A link to the past: Remembering the original ‘RBI Baseball’
My formative video game-playing years really began in earnest in December 1988.
Usually, having an end-of-the-year birthday was lame, if only because of the 11-month present drought. But the coupling with Christmas, as I would find out, really paid off specifically when it came to new gaming systems. My realization: If you can get the console for your birthday, then your Christmas list was pretty well taken care of at that point. It was that simple, and really, when you’re 8 years old, it’s all about taking the guesswork out of life.
I still clearly remember my first crop of games for that spanking-new Nintendo Entertainment System. "Excitebike" was cool because you could build your own tracks. "Top Gun" was a blast because you spent the entire stage firing missiles at enemy craft before crash-landing onto an aircraft carrier — because lord only knows how a child is supposed to constantly adjust for speed, altitude and other in-flight variables.
Of course, there was also "RBI Baseball," which was notable in that it used actual baseball player names thanks to its then-exclusive license with the MLB Players Association. Alas, there was no license with MLB itself, so team names and logos were verboten, but that mattered little when I could boot up Mets-Red Sox in less than a minute and be firing Doc Gooden fastballs to my heart’s content.
The game play was based solely on arcade machine DNA and featured slimmed-down rosters that represented only a fraction of the actual team. The games moved fast, and the rudimentary programming made for some fun quirks. Fly balls would careen off players’ faces with no warning – this was the system equivalent of "errors," and harmless-looking line drives would often scoot just past both infielders and outfielders, meaning a Vince Coleman inside-the-park home run on a routine ground ball was always in the offing. So it was not exactly baseball as you’d see it at a stadium, but rather an exaggerated version of the real thing. "RBI Baseball" was the "NBA Jam"-ification of our national pastime.
Looking back, it was perfect, pure baseball-centric fun for an 8 year old of a certain era, but to play such a version today would elicit all kinds of eye rolls and frustration-induced grunts. Ever slap your head when you go back and watch an old cartoon that you would’ve sworn was the greatest show ever? Sometimes, the past should stay right where it belongs.
Except now "RBI Baseball" is back, thanks to baseball itself.
Dead and dormant for almost 20 years, the franchise has now been revived by the gaming producers at MLB Advanced Media, the sport’s digital arm that’s known more for bringing you streaming game video on your phone and laptop. MLBAM will release an updated version of "RBI Baseball" this week, and all indications are that this represents a true successor to the game we knew and loved as children. The two-button functionality is back, as is the ability to finish a game in about 20 minutes. The graphics are very much updated relative to the original series, but that’s a given considering what today’s gamers expect.
The game’s re-creators at MLBAM certainly embraced this effort with a tough line to toe: How to effectively modernize a game whose entire charm lies in its inherent simplicity? The original "RBI Baseball" worked because you didn’t need to be the most skilled gamer or knowledgeable baseball fan. Its entry level was accessible enough to attract a very wide swath of sports fans, and the MLBPA license gave it an added legitimacy that none of its peers could equal.
There were baseball games to come that were more fun ("Baseball Simulator 1.000"), addictive ("Baseball Stars"), and realistic ("Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball"), but "RBI Baseball" was the first ripple before this wave. Gamers around the world get their first crack at this new iteration this week, and whether its success eventually eclipses that of its original incarnation is ultimately unimportant.
As always, it’s just nice to spend time with an old friend, even if that friend looks different from the way we remember.