Sports and collectibles are synonymous, going hand in hand and costing enthusiasts tons of pretty pennies every single year. It’s not unheard of for jerseys, cards and other items related to popular sports legends, to go for tens of thousands of dollars. One of the more unique and interesting forms of sporting goods is the bobblehead, which is very much a big part of baseball, where the funny little figures are given out as promotional pieces many times throughout each season. They range in size and depict popular athletes in caricature form, putting a big wobbly head on a smaller scale body.
Tying the sport and one of its most popular spin-off items together, Konami has released MLB Bobblehead Pros for the XBOX Live Arcade. It marries sport and collectible item together in a way that makes complete, complementary sense. After all, who doesn’t want to play a baseball game with character, using players with small bodies and big heads that bobble with every movement? The mix is a match made in sporting heaven, though how it plays on the field matters most.
Being a big baseball fan, I was excited when I first heard about this game. I grew up playing many different sports and video game interpretations of each, and still put a lot of time into them. Though the simulation games have always been enjoyable and immersive, the fun that comes with taking on a friend in a great arcade sports game is tough to match. That’s one of the main reasons MLB Bobblehead Pros was so appealing to me, as it looked to be a character-filled take on a very formulaic sport.
Upon booting up the 500 megabyte digital download, I was impressed with the wealth of options presented. There’s a full 162-game season mode, complete with pre-season games, which don’t kick in until the second year for some reason. It also offers your traditional exhibition, quick game and one-off multiplayer modes, which are always fun for a quick session or two.
However, the one mode that I was most excited to try was the home run derby, which unfortunately is locked because it’s planned for future downloadable content. That’s one of the questionable aspects of this game, which may turn some people off: it shows some included game modes in the menu, but they’re locked until you download an unlock code. The derby isn’t alone, as the edit player mode and one or two other options are also unavailable at this point in time. Apparently this is the first of three games, with the other two planned for release as the aforementioned DLC – the first becoming available around the upcoming All-Star Break.
What is there for us to play at this point in time does happen to be pretty impressive, though. There’s almost a full fledged baseball experience to be had for just ten dollars, which is something that is hard to come by in today’s marketplace. Forgetting about the locked options, there’s still a ton of content to keep you busy for quite a while, most of which is found in its deep and ongoing season mode.
Upon starting a season, fans are given the chance to choose their favourite team, with the option to create a superstar team to replace one of the listed clubs. Once your represented city is chosen, you’re thrown into an involved baseball fanatic’s dream, full of stats, condition listings, strategically placed set-up relievers, substitution presets and tons of awards. It’s essentially a simulation of a real-life Major League Baseball season, though one thing that is noticeably missing is in-season trading.
Though the name suggests a version of the American past-time that’s more about the arcade elements than the simulation regularities, it’s actually pretty light on the over-the-top moments. MLB Bobblhead Pros is a mixture of the two, which favors realistic elements more than it does the arcade, unlike the old MLB Slugfest games. Each 3 to 9 inning game you play is steeped in realism, despite having characters who resemble toys with springs for necks and, for some reason, no legs. It’s like they suffer from Rayman syndrome.
There aren’t any on-fire pitches, baserunners punching position players or speed bursts to be found. Instead, arcade elements show through in the ability to make a pitcher dizzy by continually hitting him hard, much more regular home runs/grand slams and an included turning point system. These pop up when an important batter comes up to the plate, possibly representing a dangerous out, powerful batter or the tying run. Whichever team wins that one-out battle, gets boosted batter stats for an inning. That means more home runs!
Batting is an aspect of the game that is tough to complain about, because it’s well-handled and designed. You’re greeted with a strike zone indicator, which shows the area your bat takes up and sometimes, where the pitcher is about to send the ball. Pressing the right trigger alters your swing from basic to power, though it takes away the majority of the bat space when you do this, making it more of a guessing game. The trade-off is worth it a lot of the time. Bunting is also there, and is nowhere near static, allowing for movement.
Broken bats, accurate ball flight mechanics and some tip of the bat rollers make the game feel quite immersive and like an accurate interpretation of real-life batting. They also make the fielders’ jobs more difficult. Unfortunately, fielding is one aspect of this game that doesn’t impress as much. It’s somewhat clumsy and takes a while to get used to.
Those playing position around the diamond and in the outfield are slower than you’d expect, meaning you need to get a good jump on well-placed fly balls in order to even stand a chance at catching them. This part of the game becomes easier with practice, but it’s sometimes tough to know exactly which player you’re controlling when a ball is hit to one of the far fields. The camera doesn’t move fast enough to give you enough time to react, sometimes.
Catching a ball with flair can be done, though you’ll more often than not put yourself out of position while trying to do so, missing the ball by a bit. Certain face buttons allow you to dive, jump and shift towards balls, but it also requires a lot of trial to become good at. Fielding in this game isn’t broken, nor is it game breaking, but it definitely could have used some more refinement. After a while, most of these issues will pop up less as you become accustomed to how things work.
Bridging away from single player country, this day at the ballpark offers friends, family and new acquaintances a decent amount of co-operative and competitive fun. Online takes the form of one-off games, which are fun and competitive, though there is a bit of a lag-like disconnect at times. Friends can battle online or locally, with the additional option to play co-operatively, taking turns controlling each player or controlling the same one. One guy controls the swing, while the other aims the bat. That type of thing.
One of this slugger’s best features is its visual flair, as it’s very obvious that the visual department put a lot of time and effort into making it look just right. Although its athletes are caricature representations put onto bobblehead dolls, they’re still very easy to identify. Facial features, hairstyles and even accessories like Brandon League’s unique sunglasses, are all there. As are some delivery and batting mannerisms for both hitters or pitchers. You don’t usually get this amount of detail outside of a simulation.
Each ballpark is painstakingly recreated with an approach that favors the cartoon elements a bit more than the realistic ones. Standouts include Wrigley Field, where vehicles speed by behind the far back wall of the outfield, as well as Safeco Field in Seattle, where you’ll hear the sound of a nearby train. It’s nice to see how much research was done to get the overall aesthetic right, as realism and exaggeration meld well together, within this project.
Noticeably absent during gameplay is the commentator. You won’t get play by play descriptions of every on-field event here, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel. I missed it at times, but forgot about it at others. The only dialogue you’ll hear will come from the stadium announcer, who quips about bobbles, bobbleheads and bob-athons while also talking about upcoming promotions, and advising attendee safety. He can be a bit annoying after a while. Overall, it sounds pretty good, with a few licensed tracks included for batter and game introductions.
To be honest, MLB Bobblehead Pros wasn’t exactly what I expected going in, but that’s not to say that was a bad thing. Though the game suffers from a bit of an identity crisis (not knowing whether it’s a sim or an arcade game), it’s a very solid and affordable sports title. A surprisingly deep season mode, some decent online play and some fun power-friendly elements make it an enjoyable experience to play alone or with friends. For ten dollars, you really can’t go wrong with this game, as it appeals to the simulation junkies and the short-burst arcade fans. I just wish my Blue Jays weren’t rated unfairly.
MLB Bobblehead Pros was released on July 6, 2011. It’s available on XBOX Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points.