MLB POWER PROS / Konami / PS2
MLB Power Pros strikes a great balance of having enough depth and options to satisfy serious baseball fans, but having simple and quick gameplay to appeal to the more casual player. The best I've yet seen in that department, at least, giving it the Awesome.
Power Pros is actually part of a long-running Japanese series called Pawapuro or Powerful Pro Baseball that has been around since the SNES days, but this is the first to actually be ported to the West. It has a full MLB team and player license so you've got rosters of the 2007 season, teams and logos, stadiums faithfully recreated, etc.
A few things usually get in my craw about baseball games - batting and fielding most of all. Power Pros first of all gives you the option to simply automate whatever parts you want, so you can simply bat and pitch, or bat and field, or whatever. But each aspect is also handled in a sensible way.
Batting doesn't have any obnoxious "power gauges" or anything, it's simply a matter of lining up with the incoming pitch and swinging away. You can make it more or less complicated as you prefer - there's a "sweet spot" cursor that shows the ideal spot to try to hit the ball, and you get a crosshairs showing the general spot the pitcher is aiming at, though if they throw a curveball or slider or such it will likely come in just off of that spot so you have to adjust as it comes in. Batting can also be partially automated by having the bat automatically "track" the ball as it comes in. And there's a fun "big swing" mode that turns off all automation and gives you a much smaller and more precise "sweet spot", but makes you hit with more power when you do connect.
As far as fielding goes, it usually pisses me off in baseball games as hard liners and such are too quick to respond to with players who are off the screen at the time they are hit. I find semi-auto fielding to be perfect, where players play the ball according to their statistical abilities, but once in hand you control where to throw it to.
Another high point is the presentation. It's chibi and a little cartoony, but fun and effective, and the menu systems are some of the best laid out I've seen. For example, players have ratings of how well they are playing that shift from game to game, represented by animated smiley faces that are easily understandable. Season Mode can be daunting for non-hardcore baseball fans, but here a lot of the tedium is automated, and the various management functions are laid out in a fairly simple menu system that's easy to navigate and intuitive. And I like how you get the characteristics, mannerisms and batting stances of MLB players even with these little squat characters with no noses or mouths.
The only minor misstep here is in Success Mode - but it's impossible to hold it against the game because it's such a deep "extra" that no other games have! Basically, Success Mode is like a mini-RPG that is used to create new players. It plays like Japanese "visual novel" games, as you guide a kid through his college years, trying to balance studies and dating with baseball practice. It's really cute and creative, and deep in its random events and interaction. But that's also part of the flaw of it - it's the ONLY way to create new players, and it takes a good hour or two to get a player all the way through it, which is a massive time sink if they get stuck with crappy attributes or aren't good enough to crack an MLB roster. Players created in this mode aren't guaranteed to become available - you have to impress scouts by consistently performing well in big games, as well as navigating social hazards such as keeping grades up and potentially dating the scout's daughter. The frustrating bit of all this is the game's decision-making system. When called upon to make a choice, you are given a random draw of three cards (later able to be increased to four or five with some luck.) The cards are entitled Yes, No, Challenge (respond passionately and maybe a little stupidly) or Marvin (throw your buddy Marvin in to take the consequences for you), which indicate a response to whatever is confronting you at the moment. You can see the problem here - not getting a Yes or No card at a key time can sink all of your hard work in one random twist. For example, I brought three players through, with only one actually making it to the MLB rosters. All three times, when faced with the choice of becoming the college team's new Captain - a major event that has a major impact on your chances at making it to the pros - I didn't have a Yes card and the game forced me to defer. If there was another way to create players, or if the mode didn't take so long (and only pay off a paltry 500 shop points when you fail to bring a character through, only 1/4 of what you get for playing a 20 minute game), it wouldn't be such an issue, but as is it's cheap and frequently maddening.
Fortunately that's offset by plenty of other modes of play and things to do. You can do a full season with a fantasy draft, or a franchise mode where you play up to ten seasons trying to field a winner while also not driving the team into bankruptcy. I would have liked to be able to draft more than two new players per season - rosters get really tight when you do fantasy draft as apparently the game didn't include players that were unsigned free agents at the time - but otherwise season/franchise is spot-on excellent (aside also from the designers seemingly thinking Pittsburgh is somewhere in New England.) There's also all sorts of practice modes and mini-games, a home run derby, the ability to create a custom team (and enter them into season/franchise mode after you've completed one season with a regular team), and a shop where you can spend points earned after each game for alternate uniform colors, baseball cards and new batting stances.
* MLB Power Pros forum
* Gameplay Video