When SNK was looking to launch its new arcade/console platform, it had one fairly big problem on its hands: a lack of recognizable IPs. The Ikari series had largely burned all of its fuel and its creator had left the company, wanting nothing to do with the standardization that came with the NEOGEO. Athena had largely only been popular for her cheesecake posters and box covers, with the game itself not being very well-regarded. As such, the NEOGEO launch line-up had surprisingly few familiar faces in it. But there was one success that SNK could try to follow up on, and that was its popular NES baseball game, Baseball Stars. It should have been a home run, but Baseball Stars Professional ($3.99) ended up getting tagged at first base.
What went wrong? Well, a lot of things. Baseball Stars on the NES hadn’t released too much earlier than this game, and it’s likely that the gap was too small to really take a lot of lessons forward. This game also had to be tuned for arcade play, meaning it had to keep those coins coming in rather than simply satisfying the player for their lump-sum purchase. On top of all of that, as a launch title for the hardware it had to try to show off as much of the system’s muscle as possible, even if that was to the detriment of playability. Is that everything? Maybe. Let’s roll with it for now.
Baseball Stars on the NES was a really cool game, and a lot of that came down to how much customizability and persistence it brought to the genre on the console. You could make your own custom characters and teams and save them using the battery back-up, improving your players using the money you earn by winning games. You can also use your money to buy new players for your team, too. A lot of this became normal in sports games soon enough, but Baseball Stars was ahead of its time as a console baseball game. In terms of gameplay, its batting and pitching more or less followed conventions. But its fielding was incredibly well-done, bringing in many elements that would be copied by the competition soon enough.
Baseball Stars Professional has… pretty much none of that. No created players. No team customization. Certainly no full season mode or RPG-like upgrades. Just two modes: a tournament mode where you play against a series of CPU-controlled teams, and a single-match versus mode for two human players to face off. The gameplay is as simplified as it gets, reducing just about everything to a few basic actions. The excellent fielding found in the NES version is absent here, and it’s made even worse by the insistence of flexing the NEOGEO’s scaling capabilities. You really can’t see things that you need to see because the game is so busy being proud of its graphical prowess. This is one of the least pleasant baseball games to run defense in of any that I have played.
Oh, I should also mention that the teams aren’t balanced at all. Make sure you pick a good one until you get the hang of the game, because the bad ones make things very difficult against what is already a fairly tough CPU opponent. The computer opponent is generally a very rude fellow. All the struggles you have with defense are no issue for the CPU. It will catch the ball easily because it doesn’t have to “see”, and its throws are uncannily accurate where yours will often falter. It’s not a lot of fun to play against the computer, and that’s a particular issue with this mobile version because that’s probably what you’ll be doing most of the time.
I will grant that Baseball Stars Professional looks good for its era. The graphics are vivid, the animations are decent, and those scaling effects that make fielding such a pain are at least not for naught. If its job was to make the new NEOGEO hardware look like a step above at launch, it did its work well enough. And hey, some people do inexplicably have some affection for this title. I’ll take its considerably better sequel any day of the week, but if you’ve got nostalgia for this game I certainly can’t argue against it.
The game also plays fairly well with the virtual touch controls. No real need for button combinations and the stick movements are simple enough. You can use an external controller if that’s your jam, and if you want to play against another player you’ll need to bring one for your friend. Again I will note the lack of online play in these ACA NEOGEO releases, and again I will lament its absence. It’s particularly bad in games like this where the CPU opponent is a total butthead almost directly from the hop. The extra modes and leaderboards Hamster adds in for every release don’t do a whole lot for this game, but they’re there.
It’s often said that Baseball Stars Professional is the worst of the initial NEOGEO launch games. It’s also said to be a lousy sequel to the NES game. Yes, I agree with both of those statements. This wasn’t SNK at its best, and its usual proficiency at sports games didn’t come through here. It’s more of a historical curio than anything at this point unless you have a personal connection to it, and I’d probably be comfortable calling it the worst of the games selected for the mobile ACA NEOGEO line thus far. Not even worth even a few measly bucks in quarters, but then again, it never was.