MLB Bobblehead Pros Hands-On Preview

Thinking of baseball games of the Super Nintendo era as compared to those today is like thinking about the sport in the era of Babe Ruth as compared to that of Barry Bonds. It seemed such a simpler time, and at least in video games, it was – the controllers were less complex, the game engines far less powerful, and playing virtual baseball in those days did a lot less to simulate the game than it does today.

MLB Bobblehead Pros harkens back to that simpler kind of baseball game, and it reminds quite a bit of Super MLB Baseball. It’s not a game for die-hard superfans, it’s the kind of casual game that’s fun to pick up and play with a friend, perhaps, but that anybody can quickly learn to play well and be capable of putting up a decent fight.

We got a chance to take a few swings and throw a few sliders in MLB Bobblehead Pros at Konami’s Pre-E3 the weeek before the show. The downloadable title will be available on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network later this year and include online play, although Konami didn’t have an exact date or a price point for us. The company has detailed that the game will come out sometime after Opening Day, with two DLC packages dropping between then and the 2011 All-Star Game.

As you might have guessed, all the characters in MLB Bobblehead Pros are, in fact, bobbleheads. The audience consists of bobbleheads, as do the players, and the overall graphical style isn’t unlike that of the Homerun Derby mini-game found in Wii Sports – just a lot prettier and more complete.

Unlike Wii’s baseball offering, though, MLB Bobbleheads is much more complete. After choosing teams, you’ll play a much more recognizable version of virtual baseball, with one side or player pitching and the other batting. Throwing strikes and hitting the ball are a matter of timing and locations: as pitcher, you’ll choose a location to aim your pitch in the strike zone and pick a pitch type with one of the face buttons. The point where the pitcher is aiming in the strike zone is visible to the batter as long as it’s moving, but as soon as the pitcher zeroes it in, it disappears — batting is handled by approximating where the ball is going to go by lining up a bat icon in the strike zone that indicates the level of the swing. Carefully watching the pitch and timing the swing are key to success.

It’s a really simple system and takes a lot of the guess work out of baseball, while still presenting a challenge. Nail a hit and your runners will take off around the basis with little if any input from you, unless you decide to play base coach and instruct your runners to steal. For fielding, the opposite is true — players can be switched by pressing a face button, and choosing which base to throw the ball to is also made easier with face button controls. Each button n the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 button diamonds represents a base, so you can quickly determine whether you need to go to first, second, third or home to make a play.

That’s really about all there is to MLB Bobblehead Pros. All the Major League teams are represented through throughout and some are tougher than others, which appears to be guided by real-world stats and rosters. All the bobbleheads are based on real-world players, and the parks are faithful recreations as well. They’re just given that slight edge of goofy humor, and the bobbleheads are always bouncing, on the players and even in the crowd.

As to gameplay, MLB Bobblehead Pros is a good time without being hard to pick up. The toughest time I had with anything the game threw at me was the realization that the face buttons corresponded to bases when fielding — I kept trying to just throw the ball where I was aiming with A, and continually was throwing the ball to home plate. With a full mastery of the controls, it was much easier.

Batting is simple enough to be fun, with an extra layer of strategy: you can switch between the large bat indicator in the strike zone, which lets you know that your bat will be covering a big area, or a smaller, powered-up version. Since the basis of batting is all about watching where the pitcher is planning to put the ball in the strike zone until it disappears, and then feeling confident about your guess, the powered-up bat gives you a bonus on your swing, but it makes it harder to hit the ball. If you feel confident you know where the pitch is going to cross the plate, you can switch to this power shot and take the risk it gives. In a situation more in doubt, leaving the larger, weaker bat indicator is the safer bet.

Pitching, too, is just complex enough to be deep. Face buttons correspond to various pitch types (there doesn’t seem to be any base stealing, although I could be wrong), allowing players to throw fastballs and changeups in order to confuse the batter. That’s important, as is trying to outsmart the guy with where you place your pitches — both players are able to see the others’ plans for the strike zone, with the batter seeing the pitcher’s ball indicator and the pitcher knowing where the batter is going to swing. It makes for an interesting, one-second psych-out situation that’s over quickly but really pits the batter and pitcher against one another.

Other little bonuses make the game feel a little more realistic in terms of baseball. You can call in pinch hitters and send pitchers to the dugout, and a pitcher who keeps getting his throws blasted will start to go on tilt and look dizzy, affecting his performance substantially. They’re all nice touches for an arcade baseball game, and the old-school feel and easy learning curve and cost of entry should make MLB Bobblehead Pros a hit among baseball fans. It’s fun to play and doesn’t require season tickets to understand.

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