For the past few years, baseball fans who like video games have had relatively limited options compared to the halcyon days of the 1990s and 2000s. If you have a PlayStation 4, you have MLB: The Show at your disposal. If you’re more inclined to the tactical side of things and have plenty of time and a halfway decent PC, then Out of the Park Baseball is the choice for you. However, if your tastes are the exact opposite of that (and you have just an XBox One) then the choice for you is the latest edition of RBI Baseball.
The classic series from the glory days of the Nintendo Entertainment System was revived in 2014. Despite being criticized for being a pure roster update for the two editions that followed, RBI Baseball is back for the 2017 season. You’re not going to get anything in-depth with this game—you’ll get your typical exhibition mode where you can pick up the game and breeze through nine innings in less than half an hour. You’ll get the option to play one (1!) full season, a postseason mode, and an online mode. Combine that with the extremely simple two-button control scheme, and you’ve got as bare-bones a baseball game as you can get these days. With a price tag of $20 for the console versions, you are very much getting what you pay for.
While the comparative lack of features for the current version of RBI Baseball is quaint for current baseball video games, you have to imagine that if time travel was possible and you brought back die-hard fans of RBI Baseball from the late ‘80s, they’d have an avalanche of questions to ask you about the present-day. The most important would be “Wow, why did they add all of this stuff to the game that I love so much?”
While it’s true that RBI Baseball in 2017 is a bare-bones video game, some fans prefer their games to be even simpler. In fact, those fans would probably play a few games of RBI Baseball 2017 and then ask where the NES is so they can go back to hitting dingers with Reggie Jackson.
(Thanks to emulation and a nifty web-based ROM editor, it’s possible to update the game with present-day teams and players. That means that if RBI Baseball 2017 on current-gen consoles is too much for you, you can scale things back considerably and return to the past with the current crop of players.)
If that yearning for the simplicity of the past seems hard to believe, you probably aren’t aware of the community surrounding the original 1988 NES version of RBI Baseball. This sports video game classic had only 10 teams to choose from, and two of those were the American League and National League All-Star teams. The publishers were able to acquire the licensing only from the MLB Players Association — which was a first for console video games, so there’s that — so there were no logos or nicknames to speak of in this game. They were allowed to use team colors, which were worn by adorably cute and chubby 8-bit sprites who were always sporting smiles. There was only one stadium to play in, and there was no season or postseason mode. You either played against the CPU and went through each team one-by-one, or you played with a friend over and over.
What made the game so appealing and able to stand the test of time was that it was incredibly simple to pick up and play. The simple controls of the 2017 version are an effort to stay true to what the old NES controls had to offer, which was very little. You had a directional pad, two buttons, a start button, and a select button. Amazingly, the developers found a way you could use these rudimentary controls to play a fun game of baseball. You used one button to pitch, one button to hit, and the d-pad to control the pitcher’s position on the mound, the hitter’s position in the batter’s box, and the entire defense once the ball was in play. It may sound cumbersome, but it’s kind of like learning how to play foosball–once you figure it out, it’ll be a breeze from that point forward.
What also made the game memorable was the “cast of characters” in the game and how their abilities were seemingly magnified in this primitive digital world. The eight first-place teams from 1986 and 1987 (Boston, California, Houston and the New York Mets for ‘86 and Detroit, Minnesota, St. Louis and San Francisco for ‘87) were represented, so you got to play with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Bert Blyleven, Kirby Puckett and a host of other memorable names from the late ‘80s.
Jackson was good for at least two home runs a game if he made solid contact with any type of ball that came close to his bat, and Ryan was known for having to carry the Astros in this world of elite baseball, but it’s easy to do that when his fastball topped 100 mph on a regular basis in this world. The game exaggerated everybody’s abilities. All-Stars became legendary figures and future Hall of Famers became infallible figures.
The time period also means that you can recreate some memorable moments, with the obvious example being the 1986 World Series. In fact, the game came back into relevancy when a fan recreated the infamous Game 6 of that year’s Fall Classic. I’m sure that even the cutesy 8-bit graphics didn’t take the sting away from the memories of that game for Red Sox fans.
All this ensured that this video game would live on past the 1980s and into the present day. The community surrounding the game is still pretty strong, as evidenced by the fact that one fan site is still running after 16 years. Dee-Nee.com describes itself as striving to be “the ultimate source for RBI Baseball on the internet.” It was updated last November —nearly 30 years after the Japanese version of the game had been released.
The forums on the website are still active as well. It’s completely understandable that other NES games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and other classics from back then may have an active community due to fans wanting to explore every last pixel of those games. But it’s a bit of a miracle in the video game world that a sports game from close to the stone age still has an active community that gets together to play in tournaments and shares a vibrant subculture.
Dee-Nee.com is the home of the community that’s still standing. The November update to the website announced a tournament for members of the website’s forums. There’s also a long-running “RBI records” page where the players actually track their stats. The earliest “record” comes from 2002, the latest from 2016, in which “Gantry” — who runs the website — managed to score 28 runs in a loss. It should tell you about the level of these players when it’s possible for one to put 28 runs on the scoreboard and still lose. Eat your hearts out, 1922 Philadelphia Phillies.
Of course, none of these records are “official.” After all, it’s just like any video game community where someone claims to have done something amazing without video proof and then says that you shouldn’t doubt him because his uncle works for Nintendo. While nobody in the RBI Baseball community has gone that far, it’s still fascinating to see the lengths that these fans have gone to document their experience with the game. While it may not be official, it’s still the definitive record book to go by when you’re playing the game.
Their love for the 8-bit game goes beyond the original NES version. The community of players banded together to actually purchase the arcade version of the game. This version has different teams — 10 “All-Time” teams that have some of the all-time greats —which means that a match-up between Vida Blue and Babe Ruth is possible. The game play has a few tweaks here and there, but it’s the same game as its console counterpart for the most part.
Once again, it’s the loyalty of the community to the original game that makes this so fascinating. It’s one thing to stay loyal to the console version of a game, but it’s another to track down a cabinet on eBay, import it from Canada, and bring it back to the United States for the sole purpose of getting a fresh take on the game. That’s what the Dee-Nee community members did when they pooled their money to bring this rare artifact into their fold.
It’s clear that even after all this time, this community’s passion for the game has yet to wane. The Dee-Nee forums reveal that there’s a tournament being organized for early March in 2017. A relatively small but incredibly passionate group of players are sticking by their game.
While the original version of RBI Baseball has lived on for nearly three full decades, it’s difficult to imagine the current version lasting nearly as long. As nice as it is to play this simple game with a full complement of official players, teams, logos and stadiums, it’s also true that gamers today have more options. (Unless you’re an XBox One owner, then this is your only option right now. Go figure.) There are multiple games for multiple tastes now, and maybe the current version is a bit too simple to fill an important role for baseball video game fans today. You can jump in the shoes of a professional baseball player and rise up the ranks of baseball in MLB: The Show. You can become a legendary general manager in Out of the Park Baseball. In RBI Baseball, all you do is play the game. That may have been enough for fans in the 1980s, but maybe not today.
That being said, the current version of RBI Baseball clearly appeals to a niche audience and there’s still a strong community surrounding the original NES version. For some people, the bare necessities of the sport are all you need. Whether you’re hitting dingers out of the Angels’ home stadium with Mike Trout in the current version of the game or you’re somehow turning a 100 mph fastball from Roger Clemens into a three-run homer off the barrel of Darryl Strawberry’s bat, then the legacy RBI Baseball has a chance to live on for yet another decade.