RBI Baseball Video Game: Beloved Classic Gets Long-Awaited Reboot

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

Image from RBI Baseball 14 on Facebook

When R.B.I. Baseball was first released in 1986, Reggie Jackson and Phil Niekro were still playing in the MLB. After just shy of 20 years without any new releases in the R.B.I. franchise, R.B.I. Baseball 14 is here to bring fans of baseball and video games back in time to a simpler era.

MLB Advanced Media announced the impending release in January, and gamers have been wringing their hands about what the newest installment in old-school gaming might look like. Now we know!

The screenshots are in and Polygon's Samit Sarkar has the skinny:

MLB Advanced Media is pairing that real-life foundation with a stylized look that sits somewhere between cartoonish and realistic. While R.B.I. 14 features real baseball players—16 on each of the 30 MLB clubs, a total of 480—each of them appears in one of three body types. It's the kind of visual shorthand that sports games have used for decades: Big guys are sluggers, slim players are contact hitters and athletes of average build are balanced.

Those graphics limitations are music to the ears of kids who grew up in the '80s enthralled by pixelated graphics and overly simplistic game engines. For anyone that ever ran for 10 99-yard touchdowns in a game with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, this is a dream on the diamond.

However, the character imbued in those eight-bit graphics appear to have been whitewashed in the reboot, and some fans are less than impressed. What happened to every player having the same body type as Mo Vaughn?

The graphics might actually be too good. The game looks like a late-'90s computer simulator, so while the appearance is still retro, it still lacks the boxy charm of the previous version. It's surprising the developers didn't come up with a stylized version of the original "cartoony" design, opting instead for a generic look. 

Due to a quirk of licensing, the original game used real player names under an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association, but real teams and logos could not be used since there was no agreement with the MLB itself. This led to a scaled-down field of eight teams listed only by city: Boston, California, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, New York, St. Louis and San Francisco.

It reflected real baseball with accuracy, insofar as Vince Coleman ran really fast and Nolan Ryan threw really hard. But with other offerings already having cornered the market in realism, R.B.I. Baseball 14 is leaving its gameplay stuck in the '80s.

R.B.I. Baseball 14 is setting its sights on a certain demographic of gamers. It is not seeking to compete with the hyperrealism or dynamic gameplay offered by the likes of MLB 14: The Show. In fact, the game itself is severely limited by its interface.

According to Sarkar

The modes in R.B.I. 14 are similarly basic. Three are available: You'll be able to play one-off exhibition games, take a team through a season (a full 162 games or less) or start at the beginning of the postseason....R.B.I. 14 won't offer any of the deeper, more expansive modes that fans of simulation sports games may be used to, such as single-player career modes or online leagues. In fact, R.B.I. 14 doesn't feature online play at all; multiplayer action is limited to local one-on-one games.

Ultimately, the gameplay is the key, and if the gaming engine can entertain players for hours on end then the game will be a success. The two-button interface will make for a smooth transition on mobile platforms and baseball fans love such time-wasters almost as much as video game fans do. 

The game is expected to be released in early April for PS3, Xbox 360, Android and iOS as a digital-only download. Pricing for the reboot has not been confirmed, and that will go a long way toward dictating how many people give the new-old game a whirl. 

As noted by Sam Page of SI.com, "The last time an R.B.I. game come out, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was a rookie catcher." If the reboot disappoints both old fans and new players with elevated expectations, there will not be a next time.