Launched back in 1987 RBI Baseball was, at the time, the gold standard of at-home console baseball goodness. Titles like Tecmo Bowl had introduced the youth of my day the ability to play as their sports heroes and RBI was right there to satisfy us baseball fans. While we never could quite recreate the thrills and drama of a proper Dodgers vs Athletics World Series, we could play a solid reproduction, if a little on the arcadey side, of America’s Passtime. Subsequent generations saw the inclusion of all the ballparks, better graphics, and the expected upgrades. Then the bottom fell out. The ill-fated Sega 32X saw the last release in 1995 and nothing was produced again until April 2014 when out of nowhere like Lazerus returned.
No longer developed by Atari/Tengen RBI looked to rekindle childhood memories and start a new life as a lite take on the sport. Ultimately, it failed. While including some key sound effects and playing very similar to its forefathers the new RBI just felt out of place in a time of limit-pushing graphics and systems upon systems in terms of depth and variety. The pricing model did it zero favours as better more competent recreations of the sport were available at much lower prices. This trend continued as MLB themselves finally took over production themselves with the release RBI 17. Jumping forward, as people worldwide have gone without sports do to quarantines and lockdowns, RBI 20 looks to inject some life into the floundering franchise while also satiating the publics’ need for sports. Traditionally this would start the review, however, RBI 20 requires more than that. Consider this the pep talk the team needs as they attempt a comeback down 7 with 2 outs in the 9th.
On the surface, RBI is a valiant attempt. The parks, the players and a few modes are all here. The heart and identity are what is missing. This new version attempts to bridge the gap between arcade and simulation while never pulling off either. This iteration includes an all-new batting mechanic which tries to infuse life and control. Players historically were just required to press a button which kept play smooth and lightning fast. Unfortunately, the new mechanic ties your power into holding the button while simultaneously timing the pitch. Old school RBI, this would have worked, as you were very limited in what type of pitch could be thrown. Now, each pitcher has been given their full arsenal which realistically messes with your timing. After some minor aggravation and a full-frame of mind change, digging back in yielded similar results. The 1 on 1 battle between the pitcher and batter does not work. Even changing the controls in the options to include the ability to aim, or influence, your hit doesn’t help. That being said, this mechanic is AMAZING for the improved Home Run Derby. Here timing your swing and power makes perfect sense. Properly managing a hitters load to explode feels great whereas battling a pitcher in a regular game feels like a chore. Why not learn a lesson from the MLB 2K series and bring back analogue swing mechanics? You would be able to properly control hitter in a more natural feeling way. Titles like Super Mega Baseball still implement this and the results are fantastic. You can opt-out of the new controls and revert to “classic” but that opens a whole new can of worms.
Like hitting before it, pitching has also seen a dramatic change. Thankfully, this is mostly for the better. Pitches have their own level of confidence depending on each situation. Chris Sale may have a nasty slider, but down 5-1 in 5th he may have little confidence in that pitch if it is being knocked all over the field. This give and take adds depth as does the implementation of an effort meter to muster out a little extra if needed. The new camera angle, too, adds to the illusion and often feels on par with its contemporaries albeit the few there are. Unfortunately, however, this new angle also brings with it a major drawback… the visuals.
The crowd, my goodness. The flat pixelated crowds of the PS1 were 2 generations ago. RBI does everything it can to help us relieve this time in gaming history with some of the worst rendered crowds of 2020. The handful of people copied over and over are barely visible as the blur are pixelation overtakes everything. The blur even extends into the menus. The stock photos of the players even have a touch of blur which is befuddling at this stage in technological advancement. The infield animations do it no favours either. Often time you can settle under a lazy fly, only to have your fielder awkwardly lurch in another direction to secure the catch. Groundballs in the hole magically get scooped up by fielders who are facing the wrong direction. This is in stark contrast to the detail put into things like the catcher properly tossing his mask as he positions himself for a foul pop up.
With all the updates and what appears to be a leaning towards realism, the sound has not seen any of the love. Remaining are the core RBI sounds those familiar with the series know and either hate or love. The licensed music is fine, its certainly no FIFA 10, while the in-game sounds serve their purpose. No play by play hurts but the crowd again fails. Often times I was able to get the road crowd cheering when I was striking out their hitters, awkward.
So where does it go? RBI as a franchise is at crossroads. Will it ever compete with MLB the Show, no. Sonys first party behemoth is near perfection year in and year out. The previously mentioned Super Mega Baseball in its two releases (SMB 3 is on the way) has easily occupied the number two slot for those unwilling or unable to import any Japanese titles. This release felt like a rebuilding year as so much was thrown at it without a clear idea of where it was going.
First, decide which type of game you want this to be. If we are going with the arcade-style, then go all in. The public would eat up an over the top arcade recreation of baseball. Think MLB Slugfest, refined with new modes. Not just the typical exhibition, franchise, home run derby, think bigger. Why not include situational hitting mini-games? Mobile titles like MLB 9 innings already have this with Clutch hits. Reinvent the derby for online/couch coop fun. Looking at a title like Triple Play, back on the PS1, included fantasy parks with targets to hit for bonuses with dramatic camera angles and over the top sound effects. For all the hate EA gets for its monetisation of Ultimate team, MLB is missing an obvious route with baseball cards and a partnership with Topps or any of the baseball card manufacturers, to create their own revenue stream, yup I just advocated microtransactions. Again, they have done this on mobile already and nailed it in 9 innings. There is a vast treasure trove of ideas that could make this the anti-show killer that are being ignored.
If a simulation is the route then we have a tough choice to make. Be willing to ride the pine for a year. Seriously. Do not release RBI 21. Sit it out and start over. Keep the pitching mechanics and improve upon them. Then bring back analogue hitting for the love of everything holy. But more importantly sure up the graphics. While visuals are never the be all end all of a game, they are often the thing people use to gauge their own interest in a title. MLB has the money to pull this off especially since they are all in on the production of the game. Knowing that, also overhaul the franchise mode. A fully functioning Minor League (MiLB) is not a wish its something that has been replicated by past baseball titles and could also provide a unique avenue for minor league players to possible see some additional income, assuming MLB shares or is willing to license them. Give players the ability to truly become the GM and negotiate contracts, leverage future stars for immediate success as the trade deadline approaches. Why not give players the power to create their own stadiums? Earl Weaver Baseball did this back in 1987 for those old enough to have played the PC title. Finally, lean into historic rivalries. While loading into a NYY v Bos game, why not be treated to a historical recap of the blood feud via FMV from the archives. What an amazing opportunity to introduce new fans into the significance of the battle.
That all being said, I still have hope for the franchise. Being a life long fan of the sport certainly helps as I try to imagine how to make this work. To this day I still log hours on RBI 2 on my NES. Selfishly I want it to succeed. Perhaps something will resonate and we can see a new and improved version hit our consoles in the future.