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Pop Fly Culture: The Return of R.B.I. Baseball

Anyone who has visited MLB.com recently or subscribes to MLB At Bat or MLB.TV is likely already well aware of the long awaited return of R.B.I Baseball.  MLB fans have been inundated with ads and articles for the first ever console game developed and licensed by MLB.com.  The re-boot of the classic late-80’s video game is now available for purchase on XBOX 360, Playstation 3, and Android Apps.  With all the hoopla surrounding the revamped version, I thought I’d spend some time gushing over the original R.B.I. Baseball as well as my personal favorite video game of all time, R.B.I. Baseball 3.

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R.B.I. Baseball debuted in the United States in 1988 after a successful run as a console game in Japan titled “Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium”.  R.B.I. Baseball was the first console game ever to be licensed by the Major League Baseball Players Association.  This enabled R.B.I. Baseball for the Nintendo Entertainment System to use actual Major League players.  R.B.I.’s biggest competitors at the time Altus’ “Major League Baseball” and Jaleco’s “Bases Loaded” had to use fictitious players due to not having the endorsement of the MLBPA.  “Major League Baseball” was licensed by Major League Baseball and allowed to use actual MLB team names but not players.  R.B.I. found a loophole by simply using the names of the cities in which the team played as opposed to the team names and logos themselves.  R.B.I.’s competitors were both flawed in different areas. “MLB” had sloppy graphics and inferior game play, while “Bases Loaded” used a televised point of view from the pitcher’s perspective which made hitting feel awkward and backwards.  Fielding in “Bases Loaded” presented additional challenges as there was hardly any warning to get into position on a ball hit to the outfield.  R.B.I. Baseball featured a more straightforward pitcher/batter interface that was much more user-friendly.  The game featured a selection of eight teams consisting of division winners from the 1986 and 1987 MLB seasons.  One creative fan actually made a YouTube video recreating the infamous Buckner error in the 1986 World Series set to Vin Scully’s audio of the call (Click here to watch, It’s pretty incredible!). Tengen’s original R.B.I. Baseball established a strong template but it was the subsequent sequels that revolutionized arcade-style baseball for decades to come. 

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R.B.I. Baseball 2 introduced several new features that were groundbreaking at the time and remain mainstays of today’s baseball video games.  Users now had the ability to jump and dive in the field, switch hit, and substitute players.  Measurements of home runs were displayed immediately after they were hit, and instant replays were broadcast following home runs or premiere defensive plays.  The gameplay was quick and efficient, as a 9 inning game could be played in about 20-30 minutes.  The game now featured all 26 Major League teams including the NL and AL All-Star teams.  The players looked more realistic as opposed to the bubble-shaped caricatures featured in the original version. Pitchers fatigued and lost velocity as the game progressed and relievers only had enough stamina to throw an inning or two.  Players’ defensive skill sets were also taken into account, as better defensive players threw harder and made less errors.  The game developers had made significant improvements and would perfect the series one year later with the release of the third installment.

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Debuting in 1991, R.B.I. Baseball 3 expanded on the innovations of its predecessor to make a classic baseball game that holds up almost as well today as it did back when MTV still played music videos and the Minnesota Twins were the best team in baseball.  R.B.I. 3 included players and stats from the 1990 baseball season and added a new feature where the gamer could play as every division winner from the 1983-1989 seasons.  This allowed baseball fans to play out various classic matchups that were previously unheard of on any other baseball arcade.  Dwight Gooden and the 1986 Mets could now battle it out with Cal Ripken Jr. and the 1983 Orioles.  Ozzie Smith and the defensive juggernaut 1985 St. Louis Cardinals could matchup against Mark McGwire and the slugging 1989 Athletics.  The possibilities were endless and provided Baseball fans with hours upon hours of fun and competition

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In R.B.I. 3 speedsters like Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson were nearly impossible to throw out unless you were skilled enough to pick them off.  Pitchers like Dennis Eckersley and Roger Clemens could hit 100 mph, and with the ability to throw at three different speeds and drop curve balls in the dirt, pitching was very realistic.  The hitting was authentic as well.  The better you barreled a ball the harder you would hit it; and, early and late swings had remarkably realistic outcomes.  R.B.I. 3 was also the first baseball video game to introduce a regular season mode.  Now remember, this was way before gamers had the ability to save their progress.  On NES if you wanted to beat a game you could not turn off your console or you would lose everything.  R.B.I. 3 introduced a system where you would be given a password following each regular season game.  You could shut the power off, enter the password and pick up right where you left off in the season.  Once you beat every team in the league, you would play a hidden Japanese All-Star team featuring fictitious pitchers that were virtually un-hittable and batters that could pound any pitch that wasn’t perfectly executed.  Winning a title in R.B.I baseball on the “hard” setting was a feat that very few skilled players could accomplish.  25 years later, R.B.I. Baseball has joined Tecmo-Bowl, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, and Blades of Steel, as one of the most influential and groundbreaking sports games introduced on the Nintendo Entertainment System.