It's been a long time since I last played an RBI Baseball game. Indeed, it's almost 30 years - I played the first one on NES back in the mid to late 80's and haven't touched the series since then. But here I am decades later playing the 2015 version, and funnily enough, this year's edition really reminds me of that original game from all those years ago in terms of its simplicity and immediacy.
But before I get to the game proper, I should be up-front about my relationship with baseball. I have a very casual interest in the sport. I follow my local team, the San Francisco Giants on and off, with my engagement peaking at the end of the season when games tend to mean something more than the mid-season exercises in minor changes of the statistical points of all concerned.
My interest in baseball video games is similarly casual. I'm not so into the sport that I want the kind of in-depth craziness that MLB: The Show offers. But something quick, fast and fun I'll put time into - and in that respect RBI Baseball fits the bill. It's a baseball arcade game that eschews a lot of the depth and detail of the "proper" baseball sims and instead presents the sport as an accessible, easy-to-play series of pitches and hits that happen quickly enough for a full 9-innings game to be over in a matter of 15 minutes or sooner. Or even just a few minutes if one team runs away with the game and builds up a score larger than 10 runs, which brings into play the mercy rule and a premature end to the proceedings. And yes, that did happen to me. Twice.
Being an official Major League Baseball game, RBI Baseball 15 packs every official team and its associated 25-man roster, and enables players to update them through what will apparently be regular downloads. New to this year, the game tracks batting and pitching stats throughout a season, with viewable leaderboards so that players can see what's going on in the different leagues. Apparently, player characteristics and skill attributes are also incorporated into the game from MLBAM, although I can't attest to exactly how much effect this has on the action - it all seems pretty arcade simple to me.
The other thing that's new this year is that each team has its own modeled ballpark. I'm not sure how other stadia stand up to scrutiny, but I've been to the Giants' park a number of times, and I immediately recognized it. For what it's worth, it's quite a faithful rendition of the real thing.
In terms of gameplay, there's the choice of single-player, local multiplayer, or online play, season, post-season or exhibition games, and there are three levels of AI difficulty. I started on medium, but very quickly ran into trouble with teams trouncing me by a wide margin. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I'm a complete novice at baseball games, and once I switched to easy, I began to win games once I'd gotten the cadence of pitching and hitting.
The game enables you to just jump in and play with a default lineup, or if you want to be a little more thoughtful about your batting and pitching, you can modify your starting lineup. Pitching and batting is all fairly straightforward. You can move your pitcher and select the speed of your throw, and then use the d-pad to fine-adjust the ball's trajectory mid-flight by adding some aftertouch in the relevant direction. Battling is similarly simple, with the ability to reposition your player at will, and swings taking just a button press.
The action is quick, and pitches can happen in rapid succession. I did appreciate the game's focus on speed, and it certainly makes games go fairly quickly. The only thing that seemed to hold up the action was my super-skilled ability to hit foul balls. Until I got used to the speed and timing of pitches, I seemed to be hitting more than my fair share of them. Once I began to get used to the game, I felt like I had a little more control over things. However, the game isn't perfect, and does seem to throw some random elements into hitting in terms of the height of the hit. Ultimately, it feels fine for what it is - a simple arcade game - but it's not a perfect system.
Pitching can also sometimes feel a little hit-and-miss. Once I'd gotten more used to the game, I found I could effectively pitch with aftertouch and strike out most players. However, sometimes it seems like you just get knocked out of the park and there's little you can do about it. That said, I did find that I needed to change pitchers towards the end of a game to avoid losing to a late-run spree from the opposition.
Fielding is easy enough, and most of the time it works just fine. However, it did sometimes feel as though the wrong fielder was chasing the ball. You can quickly cycle between them to change control of a player, but sometimes they just don't seem to react fast enough and this can result in a bungled ball and a free run or two for the opposition. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it can look clumsy and make the AI feel like it needs tightening up somewhat. Which it probably does.
However, despite its flaws I did enjoy playing the game in a strange kind of way. It's not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. Graphically it's workmanlike and the sound is somewhat repetitive, but for a baseball novice like me who's happy to play something that feels very similar to the original RBI Baseball game from all those years ago, it's not bad. It's strangely relaxing, and when things do go right, it can really have its moments - like when I managed a bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam to win the game. I felt really good about that!
However, I think the more into baseball you are, the less interesting RBI Baseball 15 will probably be. It's so simplified, and too imperfect to appeal to anyone other than someone wanting a simple, casual experience that they can dip in and out of when the fancy takes them. Indeed, the sort of person who played the original RBI games and wants to relive the kind of simple, retro-style gameplay that they offered. Or indeed, a game they can play with their kids.
Basic graphics get the job done, but they don't feel particularly current generation. Also, night games feel very dingy.
Somewhat repetitive tunes, ditties and voiceovers accompany the action. Like the graphics, it's all very workmanlike.
Non-complex interface makes navigating the game easy enough. The game offers a limited, but sufficient set of gameplay options.
Online mode is where the real lasting appeal lies - assuming the action is engaging enough to keep you playing.
A retro-feeling throwback to the days of arcade baseball games. It offers simple, basic fun, but the pitching and hitting just doesn't feel robust enough to appeal to anyone other than the most casual of baseball fans.