Much like the sport they’re inspired by, baseball video games tend to represent gravitas or goofiness at their most extreme, rarely occupying the inner space on the spectrum of seriousness.
Only a fanbase that pores over complex statistical analysis with as much enthusiasm as it does digging into lore about Rube Waddell’s fascination with fire trucks or Dock Ellis’ lysergically-enhanced no-hitter could build a cult following around cartoony cereal box insert Backyard Baseball and spreadsheet-laden management simulator Out of the Park Baseball. It’s the sporting world’s answer to a liberal arts education: a perfect synthesis of hard science, philosophy and artistic tradition.
While there’s been no shortage of off-beat alternatives mainline series like Sony’s MLB: The Show or EA’s now-defunct MVP Baseball, none have been able to capture the gestalt of the baseball experience. Sure, The Bigs or Slugfest may have loosened up the formula a bit, but their results more closely resembled the bloodlust of an arena football game than a mid-summer day at the ballpark.
Of the many baseball titles I’ve picked up over the years, only one has truly managed to capture the nerdiness, the romance and the idealistic charm of the game — MLB Power Pros.
Released in 2007 and 2008 for Wii and PS2, the short-lived series was a collaboration between 2K Sports and Konami, merging the former’s Major League licensing with Konami’s long-running Pawapuro franchise. Since debuting on the SNES in 1994, Pawapuro has grown from a simple arcade baseball sim with cute, super-deformed player models that resemble bobbleheads into a genre of its own. While the gameplay is beloved enough to make the latest installment a semi-official part of this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, it’s Pawapuro’s Success Mode — an infinitely re-playable JRPG side story that is completely revamped each year — that makes the game so innovative and addicting.
At least, that was my own experience when I rented a copy of Power Pros 2007 for the Wii back in grade school. I primarily played mainline sports titles at the time, but the part of myself that secretly obsessed over Hamtaro and Pokemon needed to see the Cincinnati Reds’ starting lineup depicted in the toy-like style shown on the cover. Even then, I had my suspicions that Power Pros resembled the Wii’s many sports-themed shovelware titles that I’d been disappointed by, but they were quickly dispelled when I brought the game home.
Power Pros resembled the Wii’s many sports-themed shovelware titles.
At a time long before Spike Lee would direct NBA 2K’s My Career campaign, Success Mode totally shattered my conception of what sports games could achieve with its narrative-driven approach to character creation. Players were put in control of a college athlete whose mission was to guide the underachieving Powerful University Tulips to the College Kings Tournament, hopefully garnering attention from pro scouts in the process. That’s a fairly boilerplate set-up, but it was the execution that made it special.
On-field action only comprised a fraction of the story. The remaining portion was a visual novel of sorts, combining the wacky, manga-inspired dialogue of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney with a Persona-inspired free time system through which your choices could radically alter your player’s skill set. If you weren’t up for a training session, you could clock in at a part-time job to earn cash, study for upcoming tests, or, yes, even go on dates, which could net the player rare abilities and items.
“What made Success Mode so good was that it had these in-depth systems you could really manipulate if you wanted to,” says Deven, an MLB: The Show enthusiast who designed a replica of the Powerful Tulips’ ballpark using The Show’s new stadium creator. “Because I made so many characters, I was able to figure it out on my own — like, maximizing the amount of strength points I could get in the first 10 weeks or something like that.”
“There were just a lot of ways to fully customize the character and the story.”
Since receiving Power Pros 2007 as a Christmas gift at 7 years old, Deven estimates that he created around 400 characters re-playing success mode alone. Though fans could trade their players between consoles using an archaic password system, most of them — myself included — kept playing to explore the vast web of story arcs or to update their rosters. A run could be completed in under 2 hours if you were rushing, which encouraged experimentation beyond your first few play-throughs.
“There were just a lot of ways to fully customize the character and the story,” Deven says. “There are a lot of variables: random events and things you know are going to happen. The storylines are fun, and the characters are easy to look at.”
Though Power Pros maintains a devoted cult following among the few who remember it, the series, unfortunately, failed to attract enough stateside interest to warrant a third installment. According to VGChartz, the first Power Pros game sold just 11,000 units for the Wii in its first week. 2008 didn’t fare much better, debuting at 13,000 copies.
Ryan Graff, who worked on Konami’s localization team for both Power Pros games, says that while sales were likely a factor in the series’ cancellation, there were other factors at play, like the relocation of Konami’s headquarters from Redwood City, California to Los Angeles.
“A bunch of Konami’s old guard, including Ken Ogasawara [then-head of U.S. localization] and the new higher-ups had different ideas for which titles and franchises to focus on,” says Graff. “I still love the series, though; I've got a lot of fond memories of both working on and playing it, and I hope they decide to start localizing it again someday.”
Graff says that though much of the work involved directly translating a single, context-less document with the game’s entire script, he enjoyed the creative liberties he was able to take in punching up Success Mode’s comedic sketches: in particular, a scene in which the protagonist’s bespectacled sidekick, Marvin, becomes self-aware of his role as a video game character and attempts to trigger a glitch by overloading your pockets with items. “I also like Tom from Power Pros 2008 because of the part where he builds his ‘pitching machine,’” says Graff. “It doesn't work, and he grumbles, ‘Sometimes, I just make things’; I relate to that.”
‘Sometimes, I just make things.’
Tomm Hulett, an associate producer for Konami at the time, likened the localization work to magnet poetry. “This was an interesting approach,” he says. “Since each line is kind of arranged by the programming, rather than a traditional linear storyline, it had to be a bit more generalized, but still carry a quirky tone that feels cohesive once the lines are arranged.”
There are no foreseeable plans for a North American reboot of the Pawapuro franchise, but that hasn’t stopped some fans from following the series despite its obvious language barrier. Japanese Power Pros games drop just about every year, featuring real players and teams from the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
Japanese Power Pros games drop just about every year.
While playing through the newer games’ greatly-expanded Success Mode is nigh impossible without Japanese fluency, dedicated players have created rough guides to the game’s menus and settings to help other fans navigate exhibition and season mode. Thanks to Google Translate’s camera function and a little research, I’ve been able to enjoy features available on Pawapuro 2020 that I’ve yet to see in any other sports title.
There’s the Crown Nine campaign, which puts you in the reigns of a fully-customizable high school baseball team in pursuit of the national championship at Kōshien Stadium. While you don’t control individual players on the field, a unique trading card system allows you to influence play from the bench as general manager. Personally, I’ve gotten the most mileage out of Power Fest, a single-player tournament in which you’re tasked with recruiting players from past success modes as you progress. Though it’s likely meant to serve up nostalgia to Pawapuro fans, for Westerners it offers a fascinating glimpse into a world in which high schoolers take against vampires and squid-human hybrids.
Those new to the franchise can grab a used copy of Power Pros 2007 or 2008 for 10 bucks or less online, and they frequently pop up at used video game stores and bookstores in the wild. Though the former game may be nearing its 15th anniversary, it’s worth the purchase every time: Power Pros is a timeless series that still holds its own among contemporary sports titles. If you’re looking for an experience outside of online showdowns and pay-to-play leveling, give its story-driven gameplay a shot. You might just join the fray of those itching for a North American reboot.