The neighborhood kids couldn't understand what I was doing. I was not crazy. I swore to them I was not crazy. Though I suppose I understand why they believed otherwise. A grown man kneeling in front of a 28-year-old video game console blowing furiously into it and then doing the same to a poor cartridge does not exactly inspire notions of sanity.
I wanted to show them one game. It sat on top of a stack. Beneath it was R.C. Pro-Am, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, Super Mario Bros. 3 and the original Super Mario Bros. All of those were wonderful in their own way, and maybe we could play them some other time. Not before the one on top, though. And anyway, we needed to make sure the Nintendo still worked.
Somehow, my original Nintendo Entertainment System, the old warhorse whose virgin run with Mario made me the happiest 6-year-old in the world, continues to function. She survived six moves and a fall from atop my dresser during a giddy celebration for crossing the elusive million-point barrier in Mario 3. I had a disposable camera in the room to capture the moment for posterity. That one stung.
To get her up and running takes only lung power and know-how. Every Nintendo user long ago patented a way of blowing on the cartridge – I hone in on the upper half, then focus lower, which limits the spittle – and jimmying it into the console just the right way. To the five kids in my office, ages 6 to 13, who grew up easing discs into PlayStations and Xboxes and Wiis, this was antediluvian. Never have I felt so old. Nor, when I depressed the power button and the on light finally stopped flashing and emanated a steady red glow, so young.
The opening screen flashed. The graphics were crude. The music started. The rush returned. RBI Baseball. How I will forever love you.
Inside Major League Baseball Advanced Media's spacious New York City office, a man named Jamie Leece walks through a door in a conference room. He's a little worn down. Taking an all-time-classic video game and resuscitating the franchise amid huge expectations from hardcore enthusiasts and internal pressures for it to secure an audience far less enraptured by baseball than a generation ago tends to wear on a man.
RBI Baseball '14 comes out Wednesday. It costs $19.99 to download on PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 and $4.99 on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Xbox One, PS4 and Android versions arrive later this spring. It is the first game developed by MLBAM, the parent company of MLB.com that has mushroomed into a giant technology firm. Leece was hired to run BAM's gaming division, and he proposed for his first game the ultimate challenge: taking something as perfect as RBI Baseball – and you dare not blaspheme otherwise – and doing it proper.
"It excited me and frightened me at the same time," Leece said. "All the memories and expectations we have, it's intimidating. How do you do it right?"
I was there to find out if he had. Nobody outside of the developers, BAM higher-ups and those distributing the game had played it. All the world had seen was a handful of screen shots. My best friend from childhood, Jon, joined me. One time when I beat him in a basketball video game, he lifted me off his bed, carried me to his apartment door, threw me outside and locked it. For an hour. There are sore losers, and then there is Jon. He was the perfect person with whom to enjoy this.
Because the whole point of RBI is, as Leece puts it, "the couch experience." Sitting there with a friend and talking immense amounts of garbage. Its beauty wasn't just in its simplicity: the same-bodied players, the two-button functionality, the addictive music, the many, many quirks, most unintentional, all charming. It was the speed, and how you could rumble through a series of games in less than an hour. Baseball today struggles mightily with pace of game. RBI Baseball was like the sport on uppers.
The greatest challenge to RBI's revival are people like me. I can name every starting lineup, every pitcher and every pinch hitter from the original. I know batting averages, home runs and ERAs. I learned lineup optimization. I've spent way, way too much time on the Internet's greatest homage to RBI, dee-nee.com. I should be embarrassed how much I know about the game. On the contrary, I just wasted a paragraph bragging about it.
Leece knows this, and he says, with a great amount of confidence, that he and his 40-person team did enough to satisfy us snobs who believe there never has been a better all-around baseball player than RBI Tim Raines and still wonder in what universe Al Pedrique ever was an All-Star.
RBI '14 uses two buttons (with a third for bunting only). It's got three pitches: fast, normal and, depending on what you called it in the original, drop or curve or splitter. Completely infuriating errors pop up at the worst times. Pinch hitters get a little extra oomph in their swings. Pitchers tire easily. Each team has just 16 guys. On occasion, you accidentally throw to the wrong base. At its heart, and in its soul, it's RBI Baseball. Just with a facelift.
All 30 teams exist, plus both All-Star teams, and a question-mark button to choose randomly. The graphics are modern. Not every player is a short, fat guy who looks like Tony Gwynn or Kirby Puckett. The fielders don't all move in the same direction, meaning bunt home runs will not happen. Hard shots down the line will not get stuck in the stands for automatic homers. Fielders dive and go over the fence to rob home runs. And the music from the original – the soundtrack to my youth that my father recently confessed drove him so nuts he often left the house to escape it – is only a snippet on the home screen. Stupid copyright law.
The details were all well and good, but the Xbox sat at the back of the room, a temptress in a black dress, with a huge Sharp TV hanging on the wall above it. I waited for a lull in conversation to utter the words I'd held back all day. "OK," I spat. "Let's turn this on."
Aside from being the greatest thing in the world, fatherhood is awful. The important things in life like RBI Baseball take a back seat to health, literacy, manners and other such impositions.
I guess without sons I wouldn't have appreciated the 2011 World Series quite as much. In an Arlington, Texas, hotel room, Yahoo blog impresario Kevin Kaduk booted his computer and reached into a bag. Out of it he pulled a pair of old-school Nintendo controllers with USB plugs on the end. My mind sufficiently blown by such an ingenious invention, he further mollywhopped my sensibilities by launching a Nintendo emulator on his computer. Right there, in front of us, was a portable RBI Baseball game. No ferocious respiratory gusts. No finicky old machine. Glory, at hand.
For hours – I don't remember how long – we played. We ate Chick-Fil-A and knocked back a few and resurrected our rivalry from our days together in our early 20s working at the same newspaper in Kansas City, when he was the Frazier to my Ali. We grew up in the video-game generation, and we understand the sorts of bonds they forge.
Whenever somebody asks me about my favorite part of that World Series, I always say Game 6, maybe the best World Series game ever, the night of the impossible Cardinals comeback.
It's a lie. Nothing was better than beating Kaduk in our RBI World Series.
As Jon prepared to throw the first pitch of our RBI '14 duel, I turned on my audio recorder. I wanted to hear the sounds in the game's announcerless background, but more than that, I wanted to illustrate what playing RBI '14 is like through our words, because this game exists for people like me and Jon – friends old enough to appreciate nostalgia, young enough to retain competitive spirit and mean enough to tell the other one how badly he sucks.
Take, for example, the first home run I hit. I wanted to pinch hit for Kolten Wong, especially facing David Price, only the Cardinals' bench is meh. Wong, naturally, proceeded to hit a home run. During the ball's flight path, I started screaming at the screen: "Get out. Get out!" And when it got out, I emitted this maniacal, guttural, awful-movie-villain bilge: "Muahahahahah." Which I followed with: "You're really not good at this, are you?"
I met Jamie Leece about 30 minutes earlier. I knew Matt Gould, BAM's lead spokesman, but not really. And within minutes of playing, I didn't care that I was breaking social mores and acting like a complete ass. Great video games do that to you, and RBI '14 is great.
It's great for me, the 33-year-old, because it fills that perfect space between the childhood I long ago left behind and the adulthood in which maybe, just maybe, I can steal 20 minutes to play. My three games with Jon took a little longer because we know each other so well and could deduce when the other might throw a ball or strike, leading to deeper counts than usual. We were also learning the gameplay. Fly balls, like in the original, take time to master. The strike zone can frustrate. And nothing is worse than throwing to the wrong base, which Jon did twice to load the bases in our first game.
I was trailing 5-4. Matt Holliday was up. I took three straight balls. He had to throw a strike. I swung 3-0 and hit a rocket. Yunel Escobar dove to catch it and threw the ball to second base.
"NOOOOO!" I bellowed.
"NOOOOOOOOOO!" I protested, stretching it longer.
He laughed more.
"THAT DID NOT HAPPEN!" I yelled.
I don't know what he did next because I wasn't thinking rationally.
"THAT DID NOT HAPPEN!" I finished.
He won that game 5-4. I won the next 6-2. He won the final 3-2. He contends he beat me in the series. I say I beat him on run differential. He is correct. I will never again acknowledge this fact, certainly not the next time we see each other, nor the next time we play.
Which may be sooner than we thought. At the time, Leece said, RBI did not have definitive plans to include a multiplayer system in which you could play a friend online. That changed Tuesday. A source close to the game told Yahoo Sports that RBI '14 plans to offer a multiplayer option available via free download this summer. In addition will come updates with players like Masahiro Tanaka, who isn't in the game because he wasn't on a major league roster at the end of last season.
His attributes, like all the players', are derived from BAM's enormous compendium of data collected through its PITCHf/x system. Leece and his team culled the data to give each player the most accurate reflection of himself. Pitchers who go deeper into games in real life do so in RBI '14. The curveballs with the most break on the field will do the same on the pixelated field. When Jon won our first game in extra innings by stroking a 98-mph fastball from Trevor Rosenthal to the opposite field, I should've known better. Evan Longoria kills middle-out fastballs.
Following his victory, amid my sulking, he called up a co-worker and bragged: "Just took down Passan in the bottom of the 10th." I had nothing to say, except what I always said when I lose in RBI.
I never wanted to be one of those parents who plopped his kids in front of video games, but I made an exception for RBI. My favorite picture of my son and I is at our old house. He was 2, maybe 3 at the time, and I handed him a Nintendo controller, turned on RBI and told him to push buttons. There are toys everywhere and a mess of cartridges on the floor, and I'm on my knees, sitting up ramrod straight, at attention, because RBI is filling up every last pixel of a 50-inch HDTV, and damn if it wasn't pretty.
The most beautiful part of the photo, though, is of my son, staring likewise at the screen, holding the same controller I had two decades earlier. You can't see his face. I don't know if he was excited or perplexed. I don't really want to know. It's just us, me sharing this wonderful thing with him, and hoping maybe he sponges up a sliver of the pleasure I got from it.
The Nintendo sat dormant for a few years after that day, until the neighborhood kids came over. One of them saw the console and asked what it was. I said I would show them. I plugged in the old coaxial cable to the back of the TV, spent about five minutes huffing and puffing, and finally got it to work.
The kids laughed. Kennedy asked, "Why is everyone fat?" And Kyle asked, "How old is this?" And Caden just gave me a look that said: "This is the best video game ever, old man?"
Then they picked up the controller and within 10 minutes were hitting home runs and throwing splitters and lamenting errors. They dug it. They came back the next day wanting more. The original RBI is universal and indefatigable. It is impossible to dislike.
Its progeny is the same, which is particularly edifying. I'll download it this week, sit on the couch with my son and play a few games. I might even talk a little junk. Even if fatherhood turned me into a gaming old man, there are exemptions. This is RBI. Best he learn from dad.
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