Baseball is more than just the game played on the field. It can also be the game played on the virtual field. So, Baseball Prospectus is going to write about, review, discuss, whatever the many, many baseball video games released in the last half-century that the genre has even existed.
Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby
Developer: Walt Disney Japan
Publisher: Walt Disney Japan, Yahoo Kids Japan, Disney.com
Release Year: 2007
Current Availability: free, via the Internet Archive
Why this game?: Honestly, I don’t know. There are thousands of little games created each year, dwelling in the substrata of itch.io and the PBS Kids app, games that keep your kids from barging into your home office during your manager’s meetings, then instantly forgotten. This should be one of them. Instead, years after its release, it suddenly exploded into a brilliant, shared meme, and then got forgotten.
How does it play?: Baseball doesn’t have to be complicated. At its heart, the core mechanic of the majority of baseball video games is essentially pinball: Watch the ball roll down the screen, hit the flipper at the exact correct moment. It’s just a test of hand-eye coordination and reaction speed. Games don’t have to be more than that; they can be, certainly, and often should be, but sometimes you don’t need a fifteen minute full-motion video or a character creation screen. You just want to hit a couple of dingers while you wait for the potatoes to finish cooking.
OK, just kidding. While this game is basically RBI Baseball minus the pitching, defense, and baserunning, plus beloved characters that serve as a faint allegory for rural British life and the extraction of a young boy’s lonely childhood for the sake of #content, that’s not why people remember it. They remember it because about three minutes in, the game goes from pleasant time-waster to hateful Stanford experiment.
OK, but why this game, really?: The true secret of this game’s viral explosion was that it became a single turn in a very different game, one in which Amazon, not Disney, was the programmer. As the culture (and business) of streaming grew from hobby into full-fledged profession, gamers quickly discovered what television did as a medium sixty years before: That the best way to hold a viewer’s attention is by being over the top. This, combined with an existing nerd culture already prone to hyperbole, led to a copycat league, as prominent early 2010s video series and streamers earned views, and thus revenue, while every 18-year-old with a microphone and a capture card copied, and doubled down on, the formula.
The arrival of Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby came at a perfect time for this phenomenon: the irony of a pastoral children’s game that also allowed the player to spit and swear like the edgiest clown made for perfect fodder. Also, unlike every other performative, expletive-laced rant of a playthrough, this game actually deserved it.
What this game does better than the rest: Torment you.
It starts off easy enough. Eeyore leads off, tossing the ball by picking it up with his back hooves? It’s not deceptive so much as uncomfortable-looking, but the only tricks here are figuring out that Pooh’s sweet spot is a tiny glowing green dot too close to the end of the bat. He’s followed by Lumpy, the baby heffalump from that 2005 barely-not-direct-to-DVD movie that had Carly Simon songs and… was actually kind of good? Look, stop judging, that age range of 3-5 is brutal, and God knows if you watch Moana one more time you’re going to burn every canoe you can get your hands on. You can’t parent from jail.
But sure, you pull back to the world of sanity and finish off Lumpy. Two rounds done, you’re fine. And then Piglet shows up. Nobody actually likes Piglet. There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s loyal, he’s got Mike Trout levels of personality, and he’s got a fastball he throws every fourth pitch or so that feels like 130 mph. But at least it’s still straight. Kanga and Roo throw pitches that literally bounce on the ground, Rabbit throws a pitch that accelerates on its way to the plate, because it apparently wants to get away from Rabbit as much as everyone else in the world. Then Owl makes his zig zag because apparently on top of spending his life learning to be a vacant brownstone educator straight out of Lucky Jim, he also managed to pick up a few tips on telekinesis. Sure. But they still have to pull Pooh out of the hole by hand.
Then there’s Tigger, the drunk frat bro of 100 Acre Wood, the guy everyone just lives with but hides their valuables around. Tigger’s pitches disappear halfway to the plate. You know why? Because go to hell, that’s why, you’re an eight-year-old playing a Flash game on your dad’s desktop computer and you’ve never really been good at anything in your life besides listing off dinosaurs because of course you haven’t, you’re eight, and now this game is going to make sure that the very concept, the mere ideation that you might be capable of anything, is going to be ruined by the same characters who build pit traps and then immediately fall into them. That’s where you stand.
And finally there’s Christopher Robin, ready to channel all his latent hatred for his father at you, the bear he gave you to act as the companion he would never be, then wrote poems about how ridiculous you are and sold them to strangers. He can throw every pitch the other animals can, selected at random, and you need to hit 40 home runs in 50 tries. Remember when they gave players in the Home Run Derby ten outs? Do you remember anyone getting to 40 home runs in a round? People have done this. There’s video proof. It’s like running into two trunkless legs of stone in the desert, except the legs are video footage, and you can’t stop imagining that while they poured the hours away at this game, their own son, their own Christopher Robin, was in his room, quietly penning the first page of his own memoirs.
Anyway, most baseball games don’t tap into that pathos.
Baseball Adventure’s Wins Above Replacement: 3.5. Looking back over this project, it’s a bit surprising how the scores have been overall. Perhaps it’s not surprising; sports games offer fewer hooks with which to create really original, unrepeatable experiences, instead choosing to iterate; there’s a straight path from the NES Baseball of 1983 to MLB The Show in 2022, with features tacked on along the way. Lots of baseball games were the first to do something; few, however, were the only one to do something.
Perhaps that’s why Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby punches so far above its weight class. It’s individual elements are nothing to speak of: a one-button flash game with well-drawn, but limited-frame, animations. And yet this game made its mark in a way so few have, for one reason: the greatest works are largely alchemical, happy accidents of place and time. Somebody couldn’t make a game like this if they tried. Which is inspiring, in its way: Maybe I, too, could fuck up this well someday.
Thank you for reading
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