RELEASE DATE: April 9, 2014PLATFORM: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, iOSDEVELOPER: MLB Advanced MediaPUBLISHER: MLB Advanced MediaCATEGORY: Sports
Thirteen years ago, my cell phone was the size of a Red Bull can. It made phone calls. I think it had a calculator. When I browsed the internet on my computer, the poor thing sounded like it was under siege and screaming for help. The point? Some graves don’t need flowers and sometimes it’s weird when we get nostalgic for technical things that have so clearly been surpassed.
R.B.I. Baseball landed on console baseball video game Plymouth Rock in the late 80s when it was the first title to launch with a license from the Major League Baseball Players Association, but it flunked out of a transforming and somewhat flooded market less than a decade later with little fanfare. In the years since, the sub-genre has moved forward while simultaneously putting countless other franchises in the ground. Now, SCEA’s hyper-realistic MLB: The Show franchise stands alone in the console baseball sim market, but a reborn R.B.I. has risen up as something else entirely.
Presently only available on iOS, and as a digital download for $20 on the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, R.B.I. Baseball is simply too feature-poor to be considered a sim but too grounded to be an arcade game. Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) is courting fans of the original R.B.I. Baseball (which was developed by Namco/Tenegen) and others who may not have the time or the desire to get into a hardcore sim with this title, but the end result is a game that should feel annoyingly thin to all but the most nostalgia-drunk.
Echoing the original, gameplay is limited to the use of two-button controls and either the directional pad or the analog stick. There are three pitch types, a fastball, a ball that is not as fast, and a sort of breaking ball. You can influence the speed and left to right direction of the ball with the analog stick, but you can’t go north or south because retro… or something.
Both the pitcher and the batter can shift their position along the rubber of the mound or in the batter’s box. There are three player types — thin guy, middle guy, and muscle bound guy. The players are virtually unrecognizable save for their numbers and their names. These aren’t round little sprites, but in a way, it would be better if they were.
R.B.I. Baseball 14 includes all 30 MLB teams, but only 16 players per team. This means that you have your starting lineup (which you cannot modify), three bench players, and only four pitchers. This is what you carry into a full season, but while the pitchers do get tired early and often during gameplay, it’s not clear if that carries over from game to game when you play in season mode (the game also offers Exhibition Mode and a Postseason Mode).
Another thing that’s not clear: how well or poorly your players are performing. I can’t remember which old school game it was, but I used to keep a notepad to jot down stats for my video game players as they progressed through the “season” that I constructed for them with copious exhibition games. In the 21st century, you would think that the need for that level of DIY stat logging would be rendered obsolete, but since we’re celebrating technical limitations and era-forced ineptitude, there is no other way to track how many home runs your player hits and there is also no way to see what their attributes are, even though they are reportedly influenced by real-world stats.
As for home runs, the game is flush with them, complete with a brief fireworks display over the scoreboard (like the original), though that’s about it in terms of presentation. I played half a dozen individual games for the purpose of this review (and to be honest, I doubt I’ll go back — replayability is non-existent when you have limited controls and there is no compelling season-long narrative when you can’t even track your player’s batting average) and each game ended before the ninth inning thanks to the return of the “Mercy Rule”, which stops play if one team is up by 10 runs by inning’s end. Despite the lack of fealty to the original, it would have been nice to have a chance to decide if I wanted to play through. With that said, getting through each game in about 15-20 minutes seems to be a big part of the expressed appeal of this game, and this is a part of that.
The defense is frustrating. Though I toggled through the handful of options, I could not find a way to have some kind of indicator on flyballs (which whistle along in a familiar way that will make you smile if you recall old school games). This makes the game a true adventure when your opponent — be they AI or real life, but not online — hits the ball into the outfield. Pop-ups, however, do seem to have an indicator, though they can quickly get away from you.
R.B.I. Baseball 14 also includes each Major League stadium, though the game fails to fully realize certain signature aspects — something that actually offended me. Retro sensibility or not, real stadiums have been a part of baseball video games for almost 20 years. If you don’t put the ivy on the wall at Wrigley, and if Fenway’s Green Monster is little more than a double-stacked wall with no extra character, you really shouldn’t call those stadiums by their proper name.
I’ve read, by now, a few reviews for this game and I feel obligated to tell you that I seem to be in the minority with my less than favorable view of it. I am admittedly a sim freak and a massive baseball nerd. I played the original and Bases Loaded, and I have a few warm memories, but when I think about those games in contrast to what we have now, it reminds me of dial-up. They were a vital step in the evolutionary process, thank you and good bye.
Obviously, there are people who feel differently. R.B.I. Baseball has spawned a dedicated and durable fanbase. There are vibrant online communities and modders out there, people who are psyched about the return of a game that can just be fun and not complicated, but I feel like R.B.I. Baseball is complicated by its forced indifference to the progress that these games have earned over the last two decades and the gameplay didn’t feel fun to me, it felt thin and frustrating in its restrictions.
If you are going to use something that is closer to modern graphics than not and if you are going to put in real stadiums — two things that stand in opposition to the true embrace of the original R.B.I. Baseball’s appeal, which seems to be the point of this little exercise — than you can put in some basic counting stats and you can include a full 25 man roster. You can’t have it both ways, you’re either retro, or you are not. Anything else, apparently, comes off like a muddled mess with a nostalgia-bait name and little else of value to video game baseball fans.