What drives people to plug in their classic console to play an old game? They're fun, sure, but so are modern games that don't require unearthing a component cable and an N64 rumble pack. Clearly, there's something more that makes titles like Mario Kart timeless. But can that appeal be reverse engineered?
That's the question Major League Baseball asks with their reboot of the RBI Baseball franchise, RBI Baseball 14, which comes out on Wednesday, April 9 for XBox 360 (digital download), PlayStation 3 (digital download), and iOS. The game, which aspires to combine the gameplay of the classic title with modern aesthetics, is clearly not designed to compete with EA. Its rivals more resemble the aforementioned titles gamers dust off from time to time to scratch the nostalgic itch -- NFL Blitz, Super Smash Brothers, etc.
What RBI 14 hopes to have in common with those games -- what makes them timeless -- is layers. Like the most enduring N64 titles, RBI 14 tries to look simple and inviting, while providing enough hidden detail to allow experts to thrive.
Take, for instance, pitching. Like most old school baseball games, pitches can be thrown at three speeds (slow, medium, and fast) and curved on their way to the plate. Unlike the old games, the entirety of MLB's hyper-specific PITCHf/x data informs each individual pitcher's ability to throw those speeds, bend the ball, or even pitch deep into the game.
The "drop pitch," traditionally the most devastating move in the arcade-style baseball games, even behaves according to MLB's data -- specifically, how well the pitcher can control off-speed offerings. To hear Jamie Leece, MLB's Vice President of games, describe the mechanics of the drop pitch, it's just one of many facets of the title in which hyper-specific baseball knowledge combines with game theory to offer an experienced player an edge.
"I think it adds an element of the game, where, if you're watching the pitch really well, you get a sense of what's coming," Leece said. "And if you understand who the pitchers are, you get a sense of the tendencies. And it just creates a very deep game experience that's there for people who want it."
"Who want it" is the operative phrase here. It's a breezy, fun game for the casual player. But the game was designed to develop those entrenched, one-on-one rivalries between friends. It's a game that rewards practice both in very literal ways -- completing difficult challenges unlocks retro jerseys in the season mode -- and in the gameplay itself.
I played Leece in the game at Major League Baseball Advanced Media headquarters where we followed house rules: teams are picked at random, with one do-over allowed if you don't like the first random team. With each game taking typically less than 20 minutes to complete, it's easy to understand how these kinds of customs take hold. And the skill aspect is real -- he won while going easy on me.
The game looks good on iOS, but without online multiplayer for any of its versions, the title will likely live or die as a two-player, in-person console game. RBI Baseball 14 attempts to offer a more polished version of the experience gamers already got from plugging in their old console...all without plugging in their old console.
As someone who worked to master the "Wii Baseball" portion of Wii Sports with my friends for a year after it came out, I can understand the appeal of a similar game with MLB's under-the-hood stats and licensing added. Whether that translates to a larger audience will depend largely on why people play old games -- purely for the nostalgia or for something the new titles are missing? RBI Baseball 14 tries for a little of both. Correction: An earlier version of this post claimed RBI 14 can be played in a multiplayer mode against nearby iOS devices. It cannot.