We all know about the 1980s. Even if we’re too young to remember them, there are countless Cracked and Buzzfeed lists flooding the periphery of our daily internet consumption to remind us of hair metal, Top Gun, and men wearing acid washed jeans. Like every semi-recent era of human history throughout human history, the 1980s are simultaneously reviled and embraced throughout pop culture.
The first game I have chosen to examine for my ambitiously dumb project of reviewing old sports games is R.B.I. Baseball, released in early 1988 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. R.B.I. Baseball, which was essentially a re-worked and Americanized version of the Japanese Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium, was a revelation in baseball video games. It was the first console game to feature the names of real MLB players. And unlike the prior effort on the NES, titled simply Baseball, R.B.I. was actually playable and enjoyable. I don’t intend to focus on games as well-known as R.B.I. Baseball in the future, but I wanted to start with something familiar.
Just like we all know the 1980s, we have all heard or read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet “Ozymandias.” Perhaps it was forced upon you in high school English class, as your first introduction to romantic poetry beyond the creepy-in-retrospect couplet you passed to your freshman lab partner on the day you dissected a frog. Perhaps you clicked on the wrong link of the Watchmen wikia and accidentally read something that wasn’t illustrated. Or maybe you’re just really hyped about the last season of Breaking Bad.
“Ozymandias” tells of a fallen statue in a ruined land, erected by a tyrant who boasted that his material power would last forever. It didn’t, and the monument to his reign ended up as broken as his kingdom. Some believe that Ozymandias is based off of Ramesses II, who had no way of knowing any better, since he ruled a thousand years before the discovery of irony by Qin Shi Huang in 210 B.C.
While the kingdom of Ozymandias does not survive, the intent of the sculptor who created the statue lives on. The tyrant is remembered by the artist who portrayed him, with “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” What was commissioned as a monument was, in fact, a mockery of the tyrant. He could not see it, because the flaws it portrayed were the truth. Now, only the critique live on, while the statue has fallen to ruin along with the kingdom.
R.B.I. Baseball is, on the surface, a monument to the conservative movement that swept the United States in the 1980s. But like the statute of Ozymandias, it speaks truth to power and reveals the flaws of an ideology that were beginning to emerge in the late years of the decade when the game was released.
The conservative victory in America during the 80s didn’t originate in America (or in the 80s, for that matter). It was adapted from a successful product released overseas in the prior year. Margaret Thatcher, who rose to power leading to her election to Prime Minister in 1979, was the Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium to the R.B.I. Baseball that was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was elected in 1980, promising a new start for a country stuck in economic and geopolitical turmoil. A former actor, Reagan was charismatic and charming. He endeared himself to America, and in the process ushered in an era of deregulation, increased hostility to the Soviet Union, and the rollback of social programs that continues to this day. He was known as The Gipper, probably because during his later years he was known to interject in cabinet meetings with a frantic yelp that sounded like “Gip!” to the untrained ear.
The dream of Reagan’s reforms can be seen at every level in R.B.I. Baseball, starting with the very circumstances of its release. Reagan loved deregulation more than Jack Zduriencik loves baseball players who can nominally play a position but are probably career DHs. Nintendo, however, was a different story. Nintendo tightly regulated releases on its NES system. Using a lockout chip, which required all NES games to go through an approval process it limited the number of games any publisher could release in a given year, and forced them into restrictive licenses.
Tengen, the manufacturer of R.B.I. Baseball, opted, Reagan-like, to pursue deregulation of the NES. It acquiesced at first, licensing a number of games (including the first run of R.B.I. Baseball) through proper channels. But once they had their hands on the NES lockout chip, they reverse engineered it and began releasing unlicensed games. That’s why, if you owned a copy of R.B.I. Baseball, it probably looked like this:
But the release history of R.B.I. Baseball wasn’t the only way in which the game reveled in the reforms of the Reagan era. It strove to exemplify everything that the conservative movement achieved. Baseball has always been a particularly individualistic sport–which is why player stats are so important. But R.B.I. Baseball, like Ronald Reagan during his early years as a Cold War crusader, sought out all collectivism in baseball and stripped it from the batter vs. pitcher bones.
Fielding wasn’t rated, and was stripped down to a matter of only controlling the player closest to the ball. It was by far the least important part of the game, which focused intently on the batter/pitcher matchup. This was only exaggerated by the simplification of the pitching mechanics. Since the NES controller had only two buttons–and one of them had to be used for pick-offs–the game “simulated” pitch movement by allowing the player to control the ball once it left the hand of the pitcher.
As such, it turned pitchers into ubermenschen, capable of abnormal and divine feats, violating the laws of physics. It tore them down as human beings and recreated them as demigods with talents that could not be earned, only given from on high. As such, R.B.I. Baseball portrays baseball as less of a team sport and more of a clash of idols.
On top of this, R.B.I. Baseball doesn’t feature every team in the league. Only Boston, California, Detroit, Houston, New York (NL), St. Louis, Minnesota, and San Francisco are available, along with AL and NL All-Star teams. The eight teams represented in the game are the playoff teams from 1986-1987, an example of the social darwinism endemic to the title. Only winners are allowed to exist. Everyone else was just the crud Michael Douglas scraped off the bottom of his shoe and fed to Charlie Sheen in my Wall Street follow-up that was apparently “too weird” for fanfiction.net.
Speaking of Wall Street, every single player in R.B.I. Baseball is white. Color has been purged from the league. Baseball is restored to an era in which anyone who didn’t pass a paper bag test was relegated to a different league that was much more awesome because it had Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Sure, African-American players are in the game, but they’ve been whitewashed more than the cast of a high budget Hollywood adaptation.
So at this point, R.B.I. Baseball must seem like just another product of the conservative zeitgeist, like Red Dawn, Dallas, and the McRib. As I alluded before, it’s not that simple. As described in “Ozymandias” a work can both immortalize and critique the same subject matter. R.B.I. Baseball was such a work.
To understand how R.B.I. Baseball is subversive of its subject material, one must understand that R.B.I. is a remarkably prescient game. It was released in 1988, at the tail end of an era of baseball in which speed and contact ruled the day, and yet HR was clearly the most important rating given to players within the game and listed in the manual.
Power rules all. Speed merely functions on the basepaths, and has little to do with success at the plate. Contact rating, oddly enough, only modifies power in certain circumstances (See here for the best explanation I could find).
With this in mind, everything about R.B.I. Baseball falls into place. It is not meant to be viewed by its contemporaries, but by those who come later and understand the chaos wrought by the values it satirically promotes.
RBIs are now known to be a terrible stat for measuring individual players. They are incredibly team dependent, which runs counter to everything R.B.I. Baseball stands for. RBIs are known to be basically useless, outside of a needless desire to conform to tradition. The use of RBI in the title is a signpost to intelligent fans–remember, Bill James had been publishing his Baseball Abstract over ten years in 1988–that while the game might be fun, its philosophy is not to be taken seriously.
The strange Tengen cartridges pictured earlier are another example of how R.B.I. Baseball speaks out of both sides of its mouth. On one hand, it is emblematic of the deregulation of the era. Nintendo’s centralized licensing economy was bested by the invisible hand of the free market. But the truth is far darker than such Randian fantasies. Tengen agreed to work under Nintendo’s license, then used that opportunity to steal the design for the lock-out chip. R.B.I., published both under the original licensing deal and later with Tengen’s illegitimate chip, stands for the proposition that deregulation is accomplished through theft.
Every element of R.B.I. Baseball is laced with such subtle irony. The criteria for inclusion as a team–making the playoffs in 1986 or 1987–excludes the New York Yankees. Can you imagine a game released today that didn’t feature the New York Yankees? Granted, the 1980s were hardly the pinnacle of the Yankee era, but they were still the team of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, and so many championships that people occasionally had to take George Steinbrenner seriously.
As I noted before, the hitting ratings rely heavily on power, and far less on speed or contact. In the years since the game’s release, and the advent of ROM hacking, people have broken open the RBI rating system to reveal the full picture of the ratings system. All credit to the excellent Nightwulf R.B.I. Editor on this one:
As you see, contact is represented by a two digit number in the late teens or early twenties. Speed numbers are three digits, and there is only apparently a difference of 122-148 between Jack Clark, who once lost a foot race to the Stan Musial Statue in front of Busch, and Vince Coleman, who shot a man in Reno just to see if he could sprint to Vegas before he hit the ground. Power, on the other hand, is rated in the 700s and 800s. Baseball’s traditional scouting scale, from 20-80, is strange enough. This is just madness. Like the voodoo economics of the 80s, it seemed make everything work at the time but once we had some perspective, it was just throwing increasingly large numbers at a television screen and yelling loud enough that no one noticed when they didn’t add up.
R.B.I. Baseball is ultimately a paper tiger, and not the good kind like the life-sized cardboard cutout of Miguel Cabrera I use to scare away burglars and people who want to talk to me about advanced fielding statistics. This is not a criticism of the game. It was designed to be shallow, simple, and propped up by math that not only fails to check out but can’t even make it to the express lane without having a seizure. It is a monument to the policies of its era, and yet also a scathing critique of their values.
My name is the Tax Reform Act of 1986, quoin of coins.
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and default.