While it’s one of the big four sports, baseball fans have gotten a pretty raw deal when it comes to video games. For the last three years, there hasn’t been a triple-A multi-platform baseball game. Since 2K let their MLB license expire, the only triple-A baseball game has been Sony’s MLB: The Show series. Over the last couple of years, Major League Baseball has taken it upon themselves to try to fill the gap in the market by publishing their own multi-platform baseball game with a revival of the classic baseball franchise RBI Baseball.
While it’s a new game, MLB’s RBI Baseball games are very much rooted in the classic mechanics of the original RBI Baseball games. That means that everything can be handled by only a few buttons because the original game was developed for the NES which had two buttons. No, you aren’t limited to two buttons because you can use the shoulder buttons to advance/return all runners or throw to the cutoff man or use more than one face button to throw to a base (rather than pushing X and a direction with the analog stick).
Because the gameplay design of RBI Baseball 16 is straight from the 8-bit era, it’s very easy to pick up and play. Push X to pitch and use the analog stick to make the ball dance on its way to the plate. Press X to swing and use the analog stick to put a little English on the ball (it’s mostly down to timing, though). Press X to throw the ball and use the analog stick to aim it towards a base. As I mentioned, you will occasionally need more than one button but it’s really a baseball game designed for everyone.
If there’s one complaint that I have about modern sports games, it’s that they’ve gotten way too complex. I used to play sports games all the time in my teens, including hopping across to America to buy EA Sports’ MVP Baseball series, but trying to pick them up now is impossible. The likes of the NHL and Madden franchises have found a way to be about as complex as StarCraft without scaring people away. RBI Baseball is the exact opposite where you can explain it to someone and have them reasonably competent in something like 30 seconds. The other plus is that you can get through a full nine-inning game in about 20 minutes.
There is a downside to oversimplifying the game, especially when it comes to pitching. Hitting is simple enough but you do notice a little difference between batting as a power hitter like Miguel Cabrera and batting as Jose Iglesias. You also notice that it’s easier to turn a double play on guys like Cabrera and Prince Fielder than some of the faster guys in the bigs. Pitching, however, doesn’t really seem too differentiated. Some guys have more velocity than others but it’s the same pitches (normal, fastball, curveball, breaking ball to either side of the plate) for everyone. It’s not like you can play as Verlander and watch his velocity inexplicably go up as the game goes on or play as R.A. Dickey and confound hitters with a knuckleball (when the dome is open… why you’d sign a knuckleballer in a stadium with no air movement, I’ll never know).
In terms of game modes, there isn’t much outside of the basics. You can play single games, a single season, the playoffs and multiplayer single games. It’s the necessary selection of games for a budget arcade title but you’re not going to be able to play as a GM or a superstar if that’s what you really want. Those MLB experiences are limited to MLB: The Show, exclusive to the PS4, or Out of the Park Baseball (think Football Manager for baseball).
You can certainly spot the budget nature of the game in the presentation. While the stats and score graphics look pretty professional, the rest of the game looks last-gen at best. The stadia actually look very good and similar to their real-world counterpart. They’re far from photorealistic but are better than adequate. The players, though, all share the same model. To use the earlier examples, apart from skin colour and facial hair, big old Prince Fielder looks exactly the same as defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias. If this game had legendary players, Babe Ruth would look nearly identical to Randy Johnson. The game shortchanged the audio department more. There are a couple of sports jingles and organ songs but you’ve heard the entire audio lineup within 10 minutes of a 20-minute game. Okay, you might not hear infield fly called.
I will give MLBAM some credit, though. While the game looks like a carbon copy of RBI Baseball 15, the underpinnings are a lot better. The defense has been improved. Fielders can now jump and dive in order to make plays. You don’t have any control over them doing that but I’ve never noticed a situation where it’s done or not done in a way to screw you over. Also, fielding AI has been improved from RBI 15. In last year’s game, fielders would occasionally have complete brain fade such as holding onto the ball forever or one instance where three fielders stood around a ball in centerfield while Victor Martinez hobbled around for an inside-the-park home run (I’d score it a single with a three-base error). I’ve not noticed any major problems with the AI apart from leaning on pitchers for a bit too long.
RBI Baseball 16 is an interesting game to wrap your head around. It does just enough to be a competent game but MLBAM never pushes the game beyond the bare minimum. You could make the argument that it’s an update or homage to the likes of classic RBI Baseball but gaming has evolved beyond that. On mobile, this would probably be a 10/10 game. The problem is that this is a modern console game in a market where $20 goes a lot farther than it did even two years ago when MLBAM got into the game publishing business.
The perfect example of this is Super Mega Baseball. It’s also a $20 baseball game but it doesn’t have the MLB license so it’s a little more arcadey. A more arcade-like game isn’t a bad thing, though. The controls aren’t quite as simple as RBI’s (there are power pitching/swinging buttons, manual controls for diving/jumping when fielding, and a unique pitch aiming/effectiveness mechanic, among many other mechanics) but it’s much more fun to play. It’s a 7 or 8 out of ten game because it’s fun and rewarding to play because there is some depth to the mechanics but not so much to scare you away from playing it.
In the end, RBI Baseball 16 is really just about swinging a stick and throwing a ball. There’s little more to the game than that. It’s a shame because I really like baseball and those who love the game can see so much more happening in a game than what you see on TV. That same depth isn’t here in RBI Baseball.
RBI Baseball 16 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 but is also available for Xbox One, PC, iOS and Android. Review code of this game was provided by Major League Baseball Advanced Media. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on and what you’re looking for from your budget baseball experience.