Revitalized by an influx of cash from new investors, developer SNK recently ported a handful of non-fighting games from its classic Neo Geo catalog to other platforms, particularly focusing on PC games and PlayStation 4 titles. One of the games that recently appeared in the Steam store without much fanfare is Baseball Stars 2, a fondly remembered sports game that takes the American pastime and injects it with huge, colorful sprites, anime-style close ups, fast action, and light team-management options—all for just $7.99. The port, handled by DotEmu, keeps Baseball Stars 2's entertainment and charm intact, as well as the original game's flaws.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
As the candy-colored graphics suggest, Baseball 2 is an arcade-style take on the sport, so you shouldn't expect the uber-management features found in the Out of the Park Baseball series. That said, Baseball Stars 2 adheres to the sport's basic rules, so you can expect to pitch, bunt, steal bases, and substitute players. Thankfully, the game's arcade roots mean that the controls are incredibly easy to grasp whether you're using a gamepad or a keyboard, though snagging grounders can be a bit tricky due to the curiously low camera angles when balls rocket through the infield.
Like the real-life Major League Baseball, the game boasts two leagues, though in this game they are known as Exciting and Fighting. If you just want to focus on racking up hits and collecting Ks, Exciting is the way to go, as it has automatic fielding—it's great for beginners. Fighting, on the other hand, has manual fielding that will appeal to more advanced players. Unfortunately, this odd difficulty separation means you're unable to use automatic fielding while playing as the U.S.A. Bisons, for example, as the teams are tied to leagues. I would've much preferred to select Exciting or Fighting fielding for any ball club. Still, there's much fun to be had on the digital diamond as you explore the various teams' strengths and weakness.
Unlike the RBI Baseball series, Baseball 2 lacks an official license, which means it will likely be available from online video game marketplaces for a long time to come. History has proven, particularly in the case of the excellent Outrun 2, that expired licenses lead to games being yanked from PSN, Steam, and Xbox Live. Baseball Stars 2's fake but awesome teams won't contribute to the video game industry's massive preservation problem.
The SNK Difference
Contemporary baseball games are typically polygonal recreations of the big leagues, or glorified spreadsheets where most of the action occurs in your head. Baseball Stars 2, however, is a holdover from a different time: In the 90s, developers were not afraid to get wacky with their vision of a particular sport (like NBA Jam and Tecmo Super Bowl, for example). As mentioned earlier, Baseball Stars 2 sticks to baseball's fundamentals, but adds several enjoyment-enhancing extras.
The rainbow-colored graphics immediately come to mind. The huge sprites, bursting with animations and primary colors, give the various on-screen athletes tons of personality. Batters wiggle their bats while in the box, break their bats across their knees à la Bo Jackson when they go down on strikes, and flip their bats in displays of cockiness. The characters have more personality than those in Super Mega Baseball: Extra Innings.
Besides looking incredibly cool, the animations are useful, too. For example, when your pitcher begins to breathe hard, it's time to yank him. Likewise, when you use a power-up (yes, your team has a handful of ability enhancers that pre-date MLB's PED scandals!), the selected batter's bat transforms into a club that packs huge, potentially game-changing home run power. You only receive a handful of power-ups per game, so use them judiciously.
Baseball is often a game of inches, and Baseball Stars 2 celebrates that with cool anime-style cinematics that highlight tight or spectacular plays. Close plays at the plate, diving catches, home runs, and clutch hits trigger dramatic, animated close-ups that give big plays extra gravitas. One of the most satisfying cinematics features your batter punching a pitcher who hurled a bean ball in the face; this is similar to Bases Loaded's bench-clearing brawls.
Such spectacular moments are accompanied by fun audio commentary from a hyped-up announcer. Baseball Stars 2's lone announcer doesn't match modern sports games' running, multi-person play-by-play and color work in terms of realism, but his vocal inflections add a touch of comedy and drama to the happenings.
Baseball Stars 2 is compatible with nearly any modern PC, as its system requirements are meager: Your computer needs to have at least 1GB of RAM, 500MB of storage, a Pentium 4 CPU, and an Intel HD GPU. Unfortunately, Baseball Stars isn't compatible with Windows XP machines, but it works with all later Microsoft operating systems, including Windows 10.
You can play Baseball Stars 2 in a variety of resolutions running from 800 by 600 to 1080p. DotEmu gives you the option to enjoy the game in its original 4:3 aspect ratio (with black bars) or a widescreen, monitor-friendly 16:9 aspect ratio. Please note that the digital athletes appear a bit squished in widescreen mode, but that isn't a huge detriment.
You can also apply a filter to smooth out the sprites' rough edges, but I find that it softens the images too much. Scanlines are available, too, if you want to re-create the experience of playing Baseball Stars 2 on an old school Neo Geo upright.
Sadly, Baseball Stars 2 lacks online play, but you can take on another local player. There are also more than two dozen Steam achievements for those who wish to validate their playthroughs via such superficial means.
It Goes Deep
There aren't many baseball games on PC, but Baseball Stars 2 stands out among the few there are. It doesn't have a big-league license or strive to be a super-realistic simulation; the game is simply old-school baseball fun, with simple controls and oodles of charm. And the under-$10 asking price means that it should be in the Steam library of any PC sports fan.