Nintendo’s “first” NES game, Baseball feels sadly simplistic compared to modern takes on the sport. Top-tier stuff back in ’83, though!
Japanese title: ベースボール • Baseball
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-BA-USA]
Japanese release date: Dec. 1983 [HVC-BA-JPN]
European release date: 1991 [NES-BA]
Genre: Sports (Baseball)
Alternate versions: Vs. Baseball [Arcade, 1984]; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1986]; Baseball [Game Boy, 1989] Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [Game Boy Advance/eReader, 2002]; Virtual Console [Wii/3DS/Wii U, 2007/2011/2013]
And here it begins. If Nintendo’s Baseball seems unbearably simplistic in this day and age, keep in mind that it’s the product of an era in which you could simply name a video game for the sport it was based on. December 1983, when Baseball debuted for the Family Computer console (the Japanese version of the NES), was a simpler time, and Baseball is resultantly a simpler take on America’s favorite pastime than anything you’ll see in this day and age.
The sport of baseball has long been one of Japan’s favorite pastimes, too, which probably accounts for why Nintendo’s Baseball appeared in the first wave of Famicom’s post-launch releases. Not only was it the first sports title produced for the console, it was the first fully original creation for the system to leave Japan. The Famicom’s launch titles consisted entirely of arcade ports, followed by conversions of Nintendo’s early board-game arcade adaptations, and even Baseball’s fellow December 1983 release in Japan (Donkey Kong Jr. Math) was built on the framework and visuals of an existing title. This, then, was a landmark creation: The first project designed from the ground up for the console. As such, we can probably forgive it its primitive nature. Nintendo was still learning the ropes of its new platform, coming to terms with the capabilities and limitations of a machine designed first and foremost to play a mean game of Donkey Kong.
Baseball also deserves to be judged within the context of its times… though, as will be the case with most NES launch titles, that context changes considerably between Japan and America. In December 1983, this was about as good as baseball video simulations got. By October 1985, the rest of the industry had caught up and surpassed this creation.
One of the more famous ads of the original console wars featured political pundit George Plimpton showing off the difference between baseball games on Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision. Nintendo’s Baseball arrived in Japan about a year after that ad, and it left efforts for both of the other consoles in the dust. The NES featured far more detailed visuals, better animation, and more involving gameplay than any of its console predecessors. It also offered a crucial insight into what would help set the NES apart from other consoles. Where Plimpton gushed about Intellivision’s “lifelike” graphics, Nintendo sidestepped realism and went for cartoonishness. Atari and Mattel’s interpretations of baseball involved properly proportioned stick men rushing about the diamond, but the NES game went instead with chubby little cartoon guys.
The artistic choice worked. Nintendo Baseball wasn’t a realistic take on the sport, but the whimsy of its player sprites complemented the rudimentary nature of the game itself. This wasn’t some serious team sports management sim but rather a basic, pick-up-and-play creation that anyone could enjoy. Time and again, NES developers would favor personality and abstraction over authenticity. It’s easy to write this off as a Japanese thing, but you’d find far more realistic ball games on Japanese consoles from Sega and NEC, whereas on NES and Famicom Namco’s goofy-looking Family Stadium series fared every bit as well as Jaleco’s highly grounded Bases Loaded franchise. Nintendo had made its name with the cartoon melodrama of Donkey Kong, and Baseball continued in that same vein. Here at the very beginning, Nintendo helped set the tone for first- and third-party NES and Famicom games by fielding a bunch of pudgy runts.
Baseball plays simplistically because that’s all any baseball game did in 1983. With only 16K of space to work with, there wasn’t really an opportunity to go all-in with sim or management concepts. Not to say sims were impossible—SSI’s Computer Baseball for Commodore 64 was a genuine (and highly infuential) management sim that launched around the same time, but that’s all it was: A text-based simulation. With early ‘80s tech, it was all in, one or the other. You could either be a management simulation or a simulation of the action that transpired around the diamond, but not both.
So, Nintendo (like Atari and Mattel before them) boiled the sport down to pitching, hitting, and fielding. A two-player alternating mode allowed two people to take turns fielding and hitting. It’s all fairly mundane, though the little details help sell it. For example, the scaling effect on a pop fly is a simple but helpful little trick that would be duplicated in other NES sports titles like Tennis and Golf, lending a tiny touch of depth to an otherwise rote rendition of sport: A convincing illusion of legitimate physics in a fantasy work, which would reach its ultimate expression with Mario’s “realistic” skidding animation as he leaned into inertia while reversing off a 20-meter leap in Super Mario Bros.
And there were plenty of other details as well. Before each wind-up, a Baseball pitcher would nod and glance at the bases, and fielders would catch balls with animations appropriate to the ball’s relative position to their bodies. Little details like this made Nintendo’s creation, by far, the most impressive-looking take on the sport ever published in 1983.
But again, Baseball didn’t appear in the U.S. until almost two years after its Japanese debut. Two years in video games back in those days was a pretty significant fraction of the medium’s total history, and Baseball’s age definitely showed when it launched for NES in October 1985. Even so, it nevertheless stood as the finest baseball game ever released on an American console in 1985… but that was really only because the console market had been dead here since around the time Famicom launched in Japan. That entire area of the medium stood stock-still until the NES debuted.
In arcades, however, it was a different story. Baseball games had come a long way since the days of primitive stick-men, and 1985 saw a number of more advanced titles make their way into arcades. By the time Baseball hit NES, it was up against impressive creations like Intellivision’s World Series Baseball, Accolade’s Hardball!, and Cinematronics’ World Series: The Season—all games that in various ways offered a more sophisticated take on the sport than Nintendo’s creation.
That’s no real fault of the NES’s, or of Nintendo’s; the American console launch suffered a significant delay for entirely practical and unavoidable reasons. But already here at the very beginning, we can see a difference in how the NES and Famicom were initially presented and perceived by their respective markets. The Famicom offered an essentially arcade-caliber experience at home in those early days. Two years later, however, arcade boards had grown by leaps and bounds, and the NES—while still the best-looking console to date—couldn’t quite compete with arcade hardware. Nevertheless, Baseball managed to be a perfectly entertaining take on the sport, and its dual infield/outfield format would be slavishly imitated by countless NES baseball titles like Family Stadium/RBI Baseball and Major League Baseball by Atlus and LJN.
NES Baseball boiled the sport down to its essence, and in deference to the complexity of the sport and the limitations of the controller, it automated significant portions of the game. A hit by the opposing team would send the player’s fielders scrambling; your only direct control over defense came in choosing when and where to throw the ball. Essentially, Baseball reduced down to a pitcher-batter duel. You had full control over a pitch, with the D-pad allowing you to deliver a slow, medium, or fast ball as far inside or outside as you liked. You could even twist the ball’s path in mid-air to a certain degree. As offense, you could shift around in the batter’s box, swing, and attempt to steal bases. Again, everything else was automated, so playing really amounted to pressing inputs at key moments.
Despite its hands-off simplicity, Baseball’s presentation went a long way toward selling it. It helped, too, that the game was fairly well-balanced for a single-player experience—the CPU was neither wildly more capable than the player nor completely imbecilic. Unlike in many other sports games, including Baseball’s own Game Boy conversion, you didn’t have to play against another person in order to have a decent time.
Baseball certainly had its quirks. The tilted perspective of the field meant that distances became distorted the further into the field you moved from the camera, so that while infielders dashed from place to place, outfielders would scramble hilariously in place to simulate relative distance… despite the fact that the players themselves didn’t change scale as they moved away from the camera.
Nintendo has published Baseball across a variety of formats over the years. Besides the sluggish and actively unenjoyable Game Boy conversion, it also saw a port to Famicom Disk System with no significant changes, a pay-to-play modification for the PlayChoice 10 arcade system, and a standalone arcade version called VS. Baseball which added in a few little tweaks like voice samples for umpire calls. Baseball was notably one of the few early NES cartridges to receive a localization for NES. Most “Black Box” games at launch were simply the Famicom ROM with a pin adapter inside the cart to allow NES compatibility, but Baseball in the U.S. had some minor but distinct differences from the Japanese game that required reprogramming and a separate ROM board.
For starters, it featured localized text. The Japanese game used a small amount of kanji and katakana in its heads-up display, while the U.S. version used English only. Similarly, the U.S. version dropped the metric system in favor of feet and miles per hour. It also switched up the teams and colors slightly. American baseball fans will recognize the game’s colors as abstracted yet obvious renditions of MLB teams with single letters for names—C dressed in powder blue and red is clearly meant to be the Cardinals, Y in white and black the Yankees, and so forth—and these differ ever so slightly from the Japanese game, which uses the same treatment for Central League teams including the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants. There’s absolutely no difference between the teams, however. Colors aside, they’re completely identical.
Baseball is more significant as a historical curio than as something you’d want to play today, but it was a key title for Nintendo—a game with international appeal, and a solid proof of concept for the hardware by virtue of focusing on a sport that a dozen other developers had grappled with before the Famicom arrived. It’s simple, but this was killer-app status for the system. Unsurprisingly, Nintendo has dredged it up repeatedly through the years. Not only is it on every version of Virtual Console, it also appeared as a bonus game in Animal Crossing and even as a title for the eCard system. A mostly deprecated but nevertheless pivotal moment in video game history.