As I get older, the excitement of Christmas morning wanes. No longer is it a sleepless night with butterflies tumbling in my tummy wondering what Santa brought me this year until, with adrenaline surging, I could rush down the hallway to wake up my parents and unleash the carnage on the gifts underneath the tree.
Today, the game has changed. Now in my 30’s, it's all about how late can I sleep in? Will my girlfriend like the gifts I gave her? Is it socially acceptable to start drinking at 10 a.m.?
I do still enjoy when kids open gifts, as it kicks Christmas nostalgia into overdrive. We all remember the big gifts we received. As a kid born in the mid-1980s and growing up through the '90s, these memories are tied to video games. Christmas of 1991 started the chain as I got a Nintendo. Then it was followed by the Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, and the Xbox. Wisconsin winters were perfect for staying indoors on most Christmas days and waste away hours playing Mario Kart, GoldenEye, Halo, and Madden.
20 years ago to the day, I unwrapped one of my favorite video games of all-time: Big Hurt Baseball. My love for Frank Thomas was at its peak during this time. Just recently winning back-to-back American League MVPs, 1995 was quite a marketing year for The Big Hurt. He signed an endorsement deal with Reebok for three years that produced his own shoe, which was so ugly that it was awesome.
He also signed a deal with Acclaim Studios to produce the video game.
What I loved most about the game was its attempt at realism. Only working with systems that could handle 8 to 16 bits, sports games were often cartoonish in the mid-'90s. Programmers typically only worked with five different body types and three skin tones that were drawn into the game. For Big Hurt Baseball, Acclaim decided to use motion capture. If you haven’t seen it in action, motion capture is done in a room painted green where people wear neoprene suits with sensors that record every move. The first video game to use this technology was Rise of the Robots in 1994. A year later, programmers made a suit for Thomas to capture his stance and hitting motions, which just added to the cool factor. Unlike other games, when I’m playing as the Big Hurt, it’s actually him in the game.
Recently, I downloaded the emulator for a stroll down memory lane. I always get a chuckle playing games that were state-of-the-art 20 years ago and comparing them to what we play today. Humming along with the 8-bit track, I scroll through the rosters from 1995. Chicago’s lineup was pretty decent in the game:
Remember when John Kruk was a White Sox? Look at all that speed in the lineup with Ray Durham, Lance Johnson, and should-be Hall of Famer Tim Raines. Combine that with the power of Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura, and you have a well-balanced video game lineup.
Playing season mode, I was quickly reminded of Big Hurt Baseball's quirks. For starters, the game has built-in rain delays, which was just watching rain fall on your screen for 3-5 minutes before resuming play. Why the programmers thought this was ever a good idea, I’ll never know. Every game against the computer had their ace on the mound. That was fine when facing the Detroit Tigers, but awful against the Seattle Mariners (Randy Johnson) or Montreal (Pedro Martinez).
Pitching was interesting, as every pitch was available at your disposal. A picture of home plate would be on the screen with the corresponding buttons for location of the pitch. That came in handy when playing against a friend, because you can scroll the ball into an area of home plate to make them think that is where the pitch was going to be. Instead, you would just fake them out by pressing the button for a different part of the plate. Then each pitch had an option to be fast, medium, or slow. Speeds ranged from 53 to 99 mph in a given at-bat, which is borderline unfair.
One of the aforementioned attempts at realism? No strike zone display. Hitting was a bit of a challenge because you have to rely on your ability to judge the pitch coming out of the pitcher’s hand. Unlike most baseball games, you don’t have a hitter’s circle to aim at the ball, or an option to swing with power. After putting the ball in play, I found the White Sox' wheels didn't matter because every batter had the same speed while baserunning. Often times I found myself just going to station-to-station because One Dog couldn’t make it from first to third on a hit to right field.
Fielding is easy as long as you let the computer do it. The throwing mechanism is a bit weird because it requires a two-button approach. If you don’t press the corresponding base on the D-Pad first, every throw is going to be a relay with the pitcher. The scorebook featured plenty of 5-1-3 groundouts before I got a better feel with that on the keyboard.
My first game, Alex Fernandez pitched a shutout in a 2-0 win over Detroit thanks to RBI singles by Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen. Despite the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia running through my bloodstream, at times it felt like a grind to get through all nine innings because hitting is quite difficult and random. I like how it’s more of a simulation instead of arcade style, but I could see where many would drop it after the fifth inning and be bored with it.
Still, for being 20 years old, the game has aged well compared to others. I'd call that an accomplishment for the programmers and developers from Acclaim Studios. If you already have an emulator or know your way around downloading .zip files and removing spyware, I recommend taking Big Hurt Baseball a spin for any White Sox fan. Just reliving playing as Frank Thomas is quite the joy and harkens back to my pre-teen days.
For those celebrating today, I hope this has been a wonderful Christmas and Holiday season for you. Love to hear your favorite White Sox Christmas moments or gifts.