Acclaim's All-Star Baseball franchise was once considered the most realistic and best-playing baseball simulation on the market. But that was when the game was released for just one system each year and Acclaim's Austin team was able to baby it through development and make sure that every last detail was just right. Since the franchise has been available for multiple systems, it hasn't fared quite as well. All-Star Baseball 2002 was released just last November, and now four months later the next installment is already complete. But instead of being a rushed port of last year's game, All-Star Baseball 2003 is what last year's game would have become if it hadn't been rushed out the door to make the GameCube's launch.
All-Star Baseball can always be counted on to include a wealth of gameplay modes, and the 2003 version ups the ante with the inclusion of a franchise mode. However, there's one huge catch. You can't save the franchise mode unless you buy a third-party memory card, which is much larger than Nintendo's official memory card. To save the franchise mode midseason, you need what amounts to five Nintendo memory cards. Needless to say, the average person will not be able to play through franchise mode unless they pony up for the larger memory card or don't mind leaving their console on for weeks at a time. For those who do make the investment, the franchise mode is impressive. You can play for 20 consecutive seasons and let the statistics pile up while watching players retire, win the Cy Young award, get inducted into the Hall of Fame, and much more. You'll also be able to monitor your farm team and bring up prospects when they're ready for the big time, trade and release players, and manage salaries. If you're not happy with the current roster of free agents, you can always create your own with a simplistic player-creation tool.
Even if you don't feel like buying a new memory card to enjoy the franchise mode, there are plenty of other gameplay modes to enjoy. The exhibition mode is available for up to four players, and you can choose from any of the 30 MLB teams, both all-star teams, and a legends team composed of all-time favorites like Willie Stargell, Robin Yount, and Rod Carew. For those who only like to play with the best, you can cut to the chase and jump straight to the all-star game or World Series. While the franchise mode may not be accessible to the average player, the single-season mode is a nice substitute. It includes all the same features as the franchise mode except statistics and players do not roll over into the next season. As you perform certain objectives in the franchise or season mode, you are awarded points that can be spent to buy collectible cards. These cards can then be used to unlock hidden stadiums and teams. The home run derby may seem like nothing more than a fun diversion, but it really helps in coming to grips with the most difficult part of playing the game: batting.
All-Star Baseball 2003 retains the same batting interface as last year's game, and while it's incredibly deep, it's not easy to master. Like in most baseball games, a cursor system is used for pitching and hitting. Pitching is quite easy. You simply choose a pitch from the pitcher's real repertoire, adjust the pitch location with the analog stick, and press the A button to let it fly. The ball can be slightly manipulated while it's in the air, which can help to fool the batter. However, batting is a bit more complex and much more difficult. Your batter's cursor is sized in relation to his batting average and his abilities against the particular pitcher on the mound. If you feel like you have a good handle on lining up your cursor, you can press the B button to swing for a home run. This makes the size of the batting cursor significantly smaller, but if you make contact with the ball, it's destined for the outfield fence. If you'd like to tailor your hitting to take advantage of holes in the defense, you can adjust your swing accordingly with the C stick, or you can attempt to guess the pitch, which will increase the size of your batter's sweet spot. While the options available to you when you're inside the batter's box are impressive, actually hitting the ball is far too difficult. Pitches come in way too fast, and to make contact with the ball you have to swing a split second after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. That doesn't leave much time to adjust the batting cursor before swinging, and it often results in balls going past the batter before he's had time to get the lumber off his shoulder. You can eventually adjust to the speed of the pitches, but it can take several days of playing the game.