SAN JOSE, Calif.--The Backyard Sports series has been around for a while now, offering its unique brand of sports games that are designed specifically for younger kids. Formerly associated with Atari, the game series developer Humongous has since broken off from the publisher and is now developing and publishing the kid-friendly sports series independently. That independence has translated into some very noticeable changes in Backyard Baseball 2007--yes it's still first and foremost a game for children, but the Backyard kids have grown up a bit.
As we sat down to discuss the latest Backyard Baseball game, one of our first questions to the team was: How is this game possible? With all of the licensing restrictions affecting the sim sports world, how is it that the Backyard folks have kept not only the MLB license, but other sports licenses, such as the NHL, NBA, MLS, and even the NFL? The answer is: That's how the deals were drawn up. When Take-Two signed the MLB deal, and EA Sports sewed up NFL exclusivity, the deals were specifically drawn up to exclude kids' games from the restrictions. What it means in practical terms is that Humongous is the only publisher that has access to every major team sports league license.
If you've ever played previous Backyard Sports games, perhaps with a younger brother or sister, you know that the series is known for its colorful cast of spunky kids who love to play all kinds of sports. Real-life pros (or at least kid versions of real-life pros) find their way into the mix as well, so it's not unusual to see a pint-size version of Derek Jeter sharing the field with the series regulars. In Backyard Baseball 2007, the game's kids have gotten a bit older and have gone through significant character redesigns as well. Instead of the squat, stubby youths found in the older games, character models in Backyard Baseball 2007 are longer, leaner, and just a bit older looking. The ultimate aim in the redesign was to have the game still be friendly to 5-year-olds, without being too kiddy and turning off the 10-year-olds who are forced to play the game with their younger siblings.
The game environments have changed as well--there is more of a "backyard" appearance to the baseball stadiums than ever before. You start off playing in cozy backyard neighborhoods, surrounded by houses and brightly colored trees. As you progress through the game, you'll move to more sophisticated urban playgrounds and ultimately to the World Series, all of which feature the same cartoon atmosphere that suits the game well.
The game's all-inclusive approach has gone into the gameplay, as well. Developers told us they are striving to make the game feel more like real baseball than ever before--with more-realistic ball physics, unique swings for each batter, real baseball strategies, and so on--while still maintaining the pick-up-and-play arcade roots that the series has come to be known for. From a mechanics standpoint, Backyard Baseball 2007 is as straight ahead as it comes--the game uses the four face buttons to control pitch types when you're on the mound. While at bat, you can move a batting icon to different spots in the strike zone before swinging the bat.
Because head-to-head multiplayer is so important for the series, the developers have ensured the game is friendly for both kids and their parents. When playing in split-screen mode, for example, you can split the difficulty for the two players--so Dad can play on the most difficult difficulty level, while Junior plays at an easier level, where features like autofielding are turned on.
Beyond including all 30 MLB teams plus real-life players such as David Ortiz, Dontrelle Willis, and cover star Albert Pujols, the game includes a number of Backyard kids, some of whom work better together than others. The game will include a simplified team chemistry system that means certain players will enjoy attribute boosts when playing with certain teammates (or even in certain positions). You can mix and match your lineups as you like, and no one is going to complain about it, even the kid version of Alfonso Soriano found in the game.
With quicker load times, a create-a-player mode, and the ability to play through entire seasons in the game, Backyard Baseball 2007 is definitely skewing toward slightly older kids who love sports games, without losing the ageless charm that has defined the series for so long. The game is due for release on the Game Boy Advance on May 16 and on all other platforms on June 20.