Greetings, friends, and welcome to another installment of Consoleation.
As you read this, Opening Day for the 2015 Major League Baseball season is either just days away or it’s just started… and baseball video games always spring to my mind during this time of the year.
My personal baseball experience is more about video games and watching or listening to Red Sox game broadcasts than it is about actually playing the game. I did play on a Little League team back in 1982 at the age of 10 years old, but I was a disaster to begin with and a wild pitch that hit me square in the helmet encouraged me to pursue other interests midway through the season.
A couple of years later, I spent parts of my summer playing a coin-op called Champion Baseball while spending weekends at a campground with my family. The machine was definitely a quarter-muncher; if the CPU took the lead at any point, it was game over. Despite that, it was fun to play, largely because of its simplicity. Batting was easy, with one button to swing and the ability to move left or right in the batter’s box. Pitching was easy, too, as you could steer the pitch where you wanted and could control its speed by pressing up or down on the control stick as you pressed the Pitch button. Fielding didn’t involve anything more than throwing the ball to the correct base, something we would later see with Nintendo’s Baseball release for arcades and the NES. There was definitely a “rubber band” feel to Champion Baseball; if you exploded with a big inning and scored a few runs, it was almost certain that the CPU would respond in kind during its at-bats. That didn’t matter to much to me back then, though, because the game was fun to play… and that’s what counted.
When I got my Commodore 64 computer during the summer of 1986, a game called Hardball! would consume a lot of my free time for years to come. I talked a bit about Hardball! in an earlier Consoleation piece that I wrote, but I can’t write this piece without at least mentioning it again. Despite not having actual Major League Baseball teams and players, I was still captivated by the game. I learned a lot about the game of baseball just by playing, and I also learned and applied math skills by creating and tracking cumulative statistics for each player on my team… as well as putting together comprehensive box scores after each game. I wish I still had that binder to share pictures of, just to show how fanatic I was about Hardball!.
My experience with console baseball games later in the 1980s and early 1990s was fantastic. One of my best friends had picked up RBI Baseball for his Nintendo Entertainment System during the summer of 1988, and we played the heck out of that game. Unlike previous baseball games that I had played, RBI had actual MLB players… so I used to always try and redeem Bill Buckner and the grounder that brought Boston to its knees by trying to hammer the ball out of the park every time he was at bat. Base Wars was the first baseball game that I bought for my NES back in 1991, and the cool factor of robots playing baseball was off the chart. It reminded me a lot of Cyberball, which I used to play pretty often in arcades, but with baseball instead of football as the sport of choice. I also rented Bases Loaded a couple of times and didn’t like it.
In fact, despite having the first three Bases Loaded games in my retro library today, I’m still not really a fan. Maybe it’s because it’s different than the tried-and-true style of play that other games like RBI Baseball, Bad News Baseball, and Baseball Simulator 1.000 have going for them, but I have always really struggled with the batting and fielding mechanics for the NES Bases Loaded games. To this day, I still cite Bad News Baseball as my favorite baseball video game of all time. Even without stat tracking and other bells and whistles, Bad News Baseball is reminiscent of RBI Baseball in that it’s so easy to play… plus the trademark Tecmo cutscenes after home runs or close plays add charm and personality.
The 16-bit console era was also great for baseball video games. Although RBI Baseball wouldn’t come out for the SNES until the pretty awful Super RBI Baseball appeared on store shelves in 1995, Namco’s Super Batter Up from 1992 was an unofficial sequel and it was (and still is) a lot of fun to play. Sadly, it was easy to overlook the game because it didn’t have RBI on the cover, which is too bad because it’s a really good game in its own right. Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 fixed a few issues that plagued the original NES game and added new features; it’s still a very enjoyable and playable baseball game today… especially if the battery backup is still working, so you can keep stats and standings. Finally, despite not liking the NES Bases Loaded games, I really enjoyed the Super Bases Loaded series. I loved the idea of trying to play a “perfect game” in the first Super Bases Loaded release back in 1991, and I thought the use of Mode 7 for Super Bases Loaded 2 was kind of a neat touch. I own and play all of these SNES baseball games today.
Turning to the Genesis side, the World Series Baseball series really stood out to me. Obtaining both the Major League Baseball license and the license to use real MLB players, World Series was the definitive console baseball experience of its time. The first game in the series, released in 1994, is my favorite; the digitized player and stadium models were sharp-looking and hearing Sports Talk play-by-play commentary was still a pretty impressive thing for the time. The gameplay is still just the right balance of sim and arcade tendencies to make World Series very approachable for players of any skill level.
Aside from the World Series games, though, baseball on the Genesis was more of a mixed bag for me in the 1990s. While football, hockey, and basketball were really well-represented, I found that baseball didn’t have as much in the way of solid showings. Sports Talk Baseball and Tecmo Super Baseball were both pretty decent, and Tommy Lasorda Baseball was easy to pick up and play, but the RBI Baseball games really fell off in quality for the Genesis and EA’s baseball games from later in the console’s lifespan were a bit too flawed for my liking.
Since I started collecting older games and systems back in 2012, replacing many of these baseball games that I had sold off years ago and adding others to my library has been a really enjoyable trip back in time. While playing Hardball! on my Genesis isn’t quite the same as when I played the Commodore 64 version nearly 30 years ago, I can still recall 14 year-old me playing the game. I can close my eyes for a moment and recall sitting at my computer desk, with my binder open, ready to keep score by hand after every at-bat. I can recall the thrill of hitting a grand slam late in a game, or striking out that last batter to preserve a dominant shutout. I can recall the joy that Hardball! brought to me, providing a brief respite from the rigors of high school and the challenges of being a nerdy teenager back in the 1980s.
And, best of all? I can still create new memories today with these old baseball games. They keep me feeling young, even as my 43rd orbit around the sun is about to begin… and a new baseball season is about to do the same.
Do you have any video game baseball memories to share? What are some of your favorites, either in your collection or from your youth? Feel free to share your stories in the Comments section below! As always, thanks for reading Consoleation— see you next time!