Remember the days before baseball succumbed to greed, player pampering, and steroid-inflated statistics? While that sentiment may be germane to Backyard Baseball 2003 for the fact you can play 31 Major League Baseball pros as kids, overall public opinion of the sport has waned considerably in recent decades because of feuding owners and players. Fortunately, amateur, little league, high school and college, Babe Ruth, pony leagues and legion ball still retain the "love-of-the-game" feel for players and fans alike, and may ultimately save the venerable pastime from complete ruin.
But the real roots of the game can be found in "backyard" pick-up games played by competitive, taunting, fun-loving kids who don't give a damn about salaries, endorsements, or primping for the camera. Such is the basis for Backyard Baseball 2003, despite the presence of MLB players disguised as kids. And therein lies the unmistakable hook -- baseball played for the sheer enjoyment of the game, by kids who occasionally throw to the wrong base or not at all, who play on dirt lots as readily as parking lots, and aren't afraid to mix it up.
The level of play is basic sandlot baseball with accompanying oddities, rule changes, and appropriate depth of talent. Underneath the kid-level gameplay, though, is a solid baseball game with strategic options for pitching, batting, running, and fielding. Using a gamepad requires more control in specific plays, but the point-and-click mouse interface is the easiest way to play the game and allows you to concentrate on playing rather than controlling.
Purists may find the mix of pro rules and little league rules irritating, but purists most likely won't play backyard baseball anyway. The designers have settled on a perfect blend of rules that allow you to experience baseball kid-style -- everyone plays, tagging up is required, no leading off, and so forth. But certain tenets of baseball are left alone: batting order remains sacrosanct after the game begins, bunting and stealing is allowed, pitchers tire, and players can have a "bad day" causing their skills to suffer.
Gameplay is smooth and fun. From changing your batter's stance (closed, open, squared) or choosing the type of hit needed for the situation (power, line drive, grounder, bunt) to controlling the type of pitch and positioning fielders, Backyard Baseball 2003 is surprisingly adept at including the most meaningful elements of baseball. With a healthy handful of game options such as six- or nine-inning games, four difficulty settings (including a learning tee-ball mode), batting practice to hone your hitting skills, and even a spectator mode, the game can be customized to nearly anyone's liking.
The true spirit of sandlot play is realized through several of the dozen available fields, some of which add an extra dimension to fielding and hitting not found in the picture-perfect parks of MLB. Anyone who has played pickup baseball games as a kid will delight in the diamonds with no fences, the strange bounces caused by dirt clods or rough ground that make fielding a challenge, or the rocket effects of the ball off asphalt.
The play-by-play and color commentary is a nice touch and while Vince the Gooch's amusing repertoire can be repetitive in the long run, it's not intrusive to gameplay. Like the music and background noise of the bleacher bums, it can be toggled off to suit personal tastes. Choices for instant replays, printing screens, transition animations, subtitles, dialogue, and more make the game customizable in nearly all respects, and a robust statistical tracking system lets you follow leaders in more than a dozen categories.
Personalization of the game goes even further with the ability to create your own players, using the four standard ratings that attend each of the 60-plus backyard and pro-kids in the game. Ratings range from one to ten in each category (batting, pitching, running, and fielding) and have a definite impact on the ability of each player. The AI offers different strategies in the drafting of players, depending on the difficulty level selected, and you can choose from all 30 MLB logos for your team.
For fans losing faith due to the incessant bickering in Major League Baseball, or major league sports in general, Backyard Baseball 2003 is an enjoyable alternative that allows you to recapture the love of the game itself, without worrying about franchise elements required by management simulations. Reminisce the days when the biggest decision was which player would get to pick first by topping off the bat.
Graphics: Baseball fields are bound to stir up memories for those who have played sandlot or pick-up games as kids. Nicely detailed environments, amusing and accurate caricatures of pros, simple but effective cartoon-like animations, and smooth gameplay.
Sound: Whether you choose to use it or not, the game has play-by-play and color commentary, both of which are amusing as well as accurate. Ambient sounds of the crowd, kids taunting, and chatter are well done.
Enjoyment: Anyone who has ever played backyard, sandlot or pickup baseball will instantly be transported to the simple baseball life. Although geared for kids ages seven and up, there's enough robust gameplay to bring out the "kid" in adult fans of the game.
Replay Value: With the ability to create your own player, choose from all 30 MLB logos, draft and choose from over 60 pre-designed players and play seasons, the replay value is high, though a multiplayer mode would have been a superb addition.
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Backyard Baseball 2001, Backyard Baseball, Backyard Football 2002, Backyard Basketball 2004, Backyard Football, Backyard Basketball, Backyard Baseball 2005, Backyard Hockey 2005
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