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Bottom of the Ninth 99 (N64) Review

Background Info

Konami's Bottom of the 9th (BOT9) franchise has failed in recent years to live up to the promise exhibited in its first release for the Playstation back in 1996. That game was one of the first successful sports games for that console; it quickly attracted a following willing to overlook its lack of frills in favor of an attractive presentation and a solid batting cursor system.

People now expect far more from their baseball games than they did back in the early days of 32-bit gaming. With the N64 starting to come into its own as a sports gaming platform and with the promise of even more to come on the Dreamcast and other next generation consoles, it remains to be seen whether BOT9 can measure up to the competition offered by All Star Baseball 2000, Ken Griffey's Slugfest, and Triple Play 2000 on the N64.

Graphics : 62
Disappointing. The resolution of images--both players and stadia--leaves much to be desired; indeed, some 32-bit games look more appealing. Players are blurred, especially in the field; even the batters could use some more detail; the lack of a MLB license means that the uniforms lack distinctive touches, logos, and so on. One detects some variation in body shapes, but batting stances appear uniform, and there's really very little (other than skin color) to distinguish one player from another. The ballparks are rough approximations of their real-life counterparts, but, alas, they are nothing special, either--and careful observers will note the variations from reality.

The camera angles are not terribly useful. There are three basic positions--the familiar behind-the-plate shot (preferred for this game), an off-center behind the batter shot, and an over-the shoulder shot from the mound (which looks especially odd when one positions the mitt-like cursor to aim a pitch). On the bright side, the camera interacts well with plays in the field, offering close-ups of an outfielder's throw and changing angles as it follows a batter's home run trot.

The mediocrity of these graphic renderings is a shame, for some of the animations of players at bat and in the field are engaging--players veering off into foul territory after crossing first base, infielders sidearming some throws, good diving catches, and so on. Unfortunately, there's no instant replay to relive those moments--such as when a diving infielder kicks up some dust as he slides across the...artificial turf. Oops. Although there's little to pick from when it comes to batters, more care was paid in portraying pitchers, allowing users to view the distinct deliveries of David Cone or Randy Johnson.

Audio : 60
Acceptable. The play-by-play uses the same voice, intonation, and pacing found on the original BOT9; the music is also basically the same. Don't expect anything in terms of information, color commentary, or individual player information (or even names). However, the sounds from the stands are a bit richer and livelier, with fans whistling, vendors hawking their wares, and so on. In-game sounds are also okay but not great, although the gravelly-voiced umpire calls are a welcome touch. Players can control volume and other audio-related issues in a separate menu.

Interface/Options : 70
A mixed bag . . .

Game Options and Memory Card Management: Pre-game menus are relatively straightforward and easy to use, allowing players to customize gameplay options to their liking. One can play an exhibition game, one of several season modes (variable regular seasons of 15, 30, 69, 112, or 162 games; the entire postseason; or a one-on-one championship series); a training mode (batting, pitching, and fielding), and a special scenario mode with various degrees of difficulty.

You select levels of difficulty and various options, including number of innings, wind, time of day, errors, whether to employ the designated hitter rule, audio (voice/music/sound effects), and controller set-up. You may also choose from several fielding, batting, managing, and pitching options. The fielding options include automatic, semi-automatic (you choose where the fielder throws the ball) and manual: be aware that the CPU makes some rather curious choices if set on automatic fielding or baserunning (and several times ran me right out of a big inning when I would have held runners up). Once more the cost of saving options, stats, and a season's progress costs the majority of room found on a standard memory card.

General Manager/Field Manager: The rosters are rather dated (David Wells is still in pinstripes--that is, he would be if the New York A team actually had pinstripes). You can make trades, but only one-for-one deals, and pitchers must be traded for pitchers, position players for position players. There are no in-season trades. Although there is no minor league roster, there is a "disabled" list, which functions as a player reserve pool and is accessed from the roster option. Missing is the option to create players; the stats database contained basic information, little more.

Managers can manipulate lineup cards and fielding positions on the roster menu. BOT9 includes an assessment of each player's "biorhythms" to help managers choose hot and cold players (these ratings affect the size of the batting cursor). There are some rudimentary defensive options (play shallow, deep, or in at the corners) and even fewer offensive options (hit and run)--meaning that the aggressive field manager will have to learn the baserunning button options to get ahead. And the arms are always fresh and warm in the bullpen.

Player manipulation: BOT9 continues to rely upon the pitcher-batter interface it unveiled in the initial Playstation version of the game. At the time it appeared, it was, it's good, but showing signs of wear. The batter cannot shift stances or position in the batter's box; one is limited to the familiar contact (large cursor)/power (small cursor)/bunt options. One can choose from either a lock-on or manual movement of the cursor; one may also move the cursor using the D-pad or the analog stick (I prefer the former). Then it's all a matter of timing (although more than once the game refused to let me swing late). Frankly, while I have fond memories of this system, on the whole I prefer the one used in ASB 2000, and even the TP2000 batting interface offers more options.

Nor has the pitching interface changed much from that employed in BOT9's ancestors. Users select the pitch using the analog stick (or, again, the D-pad), press "A" to pitch, then use the analog stick or D-pad to position the catcher's mitt to determine location (as the pitcher prepares to deliver the ball, limiting the time the user has to move the cursor). The cursor can be concealed, helping to mislead batters. I prefer using the analog stick, in part because it is a little harder to control (and thus more realistic). Pitchers start breathing heavily when they run out of gas; they may also panic and give up several hits in a row.

The game screen will offer the usual amount of data (score, outs, balls and strikes, a diamond icon with baserunners indicated by a helmet, number of strikeouts by the pitcher, and names and pictures of the pitcher and batter); pause the game to observe the results of the batter's previous at-bats.

Fielding is straightforward, with the c buttons representing the diamond in the default controller configuration (pressing Z or a shoulder button hits the cutoff man); other configurations require you to move the analog stick to determine where you will throw. You determine player movement with the analog stick; the instruction book offers no clue on how to make your fielder dive or jump, although the section on "tips & techniques" implies that those options are available.

Where the game clearly falls short is in baserunning. As mentioned before, the CPU makes some questionable decisions, so use the auto setting at your own risk; however, instead of using the four c buttons as a diamond, they are used in various combinations along with the analog stick to direct all or individual runners. This will take some time to learn.

Finally, both the pitching and fielding sequences have built-in possibilities for error. Sometimes a ball slips; sometimes a fielder fumbles a pop-up; in one game a shortstop bobbled a ball but recovered in time. Watch for the flashing exclamation points (although sometimes it's hard to respond in time when a pitcher grooves one over the heart of the plate). A nice touch and one that has been in the series since its inception.

Gameplay : 74
In light of the less-than-enthusiastic evaluation thus far, it is only fair to state that BOT9 offers the casual baseball fan a fast-paced, simple game. There's no elaborate ritual as the batter strides to the plate; the game quickly gets down to business. Batting is challenging, especially when it comes to looking to hit the long ball. The games can be tight, even at the easier difficulty levels. Just don't expect too much when it comes to strategy.

The most important decision the player will have to make is how to toggle the fielding and baserunning options (most players will assume control over pitching and batting). If you allow the computer to take over, be prepared to scratch your head in bewilderment at some choices; control these matters yourself, and take the time to learn those controls. Although the game offers three versions of the controller, most people will stay with the default choice.

Difficulty : 80
There are four major difficulty levels; used in conjunction with the various batting/fielding/ options, one can tailor the game to one's satisfaction. However, get used to some form of cursor batting: even the lock-on option forces batters to offer an initial guess as to location. Even the easier levels offer a competitive contest.

Overall : 69
For the casual fan interested in a simple game, BOT9 is adequate (and if it quickly drops in price, that may tip the scales for such players). Moreover, it does offer a challenge. However, more serious video baseball players who are not into collecting every title that appears should consider passing on this cart. There's something likeable about the game; maybe it's a sense of nostalgia that goes back to its first edition (even the new rulebook reproduces a generic batter shot that appears in the first edition's instruction booklet). But there's no mistaking the fact that if BOT9 suffers from few serious flaws, it lacks the flavor and depth of the other N64 titles on the market.

By: Brooks Thompson 5/31/99

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