All-Star Baseball 2004 for the Game Boy Advance ought to please anybody looking for a game of baseball on the go. It includes all 30 MLB teams, their stadiums, and more than 800 different players. All of the necessary modes are present, including exhibition, season, all-star game, home run derby, playoffs, and World Series. You can play against another human opponent using a link cable. A battery backup maintains your season progress, player trades, and roster changes, as well as a collection of more than 250 trading cards that you can earn by meeting certain criteria.
Except for a few minor differences, the game plays just like its meatier counterparts that are available for the Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2. During batting, you aim your swing with an indicator that's shaped like a large triangle. By tilting and rotating the triangle, you can select exactly where you'd like the ball to go after it leaves your bat. On defense, the pitching interface allows you to pinpoint the exact spot where you'll throw the ball. The two interfaces come together in that they make it easy to induce ground balls or pop-ups depending on where you pitch the ball or how you angle your swing. The game also allows you to make substitutions and to adjust the positions of your outfielders and infielders.
Fielding is easy once you have the ball--just choose a base with the directional pad and push the throw button--but it's somewhat of a chore to actually learn how to catch. The dark colors of the field and the tiny GBA screen make it difficult to follow the ball into the outfield. It also takes time before your reflexes learn to associate the colored dots on the field map with your players and the landing point of the ball. Until you reach this level of skill, you'll probably let a good number of fly balls sail right past you. If you want, you can choose to let the CPU do all of the fielding for you, but this leaves you at the mercy of its own preprogrammed behavior.
The chief difference between the GBA version of All-Star Baseball 2004 and the console versions has to do with how CPU-controlled players behave while the ball is in play. Often, CPU infielders will drop back into the outfield for simple ground balls, instead of charging in after them, killing double-play opportunities. Likewise, the pitcher won't always take the easy play at first after a slow grounder, which allows the runner to reach the base safely. These specific instances don't ruin the game, but they occur often enough that you should know about them--especially since you have the option of letting the CPU control your own fielders.
You may notice a few other odd imperfections as well, but on the whole, the game delivers most of the strategy and situations you'd expect to see in a baseball video game. Owners of last year's All-Star Baseball 2003 will be happy to know that CPU pitchers can now throw outside of the strike zone and that the speed of base runners has been increased to the point that doubles and even triples are a possibility.
The two areas that have really improved in this year's game are the graphics and audio. On the visual side of things, the animation for batter walk-ups and pitcher follow-throughs is much more complete. You can actually see the pitcher return to the mound and the batter dig in his toes, which wasn't as obvious in last year's game. The stadiums in the batting viewpoint also exhibit a greater amount of detail. You can see the flags waving at Pac Bell Park, for example, as well as watch the water flowing from the fountain at Kauffman Stadium. One thing that's totally new to this year's game is the scoreboard celebrations that occur after events such as strikeouts and home runs.
As for the audio, the biggest new addition is play-by-play commentary. While nowhere close to the level of the play calling you'd hear from a game on a console system, the modest selection of words and phrases that are present is enough to hold your interest. The announcer is capable of describing a variety of pitches and hitting scenarios, as well as delivering basic mid-inning summaries. Besides the play-by-play, the sound effects are clear and believable. There are also a fair number of musical and audience-related interludes that occur during home team at-bats and rallies.
Overall, All-Star Baseball 2004 pretty much gives you everything you could want from a handheld baseball game. The presentation is classy, and the list of included modes has enough variety in it to last an entire real season. The way the CPU fields the ball is disappointing at times, as is the lack of a player editor or a franchise mode, but you'd have to be really discerning to let those shortcomings prevent you from enjoying this game.