The most common complaint I hear or read about contemporary baseball video games is that they’re inaccessible. Football and basketball video games, though ultimately as sophisticated as the sports they represent, are fairly easy for a novice to pick up and play. The same cannot be said for baseball games, which are expected by fans to replicate the challenge of hitting a baseball that travels anywhere from 75 to 100 miles per hour and may or may not break in any direction. The problem that baseball games run into is pretty fundamental: batting and pitching is really, really hard.
And so it follows that baseball games tend to frustrate people. When I last played a baseball video game with any measure of regularity, I would sometimes play online. Half the time, my opponent would begin to whine and/or scream if I refused to throw every ball over the plate, and after about three innings, he or she would usually quit. To many, the game of baseball is too slow, and when these people actually try to play a game, or even a simulation of it, baseball is too fast.
RBI Baseball, released for the 8-bit Nintendo in 1988, was the first good baseball game. The argument I’d like to set forth is that this game, at its core, is not the least bit dated or obsolete, and not too slow or too fast, and, like Tetris, it can and still should be played today in its original form.
First, though, let’s indulge in some nostalgia. Remember Topps Big?
This brand, which ran for a few years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, featured single-pane comics on the back. The players were drawn as white people every single time. It did not matter whether the player in question was Sam Horn or Mickey Tettleton or Melido Perez. He was going to be drawn as a white dude. The only reasonable explanation I can offer is that the task of drawing the comics was outsourced to a fellow who had been trapped at the bottom of a well since 1946 and possessed no concept of racially integrated baseball.
It seems likely that this same fellow was RBI Baseball’s programming artist. Everybody in the game was white. Vince Coleman was white. The most likely reason for this is that RBI Baseball was simply a port of Japan’s Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium with plugged-in Major League Baseball rosters and statistics, but I prefer to subscribe to the former theory, as "man trapped in well" stories are simply more compelling.
Equally interesting: everyone was fat. Later integrations of the game clearly demarcate hitters into three types -- scrappy, hunched-over fast players, nondescript skinny players, and giant sluggers -- but this game doesn’t. Tengen, the publisher of RBI Baseball, surely wrestled with this for a time.
BARNES. So it’s settled. We’ll make the Cardinals the best team in the game because almost everyone in the lineup can steal a base. Any other points to discuss?
JONES. Well, I couldn’t help but notice that we are depicting Vince Coleman as a fat white man.
BARNES. Hold on. [Presses call button] Secretary? Please bring us some 1980s-themed drinks.
SECRETARY. Certainly! Perhaps some New Coke?
BARNES. Yes! Spot-on reference! That makes me very nostalgic for the time I am in right now. [To Jones] Yes, Louie Anderson is a fat white man. What’s the problem?
JONES. No, no, Vince Coleman. Vince Coleman is a black guy. He stole 107 bases last year.
BARNES. Ugh, sorry. It’s just a thing I have. I’m always confusing Louie Anderson for Vince Coleman. I don’t know why.
JONES. We can’t publish the game like this. People are going to think that we don’t know anything about baseball.
BARNES. No, they won’t. We even included the infield fly rule. If a fly ball is hit in the infield, a mushroom pops out of the pitcher’s mound and floats around the diamond. If a player can catch it, he doubles in size, turns into Bald Bull, and gets a map and compass so that he knows where he is in the dungeon.
JONES. What dungeon?
BARNES. The baseball dunge-- ah, poop, there’s no-- okay, let’s just take out the part with the infield fly rule.
JONES. Right, well, let’s get back to the Vince Coleman issue. It’s also going to look kind of racist.
BARNES. Hmm. Oh! Let’s just make the cartridge black. Racism over!
JONES. Oh brother, I work with a real world-class knucklehead! I would get another job were it not for today’s uncertain economy!
BARNES. There’s Reaganomics for you!
JONES. [pies self in face]
In 1990 I was seven years old, and I wasn't as concerned with racial injustice as I was with the lack of Kansas City Royals representation in the game. My second-favorite player, George Brett, was at least on the American League All-Star team, but my favorite player, Bo Jackson, was not. (Tecmo Bowl would have been a suitable substitute, but as a Chiefs fan I refused to play as the Raiders).
My brother and I were brought along when my family was looking for a house in Chicago, and while we were there, they bought us RBI Baseball for no real reason. We were never given presents out of the blue. Ever. We got back to the hotel room and shoved it into the Nintendo.
One thing that's important to note here is that the only other baseball video game I had ever played was Home Run for the Atari 2600. This is important to note because, well...
...Home Run was probably the worst game of all time. I once attempted to build a Game Boy out of Legos. That was better than this.
When I first played RBI Baseball, I felt the same way about it that I do now. I wasn't impressed with its technological superiority. I was too busy having fun. It was the first video game I had ever played that looked and felt like baseball.
I adopted the Cardinals as my RBI Baseball team. Vince Coleman was fast. Ozzie Smith was fast. Tom Herr, who batted third for some reason despite only having two home runs to his name, was fast enough to steal a base. So was Willie McGee. Speed is paramount in this game, in part because there is no exact science for hitting a home run, and in part because the baseball moves like a kickball.
I hope the following video effectively illustrates two truths: a) the Cardinals were really fast, and b) I played like a jerk.
I didn't know this at the time, but Whitey Herzog and I took similar approaches to managing the Cardinals. He played small ball; I played the smallest ball possible. I waited until the bases were loaded, then simply bunted over and over until the computer made the third out. My parents failed to discipline me for playing a video game this way. They should have. An 8-bit Nintendo system, as primitive as it is, probably still possesses the level of consciousness of a caterpillar, and I think we can all agree that it's unacceptable to stomp on a caterpillar without provocation.
The computer was very easy to out-smart, and it wasn't long before winning was a given. I began to amuse myself in other ways. Once this was the case, a typical RBI Baseball game went like this:
For some reason or another, I adopted the bizarre habit of intentionally throwing the ball away if there was nobody on base. As it turns out, I was not alone. I tweeted this last week:
QUESTION: When you played RBI Baseball, did you make a habit of intentionally throwing away the ball after the third out?
A half-dozen people identified with this. Maybe it's just something we all did.
As fun as these shenanigans were, the real joy came in playing against a sibling. RBI Baseball, as it turns out, is really useful for constantly reminding your younger brother that he is not as good as you. He would accidentally throw to the wrong base half the time. He couldn't grasp the fact that, in order to prevent me from stealing home, he had to hold down and press B to move his catcher in front of the plate. He somehow couldn't figure out how to throw the pitch that slowed down and bounced on the plate. Being years younger than me, "idiot" was the closest thing to a cuss word in his lexicon. I was called an idiot hundreds of times. I didn't care. If you have a younger brother, you must, at some point or another, get acquainted with the truth that he will eventually surpass you in several departments of life, and you must also recognize the value of getting your knocks in while you can.
So. I've spent some words trying to explain what this game meant and means to me, and hopefully I've validated your nostalgic feelings. As I said, though, this game, at its core, is not dated. I played it a few minutes ago, and it's still as fun as it ever was. Updated rosters are all it lacks.
This might not be news to some, but there is a playable version of the game available that features 2010 rosters for all 30 teams. If you have fond memories of RBI Baseball, just stare at that picture for a moment. Kind of surreal, isn't it?
After playing it for a few minutes, I've concluded that this game should be an iPhone app. It isn't the greatest game of all time (because it isn't Tetris), but it does exactly what it's meant to do: provide us with 20 minutes of fun.
Updated rosters or not, this game means different things to different people, as does any slice of nostalgia. As I've been writing this, I've put the pieces together and realized that this is probably the game that made me a baseball fan. Baseball isn't the best sport, but it's my favorite, and this game transformed baseball into something I could wholly grasp and appreciate.
So thank you, 8-bit Vince Coleman. May you always be fat and white, and may Tengen Sports News someday have something better to say about you than, "blahblahblah."