Developer: Black Lantern Studios
Release Date: August 5, 2008
When you think of modern sports, your mind likely goes to megastar athletes with multimillion dollar contracts and egos the size of the mansions in which they reside. While many see the sporting landscape as one populated mostly by overpaid whiners, there is another side, one that remains (mostly) pure and motivated by sheer love of the game. That is the spirit of Little League World Series Baseball 2008, which attempts to recapture the magic of aluminum bats shattering the summer silence. This charming little title is far from perfect, but it's a noble first attempt for the franchise, and there's a lot of promise in this slugger's future.
Little League World Series seeks to take baseball's complexities and simplify them in a manner that makes the game approachable, yet still deep. Pitching, fielding, running and batting have been streamlined to the utmost, and lineups are locked in from the start, saving you from all the micromanagement that comes with MLB titles. This is clearly a game aimed at kids, though casual adult gamers may be interested in giving it a spin.
All actions in the game are controlled via the touch-screen, so there is a heavy reliance on the stylus. Batting requires you to draw a line across the strike zone at the proper time (with the angle of your line influencing the angle of your hit), while pitching requires you to tap the strike zone and trace an arrow in order to hurl the correct pitch. Even fielding is handled in this manner, with fielders moving automatically and you being asked to draw a line corresponding to the base to which you want to throw the ball; and baserunning asks you to draw a line from your player toward the base you wish to attempt.
It's all pretty simple, and it works for the most part, though the mechanics aren't totally sound. For example, batting is a dicey affair, with the timing of the swing proving to be exceptionally difficult for some pitches, and the touch-screen occasionally forgetting to register some swings entirely. I often found myself utterly stymied by changeups, not normally a pitch to be feared. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out if I was swinging too late or too early, but that particular pitch type was good for a strike just about anytime the AI chose to throw it. Thankfully, the CPU never caught on to my inability to decipher this pitch, or I doubt I ever would have scored a run.
Pitching faces a similar pitfall, with the precision and speed requirements spelling doom for some throws. Once you select a pitch and a position to throw it, an arrow pops up on-screen, whose path you must trace in order to throw a perfect pitch. The speed and accuracy of your movements correlate to how well your pitcher makes his delivery, and even slight missteps on your movement can have disastrous consequences. I found that the game didn't register my movement very well on fastballs, leading to skips on my path and painfully slow pitches that were quickly turned around for big hits. Also, if I lost my spot on the line for even a moment on curveballs or changeups, they would drift out of the strike zone, often forcing me to fall back on the fastball in disadvantageous counts, leading right back to the AI watching a meatball come down the heart of the plate and then whacking it mercilessly.
Overall, the control scheme and mechanics at play in Little League World Series are functional but not quite noteworthy. Everything here will get the job done, but you have to wonder if it might not have been a good idea to at least incorporate an option for button controls either for traditionalists or those who just can't seem to find the groove with the stylus. The system that's in place definitely isn't bad, but you just can't help but get the feeling that it most certainly could have been better.
Once you've adjusted to how to play the game, you'll find plenty to keep you busy in Little League World Series. Obviously the game's namesake is here, allowing you to choose from an extensive list of American and international teams in an attempt to go all the way and win the coveted prize. In World Series mode, you go through round-robin play to start, and then advance to the bracketed playoffs if you manage a good enough record. The bracketed events are single-elimination, and if you manage to conquer this stage, then you'll move on to the finals where you face the championship team from the other (American or International) division.
If you don't have the time or inclination for a full game, you can jump into one of the quick yet enjoyable skill challenges. The modes here consist of Bowling, Home Run Derby, HORSE and Tic-Tac-Toe, each with its own quirks. In tic-tac-toe, for example, you throw pitches at squares, but you will only get credit if you use the proper pitch to hit the proper spot on the board. Accuracy becomes just as important as strategy here, and you have to have nerves of steel in order nail that high and tight slider that will give you control of an important part of the board. Bowling takes a similar track, challenging you to throw pitches at oversize pins in an attempt to knock over as many as possible and maximize your score. All of these mini-games create a nice diversion from the main event, and it's easy to quickly jump into a challenge either alone or against friends and enjoy it just as much as if you were playing a full six-inning game.
Interestingly enough, for a sport that has been described as America's Pastime, Little League World Series has a decided Japanese art style. The characters are all rendered with a very anime-inspired look, and sometimes you'll wonder if your player at the plate is about to swing for the fences or bust out a Kamehameha. It's a cute look, but sadly, it's not pushed to any great lengths, as all the characters look exactly alike. Each team has a star player who you think would at least be distinguishable from the others by sight, but even that individual looks like every other. It's too bad, as there is a lot of squandered potential with this particular art style.
Music and sound is minimal, with the only tunes you'll hear showing up on the menu screens. The games themselves are largely mute, with the only sounds being those uttered by the umpires and fans, and the field announcer making a brief announcement between innings. It's not much, but at least it isn't annoying and overbearing like other kid-centric games that blast you with nonstop bubblegum pop that makes you grind your molars in frustration.
Little League World Series is a great game for its intended audience, kids who love baseball and might like to pretend they're on a championship prep team. Adults will likely tire of the simplistic gameplay rather quickly, while those more attached to Major League Baseball will be underwhelmed by the lack of star players and personalities. This title is quite bland, but it still packs in enough fun to make it enjoyable for those who need just a little more baseball. If you love to chomp on sunflower seeds and engage in those sacred catcalls of, "We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!" then you'll love this game's character; otherwise, you can skip over this one and wait for next year's crop of MLB-licensed titles.
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