I don't have the memories of Ken Griffey, Jr. that everyone else does. I wish I did, but I do not. I became a Mariners fan in late 1999, early 2000 and then a much bigger one in 2010. Not really the best times for engendering fandom for The Kid. I more or less missed the entirety of what will have him today named on at least 98 percent of Hall of Fame Ballots.
But that doesn't mean I missed entirely the phenomenon that was Ken Griffey, Jr. in the 1990s. As a child of the times, it'd be almost impossible—as the reach of the athlete who maybe most embodied the essence of that era extended far and wide. And one Christmas, it extended under the O'Keefe family's tree, as alongside a Super Nintendo, NHL '96 and Tommy Moe's Winter Extreme: Skiing & Snowboarding, there was this:
Honestly, I'd never seen that ad until writing this piece. I didn't know the game existed before I had it, and I'd never been big into video games save for experiences with those pretty rough frequently movie-themed handheld battery-powered things. And compared to those, this game was a revelation.
To set the scene, let's watch the intro—because who doesn't love a great sports game intro?
Until the MVP Baseball series, this was as good as baseball games got. And it was good for its simplicity.
Gameplay was straightforward, as it should be. You used the "B" button to pitch, basically using the control pad to steer the pitch. B and down was a fastball, B and up a changeup, B and to the sides a curve or slider or whatever. You also used B to swing. And on defense, to throw. And dive. And jump. And it all worked. Everything you needed to do was there.
A look at some gameplay:
Now, what wasn't there, thanks to a MLB license but not a MLBPA one: actual players. Save for Ken Griffey, Jr. And as the Mariners were the only team with a real player, I'd play with them every time.
It worked much the same as the since-departed NCAA Football games, with players very clearly representing their real life selves, with just the names missing—and even their stats carried over from the 1993 season. You could enter the names if you wanted and it'd save them. Those in-game Mariners:
The thing is, just about every team in the game had a theme for its fake names. The Seattle Mariners were Nintendo of America employees. Yes, Bret Boone is Howard Lincoln. Randy Johnson is Juana Tingdale, one-time VP of Licensing. Mike Blowers was George Sinfield, a writer there. Edgar Martinez was Dayvv Brooks, a production analyst.
And it carried on to other teams. According to this Wikia page, the Braves were famous DJs, the Angels were famous actors (F. Astaire, H. Bogart, J. Wayne), the Tigers were Motown singers (A. Franklin, G. Knight and R. Smokey) and so on.
But for a Super Nintendo game, that was the only realism that was missing.
Just about every stadium was true to its real-life self, with the playing surface and more. The Kingdome had that giant wall in center, Fenway had the Monster, Wrigley had its ivy and Camden had the warehouse.
Players jumped to turn double plays, they climbed the fence if the ball was close and you timed it just right. If there was a big spot with a man on and a good hitter was coming up for the home team, an organ would play. And of course, because Super Nintendo, there was no commentary. The whole game, if the ROM is a fair representation, is just over 2 MB and, as is frequently the case, limitations often times lead to an enjoyable level of simplicity.
But also strikeout reactions too. Try not to think too much about the era and the build/reaction of the player here.
Also, if strikeouts are your thing, or really the game within the game that is the batter/pitcher matchup—this might not be your game.If playing against a friend and being kind enough not to throw too many balls, you'll still get some mixing fastballs and changeups. Agains the CPU, forget about it. Everything's in play.
And there's where I love this game. It's all about run prevention. It takes some time to get used to playing defense on quick reactions and that little outline in the bottom right (expanded to the outfield when a balls hit out there), but once you get it down, man it's fun. Tracking fly balls, diving and quickly jumping when necessary—too good. It takes a while to master, but once you get it done it's great. And if you introduce this game to someone who's never played it before, it's almost impossible.
That's kind of the beauty of it. There's no tricks. It certainly isn't easy. While auto-fielding apparently exists, there are no difficulty levels. You just play.
There's complexity where it's needed. You can play a full season if you want, even choosing the number of playoff teams as the league was between two formats. And it'll remember all your stats, too—because remember when video games didn't need hard drives or memory packs?
But that was as complex as it got. When I reference this game, people will sometimes say they enjoyed Ken Griffey, Jr.'s Winning Run which, another Super Nintendo game, was basically the sequel to this. When it came out, I had to try it. And it was fun, but the thing I remember the most about it is the introduction of the "power throw," where you'd press a different button for a powerful but more risky throw.
And that's the way this series, and all baseball games would go. The simple pitcher/batter interface eventually gave way to a batting cursor and power and contact swings. It all got more complex than it needed to be, before the MVP Baseball series cleaned much of it up before eventually disappearing thanks to the beautiful world of exclusive licensing deals.
But this game, it had what you needed, and it had it a long, long time ago. I didn't have The Double or those catches or the long bombs, but I had this game. And for Griffey, the Hall of Famer, that's a good game to represent you.
UPDATE: I forgot to include that there's a newspaper at the end of each game with the box score and great fake headlines.