[Games of Summer is a recurring seasonal retrospective highlighting those magical titles that evoke wondrous thoughts of warm weather, carefree days, and discovery. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on said titles and analyze why they meant so much to us then--and just as much now.]
For baseball fans, warm summer days are inevitably tied to bats, caps, balls, gloves, and larger than life heroes, the five elements that compose the great American pastime. Gen X baseball fans have a particularly unique connection with the sport that spans beyond idols such as The Rocket, Donny Baseball, The Bash Bros., Pudge and The Kid; we were the first generation to grow up with relatively realistic depictions of the sport in video game form.
Baseball has seen many electronic conversions in the video games industry’s roughly 40 year existence, but few have impacted console gaming as SNK’s Baseball Stars. To properly judge Baseball Stars’ importance, one must analyze the console sports video gaming landscape in 1989, the game’s release year. Atari, NES, and Master System gamers didn’t have the likes of Accolade’s Hardball (1985), which found incredible success in the computer market. Instead, we suffered Nintendo’s clunky Baseball (1985), the fondly-remembered-for-no-reason-other-than-its-license R.B.I. Baseball (1987), and the LJN-published Major League Baseball (1988). Only Jaleco’s Bases Loaded (1987), with its broadcast TV-style presentation and excellent pitching-batting dynamic, came close to delivering a truly excellent video game baseball experience.
Prior to 1989, SNK was best known for its Ikari Warriors franchise and thematically related one-offs like Guerilla War and Iron Tank. Digital warfare was SNK’s bread and butter, so when Baseball Stars appeared on the NES — a console featuring tight baseball game competition — none suspected that it would define that console generation’s take on the sport. Would it feature missiles? Landmines, perhaps? No. Baseball Simulator 1.000 and Super Baseball 2020 would deftly handle such gimmickry. SNK’s initial baseball offering would succeed by using small, more realistic details.
Baseball Stars, on the surface, is a seemingly humble game that lacked R.B.I Baseball’s MBLPA license and Bad News Baseball’s cinematic flair (and bunny umps, which we kids of that era oddly didn’t question). Instead, Baseball Stars relies on groundbreaking play mechanics and team building that places it on the Mount Rushmore of sports video games along side to the Madden franchise, NBA Jam, NFL 2K5, and Tecmo Super Bowl.
Baseball Stars features battery backup so gamers can save their league win-loss records, trades, and created players and teams–a first for a NES sports title. This player and team creation is a significant reason Baseball Stars is still revered by retro gamers to this day: it put players in the role of GM/owner. I’m certain that Steinbrenner didn’t spend late nights huddled together with his best friends haggling trades and arguing over who would be next to level up their teams during sleep overs.
Winning contests in league mode nets you money (you earn huge amounts playing ball clubs with high prestige ratings like the Lovely Ladies) which is used to increase the skill set of existing athletes or hire free agents. Acquiring new players with cash meant that you purchased a pre-fab talent — Rookie, Veteran, and All-Star — of different cash value, or whipped one up from scratch. SNK, in an incredible display of positive gender roles, includes an all-female team (the aforementioned Lovely Ladies), and let gamers create female players. Unfortunately, they cry when beaned whereas their male counterparts simply take the ball to the body and trot to first. This create-a-player feature would eventually become a sports video game staple.
Fielding was a revolution, too. In fact, Baseball Stars remains the rare 8-bit sports game that doesn’t feel stilted and stiff 20 years after its release. Defense, should your players be of average to above average rank, is unbelievably fluid. Leaping, diving, turning DPs, and gunning out runners produces This Week In Baseball-worthy plays. The game even drifts off-screen fielders toward fly balls, which prevents the blind stabbing in the dark that sometimes appears in 8-bit baseball titles.
The team rosters give Baseball Stars a special charm. The Ghastly Monsters, which includes the likes of Freddy and Jason, let us play as the slasher film icons that our parents despised in a game that was better than either character’s licensed LJN atrocities. The World Heroes put you in control of the history’s greatest leaders. The Ninja Blacksox…..let you field ninjas. Nuff said.
All of this greatness comes packed in a sports game featuring just 8 default teams and zero official league license — it would be doomed to bargains weeks after its release if it appeared in 2012. But Baseball Stars and its ilk had a chance to flourish back in 1989. It’s been 23 years since I’d first played Baseball Stars, but the game still holds a small place in my heart. It’s the lone game that I will unbox my NES to play, and whenever the old neighborhood crew finds time in our busy schedules to get together, we fire up Baseball Stars, and relive the nostalgic joys of summer, while clinging a bit to our sunny days of youth.