This Week in Gaming History: R.B.I. Baseball hit a home run0 Comments
It's baseball season, and if America's Pastime was your thing in the 8-bit era, you had no shortage of video games to choose from. There were almost as many baseball games on the Nintendo Entertainment System as there were on the Major League Baseball schedule, or at least it often seemed that way. However, only a handful of them still stand out today, with R.B.I. Baseball at or near the top of the list.
The roots of the game actually started in Japan in 1986, as Namco's Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium on the Nintendo Famicom. While Nintendo's 1983 Baseball had proven popular in Japan, the game was outdone in almost every way by Family Stadium. The gameplay required more strategy, the graphics were more colorful and cute, and the music was catchy. Japanese players flocked to the game, catching the attention of the American video game industry.
Back in the U.S., Nintendo's VS. System was starting to age. While struggling arcade operators loved the interchangeable nature of the VS. System, the earliest titles from 1984 were starting to fall from the earnings charts. Among these aging titles was VS. Baseball, the arcade version of the 1983 Famicom hit, now available at home for the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. Seeing an opportunity, Atari ported Family Stadium over to the VS. System in 1987.
The exact name of the game was a point of confusion, with the sales flyer listing multiple names itself. The logo on the flyer seem to call it VS. R.B.I. Atari Baseball, a name that lines up with the arcade marquee art. The copyright section on the flyer calls it Atari R.B.I. Baseball, while the description of the game on the second side refers to the game as simply R.B.I. Baseball. Many gamers simply called it R.B.I. during this time, the only portion of the name that could seemingly be agreed upon.
By any name, it didn't take long for it to become a smash hit in the States, even running neck-and-neck in some locations with VS. Super Mario Bros., Nintendo's biggest smash hit for the arcade system. Part of the popularity of the game was due to the inclusion of real-life MLB baseball players, a feature that was almost unheard of in sports video games up to this point. Designer Peter Lipson saw this as a reason to release a Nintendo Entertainment System version, which came out in 1988 under Atari and Namco's home label Tengen. The game was officially called R.B.I. Baseball, ending any confusion from the arcade version.
Like the arcade version, R.B.I Baseball licensed the names of several of baseball's top real-life players, giving the game something over other baseball titles on the NES. The game became a fast success, gaining a partial feature in the first-ever issue of Nintendo Power magazine. R.B.I. also received high praise in the first-ever issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, touted as a 1989 Buyer's Guide. It was officially endorsed by the U.S. National Video Game Team, receiving their seal of approval, which was granted to but a handful of NES titles released during this time.
To capitalize on this success, Young Jump Magazine in Japan teamed with Tengen and Atari Games to create the First Annual R.B.I. Baseball Video Game Tournament in the fall of 1988. This tournament was mostly made up of American players, including the previously featured Donn Nauert, but it also included Japanese gamer Yasuhisa Tsuruta. The 17-year-old Tsuruta won a large Family Stadium tournament for the opportunity to compete in this event, a fact that put a bullseye on his back with the American players.
"Everyone wanted to play against Yasuhisa," recalled Michael Klug, one of the American gaming experts that took part in the competition. "Even if they didn't make the finals, it would be a personal victory for an individual player to defeat him. I believe he didn't lose a game that day."
Klug, who was the final American gamer to lose to Tsuruta in the contest, says he feels the Japanese champ had the advantage of playing R.B.I. for years while the U.S. players had only a few months' worth of experience going in. He also noted that the playing conditions were not great for the competition in general. Thankfully for Klug and the others, a quick-thinking tournament officer took notice.
"It was a hot, sunny day, and the mall had a glass ceiling, so that became an issue," Klug added. "I kept playing all day, not thinking about eating or drinking. Mike Taylor from Atari must have noticed before the final game, as he took me over to Orange Julius. I must have drank the entire thing in less than two minutes."
Results of the R.B.I. Baseball Video Game Tournament were noted in the third issue of Nintendo Power later that year. It was one of the last times Nintendo would include any Tengen titles within the pages of that magazine, as the two companies had a falling out over Nintendo's lock-out chip and rules of licensees. This historically important legal situation will be covered more in-depth in a future edition of This Week in Gaming History, but one of the results of it created two different NES versions of R.B.I. Baseball. It is one of only three Tengen-released NES titles, also including Pac-Man and Gauntlet, that saw wide release in both the standard gray Nintendo cartridges and the black Tengen-style cartridges that followed the break-up.
The success of R.B.I. Baseball saw Tengen port and release numerous sequels for the NES and other consoles such as the Sega Genesis in the years that followed. Eventually, the R.B.I. name would fade away from further industry releases, but not from the hearts of gamers. In recent years, the nostalgia ran high enough to see new games released in the R.B.I Baseball series, including the recent R.B.I. Baseball 16. Even after 30 years, the game continues to stand as one of the most beloved sports games of all time.