I haven’t regularly played a baseball video game in years, and I haven’t truly enjoyed one in even longer. As much as I love baseball, as much as I love the intricacies of the game, I cannot stand realistic baseball games. The Show has always felt like I was playing in mud, and I don’t want to have to manage every aspect of the game just to feel the joy of hitting a home run or throwing a perfectly placed pitch.
To give you some perspective, the last baseball game I truly enjoyed — and still do to this day — was Ken Griffey Jr. Slugfest. There’s almost nothing to do in the game outside of the basics, but it’s how I like it. I’ll still occasionally hop on an emulator to fire up a franchise draft and keep resetting until I can draft Griffey with my first pick. It’s my life, I’ll live it how I want. But Slugfest was released 20 years ago; despite my best efforts in remaking the current day Indians with the Create A Player, it’s just not the same as getting to control Francisco Lindor.
That brings us to RBI Baseball 18, the follow up to supposed a trainwreck of a game that I didn’t go near, RBI Baseball 17. I can’t speak to last year’s iteration or the mobile games before (from what I can tell, the graphics are a huge update this year), but RBI Baseball 18 is just... fun. There’s very little management in or out of games, and what is there feels tacked on just to say “look we can do it too!” But the act of pitching and hitting in the game is so satisfyingly simple, that I can’t stop playing.
To date, roster updates have come pretty frequently as it keeps up with the comings and goings of spring training. Only the barebones modes are present: Exhibition, a 10-season franchise mode, Home Run Derby, Postseason, and an online mode which I’ve yet to actually match with anyone in. All of them are exactly what you’d expect, with no frills attached.
Playing baseball itself is a simple as can be. Batting is just timing your button press to barrel the ball, and instead of moving a target around the strikezone, you move your batter around the box to line up bat with ball, even while the pitch is coming at you. And it feels great.
Pitching is equally straightforward — press A (or X) to throw a pitch. Pull down on the joystick before pitching to throw a “fast pitch”, or pull up to throw a “slow pitch”. After the pitch, you can move the stick to add movement. Essentially, you can make your own pitches with those three simple instructions. Pull down and move a little to the side to make your own two-seamer. Throw a change-up in the dirt by pulling up to slow the pitch then moving the pitch down.
Another genius way RBI Baseball simplifies things is with its batting camera angle. It’s such that you don’t really worry about elevation when you’re lining up the ball. It’s almost top-down, so there is no worry about if you’re swinging too high or two low. You just need to make sure your barrel is lined up with the pitch as best you can. It’s simple, easy to pick up, and still satisfying to crush one to the bleachers.
The game matches quite a few batting stances, as far as I can tell, but it misses out on pre-stance rituals, like Jason Kipnis’ angled bat. Character models themselves are pretty hideous, and when the game shows you little cutscenes at the beginning of the game, they are often looking in random directions. I have no idea why. So if you’re looking for a deep, detail-orientated baseball experience, by all means play The Show. But that’s not for me.
Games like RBI Baseball are a mostly extinct breed; the arcade counterparts to the countless simulations games that came out before every sport had their one exclusive developer deal and nothing else. There’s no more Ken Griffey Jr. Slugfest, The Bigs, NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz, NBA Street. Nothing to target younger kids who might not fully grasp every in and out of a sport.
MLBAM, who took over development for RBI Baseball 18, specifically targeted that demo this time around. From a recent feature on Polygon about the internal development of the game:
“There wasn’t another option for baseball fans to try a different type of baseball game,” says Jamie Leece, vice president of gaming and VR for MLBAM. “If you go back to the original R.B.I. [Baseball], or you go back to NHL ’94, or even some of the early FIFAs, even PGA Tour back then, it was just simple, pure fun. And regardless of whether you had a video game background or familiarity with controls, you could play a sports game, and it was an equalizer.”
Undoubtedly, the best part for me is being able to play with my kids, who are both under six. While they each have watched games on TV, been to local independent league games, and even played t-ball, neither had a great grasp on the rules. RBI Baseball changed that.
The simple way that RBI uses pitching, for instance, helped my son understand why it’s important to mix up pitches. When he thought he was being sly by constantly throwing the ball to the outside, I’d push up against the plate and refuse to swing. Knowing he could move the ball, he stayed to the outside then made the pitch come in over the plate and I realized way too late that a pitch was coming over the plate instead of the usual foot-away heat that he’d been dealing. Essentially, he learned about the effectiveness of pitching tunneling without even knowing it in a super simple game of baseball. He didn’t have to press multiple buttons to pick a pitch, press that button again when a circle lines up with another circle and place it at the corner of the plate. He pressed a button, threw a pitch, and learned. He also naturally learned when to throw to what base when runners are on and he’s learned team names from flipping through to find “the red ones.”
To put it simply: If it was MLBAM’s goal to bring baseball to younger kids with an arcade game, they absolutely succeeded. It just so happens that it’s the perfect game for fans of fast-paced arcade sports games, too.
More than once the game has soft locked when a fielder gets the ball, stats don’t track between seasons, the AI frequently misses easy tags, character models are... let’s call them unattractive, and I’ll be damned if I figure out how to hit the cutoff man when throwing from the outfield, but none of that has stopped me from using RBI Baseball 18 as my go-to remedy for baseball withdrawals. You can bet I’ll be doing the same thing on off days during the season.