fair assessment of the latest Power Pros game will show an equally (but differently) compelling baseball simulation with deeper stats, more customization, more modes of play, and a control system free of the convolution that's overtaken most console sports games. Plus, it's got big-head players with no legs. And that's a good thing.