Few sports lend themselves to a gaming experience not in need of some serious graphics or, at least, proper sprites. Basketball games require the right amount of visual finesse and physics.
Otherwise, it can feel like you’re controlling a blob that performs activities closely resembling basketball. Football can work in a simpler form—TECMO Bowl is obviously incredibly barebones but excellent—however it’s difficult to grasp the intensity of the sport without being able to truly harness the power of your player.
Who wants to just run at a cornerback, wrestle with him, and then maybe score a touchdown? It’s all about jukin’, spinning, jumping, etc… your way to the end zone. The same goes for soccer and hockey, though I’m not about to slight the awesomeness of Ice Hockey on the NES.
So what about baseball, you ask? Well, we already have the game that perfectly captures America’s favorite pastime and it’s been available since 1988. For those who don’t want to think about this too hard or do some research, the game I’m referring to R.B.I. Baseball for the NES. Nearly 30 years later, it remains the only sports game that deserves no updates or sequels—it has received both—because it is perfect just the way it is.
Let me explain.
The physics and mechanics required to make a sports game work well aren’t easy to come by, though at this point they have been rehashed and recycled to the point that you wouldn’t know otherwise. There was a time that wasn’t the norm, though. NFL titles were once unbearable and the only game in town for hockey was being made by EA.
Let’s not even get into the mind-numbing pain that is attempting to play an NBA Live game from the early-to-mid 1990s. Yeah, you may have some nostalgia for one of them, but try playing it now. Actually, don’t.
This was never the case with baseball, though. When R.B.I. Baseball arrived in ‘88, that was it. Now-defunct publisher/developer Tengen struck gold with this game, a flawless game that captured exactly what it was to play baseball in the late ‘80s.
A big reason for that is the fact that the greatest players in history were up for grabs, especially if you wanted to play as one of the two all-star teams. We’re talking Tony Gwynn, Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, John Kruk, Cal Ripken, pre-steroids Mark McGwire, Darryl Strawberry… the list goes on and is so deep with talent it’s absurd—and that’s not even counting the pitchers!
The other—and way more important—aspect of R.B.I. Baseball’s presentation was how every single piece of the game was executed. As a batter, you were expected to perform at a certain level based on your batting average and home runs from the previous season. This meant that, yes, some players were power hitters while others were going to land you a single or double based on your swing and the player’s speed.
Similarly, your pitcher will perform based on his stats, in this case his ERA, and whether or not he throws with a side-arm delivery. In other words, some pitchers will be absolute beasts and throw fire for innings on end—they will tire, though, I promise—while others will lose steam somewhat quickly and throw meatballs over the plate.
Sounds a lot like baseball, right? Of course it does. Yes, I realize that playing the actual sport is more dynamic and difficult to master. But in its most basic and enjoyable form? It can be this straightforward and an incredible amount of fun. To be fair, there are some totally unrealistic glitches you can take advantage of to completely own your opponent.
In playing against the computer, you can time a bunt in a way that they will never be able to recover the ball. It’s not easy and, honestly, my brother could tell you how to do it better than I could, but he figured out a way to hit an inside-the-park home run … by bunting.
Mind you, this is all coming from someone who played baseball until the age of 9, which was when I realized I could tell my parents “No, mom and dad, I don’t want to do this anymore.” You see, my hatred for the sport grow primarily out of severe social anxiety I suffered from when we moved from upstate Rhode Island to “the city” aka Warwick.
I was in the middle of fourth grade and terrified of the fact I was losing all of my friends and teammates. Thus, when I was thrust into a Warwick baseball league, I wanted nothing more than to get injured so I wouldn’t have to play. Seriously, I walked awkwardly down the stairs one afternoon and rolled my ankle on my own accord to get out of practice. Yes, I hated it that much.
A big part of my anxiety stemmed from the fact I was a pitcher so, hey, all eyes on me (no 2pac). The thing is, I was so nervous that I ended up beaning like three or four kids and then cried on the pitcher’s mound until my couch stopped being an idiot and removed me from the field. From then on, I was placed at second and third base, positions I could deal with even though I was still sorta-kinda in the spotlight.
Why I wasn’t put in the outfield, I’ll never know. And in case you’re somehow curious about my work in the batter’s box, don’t be. I think I had one hit the whole season because, after getting beaned myself, I was done stepping into any pitch that came my way. I pretty much closed my eyes, swung, and stepped out of the box. Pathetic, yeah, but I hated every second of it.
What I didn’t hate, though, was playing R.B.I. Baseball when I got home. With some salty snacks and a can or two of Dr. Pepper by my side—yeah, I’m not sure how I avoided diabetes—it was just me, sometimes my brother, and the game. The relentlessly repetitive brilliant soundtrack would loop itself into my brain like an earworm I never wanted to leave. I’m sure I could hum it back to you in 60 years even if I never play the game again. Dun, dun, duh-dun-dun/Dun, dun, dun, duh-dun-dun/Dun, dun, dun, duh-dun-dun, dun, DUN!… and so on. Sigh, I love it.
I also loved some other baseball games over the years. Most notably, I got hooked on Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey, Jr., whose star was also my favorite player at the time. This was back in 1998, some 10 years after R.B.I. Baseball and only available on the almighty Nintendo 64. Well, let me just say that I had that game stuck in the console to the point where I could hit home runs off almost every pitch.
OK, I’m exaggerating, but it’s one of those few games where I got so good at it that I couldn’t take it anymore. It also reminded me of everything I love about R.B.I. Baseball because MLB was just as straightforward as its older cousin. The one huge upside, though? It had a Home Run Derby feature that was stupid-fun, especially the multi-player.
But to get back to my point: Did we really need that game with Griffey plastered all over it? Perhaps. Or maybe I could have saved that $60 and put it toward something else, like another copy of Majora’s Mask for future re-selling purposes. Either way, I know that I will always come back to R.B.I. Baseball, a member of a very elite group of games that can be called perfect.