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Written by  :  SomeRandomHEFan (111)
Written on  :  Apr 05, 2021
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars2.83 Stars

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Summary

A bold experiment with mixed results

The Good

This game marks the debut of a whole new series for Humongous Entertainment. One that, in terms of sales alone, would eventually outshine even the Junior Adventures. It was originally known as the Junior Sports series, but I will instead refer to it by its better known later name, Backyard Sports. Unlike with the Junior Adventures, I'm going into this series mostly blind, so it remains to be seen what I'll think of it as a whole. As for my opinion on this game alone, it's rather mixed.

As one would expect from Humongous Entertainment, the game very much delivers in the style department. Unusually for a sports game, licenses are completely absent, with it instead starring a purely fictional cast of 30 players. And what a great cast it is. You can tell that the developers put a lot of thought and effort into it. Not only does it have a broad mixture of different ethnicities and a perfect gender balance, but the characters have very distinct personalities as well. With one exception that I'll get to later, they're all over-the-top enough to be really entertaining and memorable, yet still human enough to also be relatable. The game doesn't actually have any kind of story, with the players' dialogue being restricted to occasional one-liners during gameplay and lengthier lines for the character selection screen and the "Meet the Players" section. But that makes how much personality the writers managed to express under such limitations all the more impressive. For that matter, color commentator Vinnie the Gooch also has a lot of rather hilarious lines during gameplay.

The Bad

The quality of the actual gameplay is rather uneven, however. It does succeed in recreating the sport of baseball with a reasonable level of accuracy, while still being simple and accessible enough for the target demographic. And it can be moderately fun to play in short bursts. But it still leaves plenty of room for improvement in various areas.

Such as the complete absence of any sort of tutorial. The game is straightforward enough that most people already familiar with the sport can probably figure out how it works without much trouble, but those who aren't may struggle for a while. Thanks to having watched some video footage in advance, I was able to mostly get the hang of things pretty quickly, but there were still occasions where I made mistakes because of rules I simply didn't know existed. And I actually had to read the corresponding Wikipedia article in order to make any sense of the Infield Fly rule. To my understanding, most future installments of the series would continue to have no tutorials, which is probably one of the reasons why so few of them ever made it to Europe.

The way the stats of individual characters are handled is also rather flawed. The balancing is very uneven overall. Which was probably intentional to an extent, but it does mean that there are a fair number of characters you're never going to pick for your team unless you specifically want to see them in action, and doing so will make things significantly harder. And there are also characters who are significantly weaker than their stats would indicate, as the way some of them are depicted is just too inaccurate. For example, the batting stat actually consists of two hidden stats for power and accuracy, but the former is far more important than the latter. Achmed Khan and Jocinda Smith are both shown to have a high batting stat, yet whereas the former, while somewhat inconsistent, has good home run potential, the latter is just a consistently mediocre batter. It is however a nice touch that some of the characters' traits were incorporated into their stats in hidden ways, such as certain characters playing better or worse than usual with certain teammates.

The powerups also have some balancing issues. Though they don't play a huge role in the game, you will obtain a randomly chosen pitching powerup whenever you strike a batter out. Aside from the juice box (which is very useful for replenishing a worn out pitcher's stamina), these are all special pitches that are more difficult to hit than usual, but also consume more of the pitcher's stamina. Though some of them are far better than others, the developers did try to balance them to an extent by giving the best ones particularly high stamina costs. Furthermore, even the best pitchers can only perform some of them with an acceptable level of accuracy. However, both of these things can be easily mitigated by simply briefly swapping in a reserve pitcher to make use of any special pitches you want your dedicated pitcher to stay away from (either because they're bad at them or because they need to conserve their stamina for the normal pitches). No matter what team I played with, I always found a suitable player for each of the special pitches.

The batting powerups weren't really thought through all that well either. You obtain them if you manage to hit a special pitch and get on base. While this can indeed be an impressive feat that deserves to be rewarded, it also means that you can only get these powerups after being struck out. So if you play well enough to avoid that, you'll never get any. In terms of their effectiveness, Aluminum Power is outright broken. Unless it smacks the ball against a very tall building, it will result in a guaranteed home run whenever it makes contact. The Crazy Bunt is also rather powerful. While not as effective as Aluminum Power, it can make contact more easily, given that it's a bunt. The other two powerups, while still rather useful, are just inferior versions of Aluminum Power. They can't land guaranteed home runs, but they're also no better at hitting the ball.

Furthermore, the game's AI, while reasonably capable in some ways, completely drops the ball when it comes to controlling the opponent's runners. It's way too confident in their ability to reach the next base, to the point of often suicidally sending them there even when a fielder who is in possession of the ball is just a few steps away from it. As a result, the opposing team will rarely score points against a semi-competent player by any means other than home runs.

The game also has some bugs that really shouldn't have slipped past the testers. In particular, when the opponent catches the ball, any runners who were waiting at their current base will have their AI suddenly malfunction and try to advance to the next base. I don't think this should even be a legal move, and it will often cause them to effectively commit suicide unless you react very quickly and have them turn around in time. I also ran into some infrequent glitches with the ball physics and even a handful of crashes.

As far as different modes are concerned, there is a batting practice mode that can be useful for practicing your timing and getting a feel for how well individual batters perform, but you're probably not going to spend much time with it. More significant is the ability to play a full game of baseball through the pick-up window. Unless you go for a randomized team, both you and the AI will alternate in picking players from a relatively large selection. However, there will always be some players who won't be available. I guess this is an acceptable way to force you to put some of the more average players on your team as well. You then get to select a playing field. This can actually affect the gameplay in a number of ways, as different fields have greatly varying geometry and can also affect the players' running speed either positively or negatively.

League Play on the other hand is a more serious mode in which you get to freely assemble a team out of all 30 players with which you will then play a full season's worth of games. Unfortunately, there are a number of baffling design decisions that cause this mode to be extremely lacking in variety. You'll have to play a total of 14 regular games first. Given the rather slow pace of the gameplay, this will probably take a very long time. And it's basically just the same game over and over again. In this mode, you don't face any of the backyard kids as your opponents. Instead, the other teams consist of nothing but stock players. They have none of the main cast's personality, and there isn't any way to see their stats, so it's difficult to form strategies around them. On top of that, all of these games take place on a single special playing field known as Parks Department Field Number 2. Which is probably the most standardized field in the game. As a result, this part of the mode is just a watered down version of the game repeated ad nauseam. If you do actually have the patience to sit through all of this and perform well enough, things will finally get more interesting, with the game ramping up the difficulty and eventually also pitting you against new teams in two different special playing fields. It's hardly enough to make up for all of the boring tedium, but it's better than nothing. Overall though, I can't really recommend this mode to anyone but the most dedicated of players, as it just lacks too much of the game's charm.

When it comes to graphics, the game has very silly and over-the-top character designs that complement the characters' personalities quite well. The large diversity in skin tones is also worthy of praise, especially considering the technical limitations of the time. The artists also got very creative with the menus. They really help to sell the idea of this being a children's sports game. What doesn't look so nice however is the more distant perspective the game adopts after the ball is hit. It's functional, but at this distance, the characters all turn into pixelated messes. I suppose this was hard to avoid with such a small resolution, though.

I don't have too much to say about the soundtrack. Outside of characters making their entrance or getting a home run, there is no music during the actual gameplay. The character themes that play during these occasions as well as when browsing the character profiles are solid enough, but a bit too simplistic to really leave much of an impression. Aside from that, the game has a rather catchy opening theme, but the menus just have elevator music. Compared to Rhett Mathis' earlier work in Putt-Putt and Pep's Balloon-o-Rama, this soundtrack is a bit of a letdown overall.

The voice acting is pretty entertaining, though. It's not realistic in the slightest, but mostly fits the characters well and helps highlight their personalities. There are a few voices that I found a bit too goofy for their own good, though.

As for that one character I didn't like, it's Pete Wheeler. He was clearly intended to be intellectually handicapped, but the way his poor intelligence is portrayed is so over-the-top that it comes off as rather mocking. It's not a big deal in an otherwise very entertaining cast, though.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I'm not sure how to feel about this game. I will commend Humongous Entertainment for trying to make something so far outside of their comfort zone, but they ultimately ended up only really succeeding in the style department. The actual gameplay isn't necessarily bad at its core, but a lot of the details still need some serious work. It remains to be seen if future installments can improve on this rather unpolished first outing.

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