There are, indisputably, advantages to no longer being seven years old.
I have a car that I can legally drive. I can stay up as late as I want. I bought a Hamentaschen today, and it’s not even Purim, or anywhere close to Purim. I’m eating it right now. And if I finish it, and want another? I can drive that car to an all-night Hamentaschen shop and buy another one.
Still, the news that RBI Baseball would be returning in 2014 instantly made me feel seven years old again, as I imagine it did for every baseball fan of my generation who either had a Nintendo or a friend with a Nintendo.
I spent much of the night comparing notes about this and other games of the era with people in my Twitter feed, upstanding adults who have jobs and families. They all likely realized the major advantage a seven-year-old has: Time. So much time.
For every RBI Baseball advocate, there was a corresponding Bases Loaded aficionado. Some preferred Tony LaRussa Baseball, others went with Earl Weaver.
Here’s the thing: from the time I was about five years old, and discovered baseball, to my mid-teen years, I played nearly all of them. I played them a lot. I played them alone, I played them with my father, I played them with friends.
These are the games that mattered to me from the period of 1985-1995. I’ve gone back, used emulators wherever possible, and looked at screen grabs or Youtube clips to properly remember others. But these games came back to me, instantly.
People are very sensitive about this, believing that their favorite games are actually superior thanks to baked-in emotional ties stemming from childhood memory, and I’m not here to tell you your memories are wrong. Obviously, if you preferred Bases Loaded to Baseball Stars, I’m not going to convince you otherwise, since the significant limitations on your cognitive abilities are apparent in your prepubescent choice. Frankly, it’s a wonder you managed to read this much of my article.
I’m also not here to argue that my games were better than those that came after. I know graphics, artificial intelligence and even controllers have improved so dramatically as to render any comparison between eras ridiculous. I’m not going to compare Tecmo Baseball to MLB The Show ’13, or Baseball Mogul ’14, for the same reason I wouldn’t compare Bob Gibson’s 1968 raw ERA to Pedro Martinez’s 1999 raw ERA.
And I’m willing to bet, if you followed me through that logic train, these games mattered to you as a child, too. Here are my five best from my golden era.
Micro League Baseball
This is the first baseball game I ever played, on my Commodore 64, and it holds up pretty well. The game offered a range of strategic options. This was true for the game itself, where one could swing away, bunt, steal, hit and run, and engage in a thriving, varied offense, while pitchers could throw four different pitches for different situations.
But better still, Micro League Baseball had something magical: the General Manager/Owner’s Disk. This expanded the teams you could play with, allowing me to actually see the players play I’d just read about in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract I’d received for Chanukah, and allowed things like creating your own team, which my father used as a tool to simultaneously A) educate me about who was in our extended family and B) discuss which of my aunts best profiled as a middle reliever. I remember Cousin Ludy soaking up a bunch of innings when out starters faltered early.
If I still had my Commodore 64, I’d be playing this right now, and blowing deadline.
Essentially, RBI Baseball had the advantage Micro League Baseball did: the blessing of the MLB Players Association. So we didn’t have to have coy nods to players. We pick the Mets, we get to play with “Gooden”, swing away with “Strawberry”, ground out meekly with “Santana”. The stats weren’t exactly right, but they were close enough.
And RBI Baseball produced, in two reasonably skilled players, pretty realistic gameplay. Gary Carter didn’t hit triples. Games tended to be 4-2, or 6-4, or sometimes 8-6, but rarely. Pitching and hitting was matched about as well as it was in MLB during the 1980s.
I played this game so often that the muscle memory was still present in me tonight, when I broke out the emulator once again. I could feel the slight chill of my unfinished childhood basement, the Nintendo controllers and the irritation over my father always insisting on controlling the Mets, and the satisfaction inherent in picking, say, Detroit and taking him deep with a blocky-looking Matt Nokes.
That’s no knock on Nokes: everybody looked blocky. That defenders all moved in precisely the same way, making Keith Hernandez and Bill Buckner defensive equals, or that the stands were just a bunch of light bulbs that short-circuited as fireworks exploded when somebody hit a home run, all of that was forgivable. It was the closest thing any of us had to really playing Major League Baseball, whatever our age, any time the Nintendo stopped blinking on and off, the screen alternating a sickly green and white.
I was a baseball fan stuck in a National League city with basic cable. I seldom, if ever, saw AL teams, and mostly saw NL teams only when they played the Phillies. RBI Baseball was a window into the individual players and teams — sure, like my baseball cards, but as Tony Roberts says in Annie Hall: “And the women, Max, they’re like the women in Playboy magazine, only they can move their arms and legs.”
Tony La Russa Baseball II/Earl Weaver Baseball II
So much to love about both of these offerings, which I played endlessly at the first IBM we ever had, a huge white 286 desktop we got at a computer fair. Greatly improved managerial strategy, for one thing, took gameplay to another level. Historical teams and better yet, expanded stadium choices meant I could simulate entire seasons in, say, the Baker Bowl. (And I did!)
Historical wrongs could be righted with a fantasy draft: the properly aligned Brooklyn outfield, with Roberto Clemente kept instead of taken in the minor league draft by the Pirates, served as precursor to keeping the damn Dodgers in Brooklyn, while we’re at it.
The downside to these two, really, was the need to swing, pitch and run while typing furiously, instead of using a proper controller like a Nintendo had. It was the only thing missing.
Baseball Simulator 1000
To me, this game is simply not given enough respect, and not only because I managed to effectively recreate my Little League team (Ken’s Plumbing, 1991, now and forever) and run circles around the league. It’s how many aspects of the game weren’t replicated anywhere else.
Seriously: what other game allowed you to play baseball in space? That was one of the six stadium options, along with Dome, Harbor (for pleasing, into-the-sea home runs), Town, Grass, and Brown (if even your fantasy baseball experiences needed significant enough angst that you couldn’t pretend afford grass).
Players could also be edited and adjusted, not only names but skills, so creating your own favorite team didn’t take very long. Skills were handed out evenly by team, so balancing speed and power required Solomonic powers as well as strategic ones.
The game also offered super powers for certain players (like “Super Jump” for defenders or “Iron Ball” for pitchers, both of which are exactly what they sound like), but I simply didn’t use them. Avoiding it seemed to heighten the reality, as my Little League team soared to victory after victory over made-up computer foes in pretend outer space.
So I returned to Baseball Stars more often than any other game on here. And playing it tonight, I remembered why. I’m not sure there’s been a better baseball game made: outside of some easily-remedied adjustments, I don’t really know how one would make a better game.
The place to start is the gameplay itself. I adored RBI Baseball. But it’s almost incomprehensible to look at how the players move, awkwardly, shaped exactly the same, and then play Baseball Stars, which came out on Nintendo only one year later.
Hitters have nuance to their power, to their line drives, based on skill. Each of six skills, in fact, can rate anywhere from 0 to 15, and you can feel the difference between how fast a 12 center fielder gets to a fly ball in the gap, and the same pursuit from a 14 center fielder. Players can dive, and it looks like diving, and it happens when it is supposed to happen. They can leap. They can climb the wall and take away a home run. And better still, it’s really hard to do that, just like it is in actual baseball, and you have to time it right, just like in actual baseball.
Instead of the flat-rate skills per team model in Baseball Simulator 1000, Baseball Stars forces you to win games to make money, then use that money to improve your team. As surely as I remember two-player league games my friends and I would play against the Lovely Ladies to pad our burgeoning team’s bank account, I also remember the heart-sinking feeling of paying the money necessary to improve a player, only to get that sliding-scale of 1 to 6 improvement points coming up snake eyes.
That’s right: Baseball Stars had even nailed the capriciousness of free agency.
Really, what is there to fix with Baseball Stars? Only the six-character limit on names, forcing me into a Sophie’s Choice of consonants or vowels when re-creating my favorite teams (MCRNLD never looked right for Kevin McReynolds). I stayed with this game the longest, too: I remember, when the obviously nerd-based childhood implicit in everything I’ve written here (and not just this article!) had merged love of baseball with love of history, epic battles waged between a Baseball Stars team of dictators against a Baseball Stars team of revolutionaries that, through the magic of SNK, made sense.
But my first experience with Baseball Stars? That happened at Grand Slam USA, a place where batting cages and birthday parties could be found in the late 1980s in Cherry Hill, N.J. There, I experienced the arcade version of Baseball Stars, and some rubicon was crossed, like when Moonlight Graham goes from player to doctor.
The very best of these games, and my list above is only that, my list, made me feel precisely that way, except for the part about saving a choking little girl.
To say I am excited to see whether the new RBI Baseball can do that for my daughter would be a serious understatement. And I fully intend to let her be the Mets.