Nostalgia is a problem. Nostalgia holds us back. As I get older, I find myself, perhaps inevitably, starting to believe that Things Were Better when I was a kid. All humans do this: It's why Baby Boomer sportswriters are always convinced Mickey Mantle was some bastion of purity because they didn't know any better when they were 15, it's why your dad hated your music and it's why you have no idea what the hell the deal is with Pharrell's hat.
We're completely wrong about this: As you get older you get less reliable about the past, and especially the present, not more so. Things weren't better when I was young; my misguided belief that they were is partly an attempt to convince myself that my youth was more joyous and innocent than it really was, and partly plain envy-disguised-as-disgust at people lucky enough to be in their youth right now.
Nostalgia tricks us, because nostalgia makes us think we want things we actually don't. Listening to, say, "The Humpty Dance" makes us smile, not because it's a particularly good song (I'm more of a "Same Song" guy), but because we associate it with a different time than our own, a time we think of fondly, even if we shouldn't. Chuck Klosterman wrote, "When we appreciate things from our past, we're latently arguing that those things are still important -- and if those things are important, we can pretend our own life is equally important, because those are the things that comprise our past." If we do not understand something, as we get older, our response increasingly isn't to learn more about it; it's to claim that it's inferior to something older, something we do understand. But way you remember The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air is different than the way that show actually is. If someone were to make an exact duplication of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and put it on television, it would be idiotic. You would hate it.
Nostalgia is a feeling. And things are things.
You can package and market nostalgia. But you have to sell actual things. Which brings us to the new RBI Baseball, which will launch on Xbox 360, PS3 and the Apple App Store on Wednesday.
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I can say with a high amount of certainty that if you were to rank the amount of time I've spent on leisure time activities in my life, playing RBI Baseball would be in the top 25. Certainly ahead of "talking to girls."
I was 12 years old when Tengen's RBI Baseball came out for the NES system, which meant the game marked the convergence of three distinct factors, all peaking at that time, and led to me playing it for hours and days on end: My love of baseball, my love of video games and my parents both working long enough hours that I had a ton of unsupervised time. (It was also just before puberty arrived, with all its distractions.) I played so much RBI Baseball -- with occasional detours into Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, just to mix it up -- that real baseball began to confuse me: I didn't understand why I couldn't throw a pitch that I could move in midair and magically drop the bottom out of. It also helped that they had my beloved 1987 St. Louis Cardinals, with Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith and John Tudor and Jack Clark and Jim Lindeman, whom you obviously always subbed out Curt Ford for, duh.
If you don't remember the game, you're significantly younger or older than me, but for the sake of visuals, here's the famous "RBI Baseball Dramatizes Game Six of the 1986 World Series" video:
(You can also play a crude keyboard version of the game here, in case you don't have any work to do today.)
Obviously, I was far from alone in my obsession, and as the years have passed, RBI Baseball has become a cult industry. (I'm fairly certain the comprehensive Gantry's RBI Baseball Page is one of the Internet's finest achievements.) So when MLB Advanced Media -- full disclosure: MLBAM is part-owner of Sports on Earth -- announced earlier this year that it was bringing back and updating the game, the response was overwhelming. People could not wait. Not least of all late-night talk show hosts:
"It was gratifying, to be sure, to realize there we so many people like me out there," says Jamie Leece, VP, Games for MLB.com and one of the main creative minds behind the new game. (Leece and I had a legitimate argument about which one of us had spent more hours playing the original game. Ultimately I ceded.) "Of course it was also terrifying. People think they know what they want, but updating that game and giving you the same game are obviously two very different things."
And that's the thing: I love RBI Baseball. Would I love RBI Baseball 14 the same? I am now a grown man with a family and a mortgage and dress socks and a wallet. Could I love RBI Baseball 14 the same?
"Some people want the game to be exactly the same, just with updated rosters," Leece says. "But once you go down that wormhole, you have to make tough decisions. So you want updated rosters... do you want stadiums? Do you want the stadiums to be the same? And then it just keeps going and then you... well, if they want to play that game they can go online and play it. We're trying to keep the spirit of the game while clearly updating it. We've stayed true to the spirit of the game, though. That's to say: The first priority is that it is fun to play."
I spent 90 minutes talking to Leece, but you don't care about that. What you care about are the 40 minutes we spent playing the game.
It is definitely fun.
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Here is what the game has kept:
The two-button format. One of the many issues with getting older and having all these annoying obligations is that it's difficult to keep up with just how complicated video games have become. (I am not sure I would even know how to run a play in Madden anymore.) Well, if you have two hands, you can play RBI Baseball 14. No matter the console -- the game will be available on PS3, Xbox 360 and iPad/iPhone -- it's the same controls. Swing. Bunt. Throw. You need to be able to use the directional pad, and you need to be able to press a button. That's it. It had been more than 20 years since I'd played the game on an actual console, but it all returned in a rush. After one inning, I was completely comfortable with the controls, 12 years old again. If you haven't played a video game in 25 years, don't worry: This is just like it was when you last played.
The charming low-fi gameplay. The essence of RBI Baseball has always been the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter. So the battle is the same: You can move the pitches left and right, you can still throw the vanishing drop ball, your pitchers still get exhausted quickly the more fastballs you throw. (Just like with the old version, your pitcher starts gasping for air as he runs out of steam.) The fielding is more intuitive -- not every fielder moves in unison anymore -- but is otherwise the same with fly balls and grounders. You can even make that old annoying mistake of accidentally throwing the ball away past an open base when you mean to run to it. (You actually get an achievement medal called Old School when you make this error. "We had to keep that," Leece says. "That happened all the time.")
The vanishing drop ball. This probably deserves its own entry. The squiggly breaking ball pitch that has the bottom drop out of it is still here, though sometimes it drops, and sometimes it doesn't. "Some pitchers will have a lower percentage of drop pitch just like before and some pitchers will have a higher percentage of drop pitch -- you're not guaranteed a drop pitch," Leece says. "It's not RBI Baseball without the drop ball."
|RBI Baseball 14 Cardinals roster|
|3B Matt Carpenter||Daniel Descalso|
|SS Jhonny Peralta||Jon Jay|
|LF Matt Holliday||Mark Ellis|
|RF Allen Craig||Shane Robinson|
|C Yadier Molina||Pitchers|
|1B Matt Adams||Adam Wainwright|
|CF Peter Bourjos||Lance Lynn|
|2B Kolten Wong||Michael Wacha|
The simplified rosters. Unlike the original version, which had only 10 teams (counting the two All-Star teams), this game has access to all 30 teams. That's 16 players per team: Your eight starters, your four reserves and your four pitchers. That comes to a total of 480 players total. At right, you can see the lineup for the St. Louis Cardinals team I played with against Leece, who took the Boston Red Sox.
I immediately pinch-hit for Kolten Wong with Jon Jay -- remember, defensive positions don't matter in RBI Baseball -- and Leece reminded me that pinch hitters always seemed to have a little extra power when they came in in the original. "We baked that into this game too," he said. Sure enough, Jay homered. This game, like the original, has lots of homers.
The player attributes won't be publicly listed like on most current video games, but Leece says they've used MLB statistics to help create certain player skills. "It's more subtle than in the original, but it's there," he says. "Big Papi is pretty dominant on this game."
(There are rumors that a later add-on for the game could bring in some retro players from the original game -- Vince Coleman! Matt Nokes! Darryl Strawberry! -- but Leece neither confirmed nor denied those to me.)
The music. It's not the same 8-bit music throughout, but you do get a sample as the game boots up.
The quick, condensed game. This is key. One of the primary appeals of the original RBI was how quickly you could speed through a game. If you focused, you get through one in 20 minutes. That was a primary goal, maybe the primary goal, of Leece and his team. "Every decision we made was about trying to keep it to 20 minutes," Leece says. "It was all about keeping the pace up. So even like stuff like putting your pitcher up in the bullpen, we know that's accurate... but is it necessary? Anything like that, even if we could put it in, we didn't. It needs to be clean and fast." Our game took 40 minutes, but that's because I kept pausing the game to ask Leece questions; we could have easily been done in 20.
The body types. Same three body types: Skinny, normal and fat. The fat guys look a little less fat than on the original, partly because of improved graphics and mostly, I suspect, because of player vanity. There are five different facial hair styles, but they're purposefully imprecise. The best way to put it: David Ortiz sort of looks like Common.
No stats. This is not a simulation: You won't be keeping season stats, which is good, because I'm pretty sure Miguel Cabrera would end up with 194 home runs. You can play full seasons though -- 162 games, 81, or 52 -- as well as the postseason.
You can't play online against people across the world. Obviously, this was impossible back in 1988, but one thing that's not going to be ready when the game ships this week is the ability to play online. Leece wouldn't go into detail on this, but even though you can't play right now, this is such an obvious future feature.
That empty feeling when you play someone better than you. Leece, being one of the game's developers, was a bit less rusty than I was, and he whumped me 13-9. It probably shouldn't have been that close: He was taking it easy on a n00b.
Of course, the similarities are part of the point, and whether people find RBI Baseball 14 satisfying depends in large part how offended they are by the changes... and how much they even wanted the similarities in the first place. As you can tell from a single screenshot, the game, graphically, is a massive improvement over the original, which might not be something people actually enjoy.
After all, that is the nostalgia problem: What you think you want might not be what you actually want, and what something actually was might not be as wonderful as what you remember. That silly cartoon fun of the original? It simply would not work today.
"Some people want it cartoonish -- it's got what we call "stylish reality," Leece says. "We just felt too much cartoon made it feel like a kids game. My son is five; he plays this and loves it. He's never played a sports game before. But it's baseball. It's not some warping of the game. You're still playing baseball."
The design of the game is clever enough to be evocative of the original without being as clunky and fundamentally basic as it (necessarily, considering this was 1988) was. But it's not the same game because you're not the same person you were then.
There have been 25 years in gaming advances since the original, and it does take a while for your brain to deprogram; Leece says it's still baseball, and he's right, but it's not MLB 14: The Show -- by design -- and sometimes it feels almost silly to play a game so purposefully retro when more advanced games exist. (I caught myself thinking a couple of times, "OK, that looks nothing like Matt Holliday"even though he's quite specifically not supposed to.) That's to say: As a grownup, the idea of wanting to play RBI Baseball again may be a more fun experience than actually playing it, even though Leece and his team have done an outstanding job of giving you, essentially, what you asked for. The original RBI Baseball was fun because it was a fun game, but also because there were literally no other options: As far as we knew, we were playing the closest thing to actual baseball. We've become a wonkish nation, obsessed with the simulation of reality. I know we think we want a video game that plays like the games of old... but do we really?
Even after one game, as much fun as it was, and as brilliant and loving a job as they did with the recreation, it still felt a bit like empty calories. That's part of the point, obviously: These games are empty calories. It's not so much that the games have changed; we have. All told, it's probably us that need a reboot, not RBI Baseball.
Of course, this is all Old People Fretting and certainly not a reason not to buy the game, particularly at an impressively cheap price point: The game costs 20 bucks, which is not only a third of the price of The Show, it's actually less than half what the original RBI Baseball cost in the first place. (The game is a $5 download for your iPhone or iPad.) At that price, you'd be foolish not to give the game a try, and it'd be tough not to get $20 worth of fun out of it.
And, to be clear, the game is super fun. They've done a terrific job with it. It has that same mano-y-mano trash-talking Two Baseball Nerds Playing Each Other Spirit of the original. (It's amazing how immediately that that came back to me too; I caught myself being careful not to offend Leece by crowing when I struck him out.) But how much do you want to remember what it was like to be 14 years old -- like, really remember? Playing RBI Baseball 14 vividly reminds you what it was like to play video games as a kid.
Which is why I bet, for all the nostalgia surrounding this game, and how the first wave of players will all be Gen-Xers like me eager to recapture our lost youth, the reason this game is going to be a hit is the same reason all video games become hits, including the original: Kids are going to love it. Leece said his five-year-old figured out the game and is learning about baseball because of it, and I bet your kid, particularly if they're a bit older, will be even more obsessed, the same way you were. The gameplay itself is so compulsive and addictive that while it's not a cartoonish "kid's game," it as perfect for kids today as it was in 1988.
The simple truth is that it's fun, and always will be. You fell in love with it as a kid; now it's your kids' turn. They'll fall for it the same way -- and then want their own reboot in 25 years. The past wasn't as great as you remember... but the present is always better than you think.
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