First, let’s set the scene. It’s the late 2000s. Nintendo, a brand once as synonymous with video games as Kleenex is with facial tissues, had released two consecutive disappointing consoles, and was considered a relic in the age of Mature Gaming via the Sony Playstation and Microsoft’s XBox. Their response, rather than join their foes, was to release a console called the “Wii” with motion-sensing remotes instead of controllers, and a pack-in game that let you bowl and play tennis.
It sold 100 million units and became a cultural phenomenon. And because of this success, video game companies flooded its online store with nearly 100 million cheap, “shovelware” titles published digitally through the system’s shopping channel, hoping to lure all those casual gamers to spend 10 bucks on something that looked cute.
Nothing embodies this era of video games better than Let’s Catch, a title where you go to a park and … play catch.
You might question whether such an activity is really worth making a video game about, and you’d have a decent case. It really comes down to semantics: does one actually, in real life, play catch? According to WP Kinsella and literally no one else, the phrase is “have a catch,” which sounds foreign and also probably more accurate. But it opens up the question of what exactly we mean by play: Does a game require us to achieve something when we play it? Is it like playing an instrument? Is there something in between?
Let’s Catch tosses you in a lush green field with a young boy named Yuto and a peaceful guitar melody. You throw the ball by making a throwing motion with the Wii remote and, at the proper moment, simulating the release point by squeezing the A and B buttons. Then, when the ball is tossed back, you catch the ball by squeezing them again, pulling the remote back as to cushion the ball in your bare hands. Then, again. And again.
The game is well-designed, particularly for shovelware; the producer was none other than Yuji Naka, head of the Sonic the Hedgehog series. (A nice detail: if you drop the ball, you have to chase it down and run back again.) Occasionally the game adds a mechanical twist; a UFO appears and darts between you, and your throws must avoid hitting it. Otherwise, it’s just catch. Until the moment at which the boy starts talking.
I never played much catch as a kid. I was an only child, and my father limited his athletic prowess to home and garden maintenance. My elementary school and my friends were several miles away. So for me sports were a solo affair, baseball particularly, though our gravel driveway would have made for a disappointing aesthetic regardless.
When I got to college, I lived in a house with four friends, but catch was often limited to one of those throw-and-return nets in our front yard. “I’m going to go play catch with my best friend,” I’d tell the engineering majors, and lob lazy pitches in the warm evening twilight, shedding worries about exams and the applicability of liberal arts degrees. Catch is, in its way, the American form of meditation.
Whether or not Let’s Catch is a game, one thing that can’t be denied is that it captures that unmistakable feeling of catch. In that way, it’s a miracle: catch is the exact opposite of a video game, a test of accomplishment and skill. Catch is an anti-game. So the mechanical aspects of video game catch are particularly jarring: the “friendship meter” (denoted by 0-5 stars) measures your friend’s comfort level, and rises as you pass the time and learn their stories; your “life meter” is measured by dropped balls. Drop enough, and your friend will get bored and go home; it’s amusing, if not satirical, that your friends’ esteem is directly measured not by how good a person you are, but by how well you play catch. There is something American in that, too.
But ignore those mechanics (and you should try) and what little is left, the physical act of throwing and catching and chatting, is a remarkable replication of the pointlessness and comfort of tossing a baseball around. And as little Yuto continues to talk, he opens up about his absentee father, how his mother is handling it poorly and yelling at him for everything, how he goes to the park to get away. Eventually he talks about a high school kid who drops by and plays catch with him sometimes, to whom he introduces you, and suddenly you have two friends, and another conversation.
Let’s Catch actually hides an interesting little story, from multiple viewpoints, woven together through the offhand banter of the people you meet. Misaki is a young secretary who can’t decide whether to marry her longtime boyfriend, or enter into an affair with someone she likes from work. You meet a widower who worries that his daughter has lost her spark since her mother died; the daughter worries that her father is leaning on her, trying to keep her from growing up, as a way of managing his own grief. The conversations and characters are interlaced and compelling, if somewhat minimalist. It’s the rare story, buried in this weird dumb game, that’s worth a story mode.
But what interests me is the uninteresting part: the catch. These stories could be told in any other format, like a visual novel (the game equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure, making choices to branch the plot) or just a regular old novel. Instead it has this mechanical device, this baseball, which acts as nothing except a constraint on the flow of the story, slowing it down like a restrictor plate. It forces you to relax, to take everything at the speed of a casual lob. Baseball is the ether through which the real game passes.
I believe that when people close their eyes and imagine baseball, they conjure one of two visions: April and October. MLB, as a corporate entity, has chosen to lean heavily toward the latter, through its marketing of drama and glory and winning. Modern professional baseball is an exercise in constant optimization, a grind of improvement symbolized by the scores that quantify the sum of a team’s collective effort and ingenuity.
April baseball isn’t even baseball, technically; it’s baseball’s plasma. It’s the warm laziness between the baseball, tossing the ball around the horn, the distracted chatter of fans during a pitching change. It’s wandering back out to your position on cramped and tired quadriceps in the second game of a rec softball doubleheader. It’s Angell’s Mets fans, complaining lazily in the Florida heat. It’s the part of baseball that belongs to us, always.
As an adult and as a writer, I recognize the constant pressure to be productive: not just to make use of my dwindling free time and limited lifespan, but to build on my identity based on what I’ve built. That we are what we make is a philosophy difficult to avoid in our culture, and nowhere is it more tangible than in baseball, where every spare moment is channeled toward on-field performance, and every element of that performance is quantified and projected. This is a criticism of the modern front office, certainly, but also of the common fan, who can spit bile at their favorite homegrown star in the face of an 0-for-16 slump.
Both catch and Let’s Catch contradict this pernicious mentality: one plays either, and afterwards one is unchanged. There is no leveling, no finite personal improvement, no failure or success. There is no product with which to bind one’s identity, or one’s self-esteem. Just calm. Both games have an ending, but in both cases it’s just when you want to stop.
Once the story mode is complete, Let’s Catch offers a few other modes as well, including an accelerating speed trial, a four-player race, and a variant of hot potato with a bomb. They’re fun, but they’re as true to the spirit of the title as, say, skill challenges are to baseball itself: glorified mini-games. Even with the added features, the asking price ($10) was widely considered too high for the package, and it reviewed poorly.
If you’ve read this review and you find yourself interested in playing Let’s Catch … well, you can’t. After 13 years, Nintendo shuttered the Wii Shop on January 31, 2019, causing dozens of digital-only titles like this one to vanish. The only alternative is to watch a YouTube video of someone else playing catch with someone else, which is an interesting but ultimately very different experience. It’s only fitting that a game about wasting time on a pleasant day ends up existing only in the memory of one.
As video games compile greater processing power and fidelity, each edition of The Show gets closer and closer to perfect October Baseball. But it’s this, a forgotten artifact that earned 6/10s from the handful of review sites that bothered to rate it, that is the greatest April Baseball game of all time. In fact, that’s the very reason it earned those 6/10s, really. After all, April Baseball, my baseball, was never about getting the highest score.
This article, too, marks an ending. Five years ago, Sam Miller noticed a caption I’d written about Chone Figgins (I called him “A cockroach with an apple rotting in its back,” which is probably a little unfair) and asked me to write some comments for the BP Annual. Five books, 300 articles, one public roasting at the hands of Jerry Dipoto, and dozens of friendships later, it’s time to move my semi-professional career into semi-retirement.
The timing is auspicious on many levels. BP has never been in a better place in my time here, with its active new ownership and strong leadership. Short Relief will continue unabated, helmed by Roger Cormier, who will bring his energy and ideas to the project. And as for me … well, I’ve been writing about baseball for eight and a half years. I’ve never even had a career for that long. It’s time to do something else.
Quickly, I’d like to thank a few people for their generous support and wisdom: Bret Sayre, Rob Mains, Craig Goldstein, and the rest of the management at BP for making this such a great thing to be a part of. Nathan Bishop, Brendan Gawlowski, Meg Rowley and all the Seattlites who have wearily read through drafts without complaint. Sam, Carson Cistulli, Paul Swydan, Eric Nusbaum, Aaron Gleeman, and the others who have allowed me to sully their brands with my dumb ideas over the years. And especially to the great writers and people of Short Relief who ran and continue to run with this idea, and have made more with it than I could have ever hoped.
Finally, thank you to all the BP readers and subscribers, for making all this possible. Now, I have to go convince my kids to play some catch.
Thank you for reading
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