It's difficult to imagine an over-the-top version of a game paced as slowly and deliberately as baseball. While a slew of baseball games are released every year, to date there have been only a handful--Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 and Super Baseball 2020, to name a couple--that have attempted to bring some extra-added action and mayhem to this tactical sport. Coming from some of the same people responsible for games such as NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, and NHL Hitz, Midway's MLB Slugfest 2003 brings some good, clean fun back to a genre teeming with stodgy simulations.
MLB Slugfest 2003 doesn't take too many liberties with the rules of real baseball. The most obvious change is that the game defaults to seven innings, though you can play a full nine if you so desire. You can also disable the pitcher's ability to throw balls (as opposed to strikes), forcing a more offense-oriented mode of play. Beyond that, it's still three strikes and you're out, as well as force-outs, double plays, and so on. The one major addition that makes Slugfest different from your everyday baseball game is the ability to "clear out" opposing players. These clear-out moves are essentially attacks, and they add a whole new level of strategy to base running. For example, say you've hit a line shot up the middle and to the wall in center field. You're running around the bases at full steam and going for a triple, but the outfielder uses a bit of his turbo meter and sends a throw screaming in to the third baseman. Normally, you'd be out or you'd have to turn around and get caught up in a pickle. But here, you can keep running full steam at that third baseman, hitting turbo and the clear-out button at just the right moment to deck the maroon, flooring him. Hit him hard enough, and he might even drop the ball, potentially opening up an opportunity to head for home. On defense, the clear-out button executes what we'll call "aggressive tags." Timed properly, these moves can stop the base runner from knocking you over and get you the out you deserve. All this may be unsportsmanlike, but it's pretty entertaining.
The game's turbo meter also requires a bit of strategy. You can use it to beef up just about any move in the game. Players run faster, pitches become more exaggerated and twist every which way in flight, clear-outs are more likely to cause dropped balls, and swings have a bit more power. But unlike in other Midway games, the meter doesn't automatically replenish when you stop using it--instead, you'll have to earn more turbo. You'll earn back turbo by striking out batters, performing diving catches, and hitting home runs. Also, your entire meter refills every half inning. Running out of turbo essentially makes your outfielders useless, as the huge outfield very much favors the offense. Players can also "catch on fire," giving them unlimited turbo until they are struck or tagged out.
Each player is rated in the categories of batting, power, and speed. Pitchers can choose to throw bean balls at any time, and targeting different parts of the batter has the ability to lower one of these three stats. So there's some strategy to be found here as well, like knocking out the legs of the opposing outfielders to give your fly balls a better chance of dropping. This plan occasionally backfires, though, as it's possible to set a player on fire by beaning him.
Like the rest of MLB Slugfest, the batting and pitching interface has a 16-bit flair to it, harkening back to the bygone days of the aforementioned simple, fun baseball games. On the mound, you have a total of four pitches to choose from, as well as the ability to pitch to one of nine positions in a three-by-three box. At the plate, you can bunt, swing normally, or hit for power with three different buttons. You'll also have to try to guess which of the nine positions that the pitcher is going to throw to. While you'll still hit pitches if you time your swing properly, watching the pitch and picking the correct location is the key to cranking home runs out of the park. As you'd expect, swinging over a ball chops it into the ground, while swinging under it usually gives you a pop fly. Fortunately, you can turn your batter in the box, making it a little easier to hit balls up the baseline if you're swinging a little too late. There are three different camera positions for the batter to choose from, but really only one--a slightly pulled-back, higher view--gives you clear depth perception and lets you time your swings easily.
From a graphical standpoint, Slugfest stands up to the rest of the baseball games on the market. The players look very good, though some players' facial textures look better than others. The motion-captured animation is pretty smooth and very lively, though the wild movements combined with the static player faces gives off a creepy "living mannequin" look that even Andrew McCarthy would have trouble falling in love with. In addition, the game's frame rate hitches up from time to time, but it's pretty rare and doesn't really get in the way of the action.
MLB Slugfest's sound is pretty amazing. All of the requisite "noises of the ballpark" sounds are there, including stadium announcers and the like. The game features two-man commentary that, unlike most sports games that take a stab at humorous commentary, actually manages to be funny. It starts at the loading screen, which gives you a brief, entirely meaningless conversation between the two commentators. Once the game gets going, it's mostly standard balls-and-strikes talk, but the color man occasionally pipes up during lulls in the action with some pretty funny non sequiturs. After 10 or 20 games, you'll hear repeated comments from the twosome, but that's pretty much par for the course as far as sports games go.
In the end, MLB Slugfest 2003 is an incredibly appealing sports game. While it doesn't possess the sheer addictiveness of, say, NFL Blitz, it's simultaneously a breath of fresh air and a nostalgic look at the baseball game genre. If you haven't enjoyed a baseball game since the original Ken Griffey Jr. for the SNES, then Slugfest is the game you've been thirsting for.