Lo, here we are, on the precipice of winter’s end; the burgeoning hope of spring, and a warm, glowing summer stretching lavishly beneath us.
That would be a good way for me to introduce this week’s review if I were doing so for the narration of Ken Burns’ maudlin but essential Baseball. It seems fitting that I finally finished watching the damn thing a couple days ago, just at the same time as baseball’s spring training, though not yet in earnest, was starting. And then, the third element of this perfect storm, I’ve been playing a lot of a certain venerable old sports game lately, and quite loving it — I speak of R.B.I. Baseball.
R.B.I. Baseball was the groundbreaker in baseball gaming, as it was the first to use actual names of MLB players, as well as their statistics (though pared down simply to home runs and runs batted in). This was because the game had achieved licensing with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, but they didn’t actually get rights through Major League Baseball itself. Consequently, you’re dealing with the stars of a baseball era gone by, playing for the same cities, yes, but stripped of any team names. You can watch the St. Louis and San Francisco baseballers knock around for nine innings (for real, utilizing a simple feature that I have trouble imagining anybody actually employ, you can also just watch instead of play), but there’s nary a Cardinal or Giant to be found. Also, the players all look exactly the same, whether it’s John Tudor or Chili Davis — fat white guys, all.
Perhaps the strongest single argument that can be made for this game is, regrettably, the one hardest to impart through writing. R.B.I. Baseball, maybe more than any other title of its age and crudeness, is a compulsively fun experience, one that doesn’t even translate from watching a game to playing one. It’s just endlessly engaging, though much more so playing a real person than the computer. I’d rate it the most unadulteratedly fun, competitively balanced 2-player game to appear on the NES.
There are eight teams to pick from: California, Minnesota, Boston, New York, Houston, Detroit, St. Louis, and San Francisco. According to Wikipedia, these were the division winners from 1986 and 1987. I’m going to throw professionalism to the wind and not bother to verify that fact. The teams stack up against each other fairly well, though there are some obvious strategies that bear sweetest fruit — any devotees of Tecmo Bowl may recall that for all the different teams and their strengths and weaknesses, no challenge was as stout as Bo Jackson. In R.B.I. I’d give that crown to Vince Coleman.
A superlative base stealer in his real-life career, whoever had final say on his programming values rewarded him with near-unstoppable speed. Stealing bases becomes almost childishly simple with him on the paths, though unlike Tecmo Bowl, and to the greater credit of baseball as a sport, I think, this singular dominance doesn’t have as pronounced an impact on the final outcome of the game. If Bo Jackson scores a touchdown every time he touches the ball, you’re more or less fucked. Vince Coleman could steal 8 bases in one game, and depending on how you handle the rest of the team you might still prevail.
The music is one major demerit, I’m afraid. There’s really only three pieces of music that play throughout, the first being the jaunty little jingle that leads you from the team select onto the field of play. The other two alternate during play based on whether your pitcher has runners on base, a frivolous happy tune when there’s none, and a more rhythmic beat when the pressure is on. Neither of these melodies sound particularly good in quality, or are anywhere near compositionally acceptible to be played so endlessly, looping from one to the other inning after inning, but there you have it. The downside to muting the game, however, is that the sound effects can be critical to success in both hitting and fielding. It’s less of a problem in the batter’s box, as the offspeed pitch both makes a different sound, and looks different, wobbling as it approaches. But when trying to catch a fly ball, the ascending and descending tone that modulates as the ball arcs upwards, then back down to the ground, is a virtual necessity. Without it, you can’t really tell how far the ball is going to go until it sinks into your field of vision, which is often too little, too late.
There are some user interface issues which are frustrating, as well. The most infuriating and unteneable one is that runners on base break for the next one off the crack of the bat, no matter a ground ball or a pop fly, and if you don’t manually send them back, often without them even in you vision on an outfield fly, they’ll park themselves at the next base and just stay there. If the ball is caught, there’s no way to run back to the prior base before being thrown out. After a good three hours of playing over a couple weeks, I became aware enough of this to avoid being too victimized by it, but I certainly left a lot of runs on the field. It’s especially maddening because it isn’t even a matter of limited controls — if they’d just let you run back whenever you hit B, it wouldn’t be an issue. Alas.
Just as Major League Baseball has been in the grips of dominating pitching of late, so too does R.B.I. Baseball boil down to skillful pitching to win. Each hitter has a different set of numerical values programmed that dictate their contact ability, and their batting power. The very best of the power hitters are intimidating indeed, but in a one-off 2-player game, you’ve got four arms to play with, two starters and two relievers. You probably need to use at least three of them, if not all four, as perhaps as much if not more critical than pitching ability, stamina comes into heavy play. Most starters can’t muster more than five innings before the velocity starts to dip sharply. Stretch it to six or seven and all you’re able to do is drift 30 M.P.H. pitches over the middle of the plate, so lazy and thick that even Mike Krukow could (and in my game, did) knock it over the wall.
The art of pitching is alive and well here, in a pretty simplified form. You have a fastball, a changeup, and a curveball. You can slide your pitcher to the far edge of either the right or left side of the mound, and once the ball’s let fly you can twist or bend it in flight by hitting right or left. True to form, holding left on a right-handed pitch (your perspective is always from behind the catcher during an at-bat, pitching or hitting) will at best make a tight little loop near the plate, while holding right will make the ball sweep dramatically, your manipulation working in tandem with the pitcher’s arm angle. Practiced and skillful mixture of these pitches and movements can be damn near unhittable, especially as the game’s umpires are very friendly to pitchers — you can twist the ball visibly all the way off the corner of home plate and still get a strike called.
Hitting is harder, but also more satisfying, in the same way that hitting a pinata is more satisfying, risk of embarrassment aside, than being the person who ties the blindfold. Also because sometimes you hit a home run, and then you feel all big and strong. In my experience patience is pretty essential, as the width of the strike zone opens up devastating holes in your swing if you aren’t positioned well in the batter’s box. You’ve just got to hold out hope for that one pitch straight enough to take a good lash at.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been playing this game often lately with a friend, and I intend to continue doing so. In fact, I’d happily do so right now. When I really think about, modern technology allowing, all the other things I could be playing, watching, or doing? Endorsements of 17-year-old video games don’t come much more glowing than that, to my mind.
Oh, one more thing: