“Right! Try to figure that out, okay? Imagine the sun setting over the vast waters of Lake Victoria … A hundred thousand wildebeest grazing on the Masai steppe, right? A hazy, sleepy dawn rises to reveal Kilimanjaro in all its hypnotic majesty… ”
Cool stuff. These are Steven’s poetic and naturalistic writings. An investment banker. A yuppy. A character from the legendary British television super-comedy Only fools and horses, Steven states that he has to “be up early in the morning to play baseball” to which his colleague and comedy legend, Derek Trotter, intervenes: “Oh, baseball! Yes! No … I love it. I still watch it on Channel Four ”.
Originally broadcast on Christmas Day 1989, the mere mention of baseball to millions of viewers is crucial because in the UK at the time, the Channel 4 television station had exclusive rights to broadcast several US sports, including the NFL football and baseball. Channel 4 had only broadcast in color since 1982, so the platform was relatively new. Not only that, but it was one of the first times that these sports were broadcast live, on a semi-regular basis, on a terrestrial television network. This meant that the popularity of NFL football and MLB baseball had skyrocketed, and American sports were very ‘in’ with the traditionally islander British public.
And I should know; the mid ’80s was around the time word started to filter through the school yard about the team you were supporting. Who is good ? Who is bad? Who has stayed awake all night to the flickering of a 13 inch Matsui in their bedroom on the quietest volume in order to catch a glimpse of the Superbowl or the World Series? Purely for housekeeping purposes I selected the LA Rams and The New York Giants and New York Mets respectively (although today I also have a soft spot for the Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and LA Dodgers). On Christmas Day 1987, I received a Giants jersey, an NFL rulebook, and copies of 4th and inch and Hardball for my Commodore 64. That was it. I was addicted.
The games they come fast
Computer games of baseball have been around a lot longer than you might think. In May 1963 (barely 6 months before JFK’s assassination) The star of the ledger published an article on a newly developed “computer program” for the IBM 1620. The very first baseball simulation game. Work on the simulator began in 1961, but when it was demonstrated in 1963, the game was refined and beautiful both in its ease of installation for the end user and in its complexity under the hood. Once loaded, the game would ask for a set of variables (player choice of hitters, team name, etc.). Once “locked”, the program generates its own variables and begins to strangely mash the keys itself, automating play-by-play. If you saw this in 1963, you’d probably need a good drink to get over the shock.
Fast forward 20 years to 1983, and Nintendo released the aptly named Baseball for its new Famicom console. A small but perfectly crafted (albeit heavily dated now) video game interpretation of the sport of baseball. I have always thought that baseball should be reasonably simple to translate through all video game platform. At the heart is a simple game. Nintendo Baseball has welded together enough quality components to result in a solid and enjoyable baseball game. Nothing more. And that was probably what gamers were looking for at the time.
According to official sales data from Famitsu Japan, Baseball has sold 2.35 million copies (LTD). Compare that to Famitsu sales in Japan for Super mario world, which has moved 3.55 million copies (LTD) and you can see, compared to a video game hailed as one of the very the best ever, he put in a solid performance at the checkouts. That’s not all, because if we dig through the chests of cash rolls and ledgers over the past three decades, you’ll find this cheeky slugger from Konami PlayStation Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu ’99 Kaimakuban is the 106th best-selling video game of all time in Japan. 106th. By the way, I can hear you choking on your cup of tea. Yes.
When you look at the list of other quick sellers, this brave slugfest is one of the titans in gaming history. Final Fantasy, Mario, Dragon Quest, Pokemon etc. And there, in 106th place, with 324,721 copies sold on July 22, 1999, it is the first game to break the procession. No no RGT or some other AAA hyper-blockbuster, but a mediocre baseball game.
Throwback to the ’80s and’ 90s and the early (golden?) Age of video games, like Reggie Jackson’s bell pants worn during his trade with the Yankees in 1977, to achieve a fuller, richer stride . With the rare polished diamonds came the glut of trash. And was the boy a parcel garbage when it came to baseball titles. Awful ESPN Baseball Tonight Hatayama Hatch no Pro Yakyuu News! Jitsumei Han and Human baseball to the exquisite Ken Griffey Jr presents MLB and Jikkyou Mighty Pro Yakyuu series, Nintendo of course gave its “seal of quality” to certain gems and absolute stinky.
I loved this period in video game history. Everything was fresh, new, exciting. Developers could set up shop overnight, take a risk, and produce something extraordinary. There were few rules and laissez-faire, and it led to some beautifully original ideas that would seep into the pores of the Super Famicom in particular. Baseball games became more than just a game of bat and ball, the concept would evolve into a puzzle, with the awesome Puyo Puyo-esque game Pro Yakyuu Nettou: Puzzle Stadium. Think of the NPB mascots fighting with baseball mittens and catchers for game pieces and you are pretty much there. It was a fun and addicting puzzle game with some cute combo mechanics built in for good measure.
Let’s not forget the bestseller Family stage (aka ‘Famista’) series that has proven to be a huge hit for decades on several Nintendo platforms, including the 3DS. However, as time progressed, the scope of baseball titles began to shrink to just a handful of tried and trusted titles. Looking at the software sales figures for the GameCube for example, it’s no wonder the publishers have moved these games from Nintendo to the home of Sony. BASEBALL 2003 パ ー フ ェ ク ト プ レ ー プ ロ 野球, released on GameCube in 2003, sold just 2,463 copies and was only mapped for a week.
What started as a cutting edge simulation in 1961 turned into a colorful and highly detailed baseball game in 1983. Since then, baseball games have withstood rough seas on and off the field both in glut. poor quality games but also in the players’ strike, the loss of the Montreal Expos and the steroid scandal (Aaron> Bonds, by the way). Today we are left with not just a net of titles but a complete drought of baseball games. In the last decade alone, we’ve only seen about three games released on a regular basis, one of which is reserved for Japan.
Think like the wharf
What happened? Where has creativity gone? Where the grill, football, golf, NHL and so on have thrived, baseball seems to have been left to rot in a ditch. Ellis Pier (which will appear in MLB 18: the show) was a great player who pushed many exploratory limits. On June 12, 1970, The Dock threw a famous “no-hitter” while he was completely out of his face on LSD. A no-hitter is one of the rarest things you’ll see in a triple play baseball bar, given that a regular season is 2,430 games and there have been only 296 no-hitters. since 1875. Quite an accomplishment. Why can’t a development studio achieve a similar feat? Putting together a team to start producing baseball titles that offer something new? Explore new frontiers. Carve out a legacy through non-compliance. Be original.
I refer you to the wonderful Super Famicom port of Steely Neo Geo big hitter Super Baseball 2020. A game that takes the bare bones of baseball but changes the rules just a little bit to create a wonderful new game. The Famicom had a big bat and a fight Cyber Stadium Series: Base Wars, the only baseball game I’ve seen where you’re actively encouraged to step off the bench and rip a man’s head off. Or, looking towards the arcade, the delicious club ’em up Ninja Baseball Bat Man. In madness Wario ware an eagle eye surprise is available to feed your joyless souls. Nintendo introduced an old toy they produced in the 1960s titled the Nintendo Ultra Machine like a mini-game! Even the Satellaview has a Kirby face the American hobby with Kirby no Omocha Hako. Why have developers lost their sense of adventure these days, compared to those wacky, left-behind moments?
With the Catcus and Grapefruit Spring Practice Leagues (this wouldn’t seem out of place at all in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe!) literally in a few days, it’s a huge bat signal (pun intended) that the new MLB season is just around the corner. What we have to look forward to this year is the AAA title (admittedly amazing, and one of my favorite games of 2017) MLB 18: the show next to the smelly shit party (if it’s anything like last year’s version, anyway) RBI Baseball ’18. So it’s a long wait until April for the last 2018 Powerful pro Title. Two of those games are PS4 exclusives (Powerful Pro 2018 is also available on Vita), which means the Switch is sticking with RBI Baseball ’18 and … that’s it. Unless of course counting the aforementioned Baseball 2020, which is available on the Switch eShop.
Nintendo is a company which, until 2016, possesses major league club, the Seattle Mariners, for shouting out loud! Baseball is in his blood (and no, Mario Sports Superstars does not count). The fact that Switch-owner baseball fans are so poorly served borders on the criminal, and I long for a day when the sport returns to the limelight and we get a quality title worthy of our attention. If you feel the same, be sure to pop into the comments section below.