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April 22, 2014 at 5:09 pm ET
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Bats & Bytes Review: RBI Baseball ’14

When I was a child, my favorite TV show was “Who’s the Boss.” Maybe it was my prepubescent infatuation with Alyssa Milano. Maybe it was the good-natured “Ay-OH”s from Tony Danza. But when I harken back to better days, that show still manages to warm my heart. That is until recently, when I watched a rerun and realized a harsh truth:

It was a terrible TV show.

Not by 1980s standards. Not by family-friendly programming standards. But instead, by all standards of humor, acting and entertainment. How I watched this steaming pile of celluloid each week baffles me, and makes me question many other choices I’ve made.

Sadly, the same can be said about R.B.I. Baseball.

Upon first hearing R.B.I. Baseball was returning with its classic, no-frills mechanics in tow, I thought it was exactly what the Xbox 360 needed. After years of enduring deep, but iterative and ultimately sub-par MLB 2K entries, maybe a mindless return to simple gameplay was a perfect foil.

And I approached the game with this mindset. But, guess what, kids? You can’t go — or steal — home again.

R.B.I. Baseball ’14 for the Xbox 360 is a disappointment of pretty large proportions. Samantha Micelli proportions.

In an effort to make this title as accessible and nostalgic as possible, the developers went to a minimalist control scheme, requiring the user to basically press two buttons and watch the rest. You know, the same two-button controls we worshiped as children, and long to relive today.

But a funny thing happened in the quarter century since R.B.I. Baseball fought for shelf space next to your Nintendo — games got better.

Maybe today’s titles are too complicated, and require the dexterity of a cheetah to manage successfully. But with this progression, video games have also given us unparalleled levels of control over our experiences.

Whereas we once just pitched/hit/caught, now we can adjust infield defenses, call for substitutions, set situational hitting scenarios and more, all without pausing the game. This, alongside elements of weather, fatigue, injury and more, has made today’s games infinitely more immersive, even if they’re not definitively better.

Today, gamers have expectations. And, with these expectations, comes the reality that your fond memories of 8- and 16-bit gaming might be best left in the past.

So, how does R.B.I. play? At first glance, it’s perfect. Anyone who longs for the originals will immediately gravitate to the slightly exaggerated graphics, and the pick-up-and-play game design. But soon after, warts begin to grow on the aging face of the franchise.

While there’s a full complement of teams and players, and even a “season mode,” there’s no stat tracking, and player substitution is meaningless. Because no one gets hurt. No one tires. No one ever diminishes in any way.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but fatigue and injury is one of the unsung heroes of modern sports gaming. It’s not something you think about when deciding if something is fun to play, but having the specter of doom hovering over a young pitcher chasing a shutout is subversively enjoyable.

Even though the recent 2K games were disappointing, they did handle injury and fatigue well — and always punished me for pushing pitchers too aggressively. Same goes for letting fielders “play through the pain” when nursing minor injuries.

Nope, not here. In R.B.I., all of your players are at 100% all game, every game. Which would be tolerable if they had individual characteristics that defined them as … well … individuals.

While I am technically controlling Curtis Granderson in my game, he might as well be named “Power Hitting Outfielder Model #1.” There are zero elements of Curtis’ actual abilities, either at the plate or in the field. Even superstars like Trout and Strasburg are generic player models with names attached for show, and nothing more.

(And before you nostalgic-types rip me a new one for this, remember the original Hardball had unique player types, and it preceded the flagship R.B.I. by 4+ years.)

While the graphics and animations look perfectly fine (if not a little underwhelming), the hitting and pitching variety is sorely lacking. On the mound, each pitcher can choose a fast or slow ball, and — in a nod to the originals — SLIGHTLY control it after it leaves his hand. But that’s where it ends. If you want exaggerated sliders, knee-buckling curves and 120 mph fastballs, look elsewhere. The problem is, there’s nowhere else to look.

(Plus, in a potentially game-breaking flaw, there’s a sweet spot position on the mound that allows users to effectively strike out 27 batters in a row on fastballs. Yes, in 2014.)

Hitting is just as limited. In one game, I hit 14 consecutive opposite-field fly ball outs. With the same animations each and every time. The remaining hits were limp singles or massive home runs. Again, all featuring the same movements.

This anomaly improved slightly with more experience, but regardless, the game feels frighteningly “on-rails” when compared to even PS1 titles from nearly 20 years ago. After 5-7 games, I think I saw every movement the title had to offer. I knew how to strike out every hitter. I knew which pitches would go yard. There was no guesswork, no strategy, and definitely no variety.

Now, I can hear the feathers ruffling already. “Brad, if the game had modern features, then it wouldn’t be R.B.I. Baseball!”

I hear you. And if this was advertised solely as a dolled-up tribute to 8-bit baseball, then I’d probably be more forgiving. But instead, marketers positioned this game as a arcade-like, modern alternative for gamers looking to play a new title this season. No one expected this to be a deep, realistic simulation. Yet, I think we did expect something that married the fun of the old, with the advancements of the new.

In that regard, the game fails miserably.

Sadly, R.B.I. Baseball ’14 for the Xbox 360 is not a title I’d recommend to anyone but the most devoted fans of the series. While the game is successful in delivering a polished version of an old chestnut, the reality is most gamers have long since abandoned such simplistic gameplay for something a little more engaging.

I’m one of those gamers.

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3 Responses to “Bats & Bytes Review: RBI Baseball ’14”
  1. Totally agree.

    Also – what’s up with the auto-slaughter rule? Shouldn’t that be something the gamer can control?

    No unique ballparks. This game is a complete snooze … and it’s the only game in town for XBOX360 this year.

    Imagine if you dropped 500 bones on an XBOX-1 … then played this game on it? It’d be like driving a Lamborghini to church.

    The game feels like it was rushed into development, then half-assed to market. Available only via download, they couldn’t be bothered to even box it up. It’s not retro, it’s not throwback, it’s just lame.

  2. Keith says:

    The original RBI Baseball updated for 2014 (with all 30 teams) can be downloaded at rbibaseball.us. You need an NES emulator to play, though.

  3. Seth says:

    Agreed. I bought the iPad version ($4.99) and regret it. I feel bad for those that paid $20 or so for consoles. Fortunately iOOTP came out shortly after and has my full attention.

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