Pre-game huddle: The Coin Toss series spotlights sports-related arcade games from years gone by, with the inclusion of personal experiences from The Ref. Get those tokens ready!
In the mid-1980s, a significant number of my summer weekends were often (unwillingly) spent at White Birch Campground in Whately, Massachusetts. The rec hall was where I spent most of my time when I was there; it was an escape from the bugs and it had a few arcade games inside. These arcade games made me forget for awhile that I was stuck in the woods for a weekend, and I can’t count how many times that I would offer to do chores around the campsite for my mother or her mom to earn quarters to play them. Missile Command, Battlezone, Galaga, and Mr. Do’s Castle were the highlights… but there was one sports-related arcade game, and it single-handedly sparked my interest in baseball video games.
It was Champion Baseball, developed by Alpha Denshi (who would later team up with SNK for such games as Magician Lord and World Heroes) and published by a company called SEGA. A quarter was all that was needed to start a game, and games lasted until an inning ended in which the computer was ahead. In theory, players could last for nine innings and win the game on one quarter… but, as anyone who has played arcade games knows, that was a pretty rare feat.
Before the game starts, the player must choose a team. Champion Baseball doesn’t have any licenses, but it does have 12 teams from cities that have Major League Baseball teams. The rosters seem to have some MLB players on them, but since only first names are used (such as “Jim” for Jim Rice and “Bob” for Bob Stanley on the Boston roster), there are no legal entanglements. (For the record, as a kid who grew up in Massachusetts, I always picked Boston.)
Players always begin Champion Baseball on offense at the start and then pitch the bottom of the inning to try and keep the computer from jumping ahead by pushing runs across. The batter’s view is interesting, as the pitcher/batter showdown takes place on the far left quarter of the screen. The pitcher is at the top and the batter is at the bottom. Batting is a pretty simple process; position the batter in the batter’s box, time and position swings to make the best contact, and grab extra bases when the opportunity arises after contact. Scoring some runs off of the computer in the top of the first inning can happen, but it’s equally possible to be held scoreless by the CPU. Pitchers will run their stuff on both sides of the plate and they seem to really like blazing a fastball running in towards the hitter and catching the inside corner for strikes, so crowding the plate as a batter is an ill-advised strategy.
The bottom of the inning switches the pitcher/batter view to the far right quarter of the screen. The pitcher is now at the bottom of the screen, delivering to the batter at the top. Fastballs are thrown by pressing the joystick up, while offspeed pitches can be thrown by holding down on the stick after delivery. Pitches can be steered left and right, so players can get plenty of movement on them. Corner-nibbling is a good strategy, as is changing speeds. Pitches left over the heart of the plate will often be crushed by the computer, so, y’know… don’t do that.
The problem with defense, as it is in Nintendo‘s Baseball game, is that the fielders are largely operated by the CPU. Sometimes they are in great position to make plays, and other times– mostly when the human player has the lead– fielders tend to forget how to play. If a ball gets over a fielder’s head, the fielder doesn’t exactly move quickly to get it. It’s still possible to gun advancing runners down, but players must remember to use the joystick to declare which base is being thrown to. Otherwise, runners can safe on erroneous throws to incorrect bases… and this almost always leads to runs scored for the CPU.
There’s also a bit of “Rubber band AI” in Champion Baseball, much like we will see in later arcade sports games such as NBA Jam and NFL Blitz. If the human player jumps out to a big lead, say 6-0 after a half an inning, don’t expect that lead to last. What would normally be fly outs wind up becoming bloop hits, even the slightest of pitch mistakes will be taken deep, and it seems to be almost too easy to throw to a wrong base. Before long, even after just half an inning, that 6-0 lead can be cut down to 6-5 or lost completely. I once had a 7-0 lead after two innings and thought I was in the clear… until the computer somehow came back with eight runs in the bottom of the inning and my game unceremoniously ended. It can be vicious.
As this is an arcade game, Champion Baseball does have a point-scoring system and its own leaderboard to shoot for logging your initials onto. Points are accumulated for many actions. Players get 10 points just for hitting the ball, and then there are points scored for touching first base, second, third, and home plate. On defense, strikes and outs score points for players. If you score a lot of runs, you’ll make the leaderboard for sure. Defensive contests aren’t as likely to rack up enough points to qualify.
In spite of Champion Baseball‘s flaws, it was a highly addictive game in its day. The prospect of playing nine innings (and getting more than one or two minutes out of one quarter) was alluring. The game was (and still is) very easy to play. For 1983, the graphics and sound were really quite good; the player models have decent detail on the pitcher/batter screen, and there’s some digitized speech for umpire calls to go with the game’s peppy music. Sure, it does sometimes feel like the CPU cheats, but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the feelings you get when you bring home a couple of runs on a base hit or take a huge lead on a three-run bomb to left center field.
While playing Champion Baseball for two summers, my personal interest in baseball rose. I started listening to Red Sox radio broadcasts and watching games on television. I learned many of the rules and began to understand and appreciate the game. It wasn’t until I got a Commodore 64 in the summer of 1986 and played a game called Hardball! that I began to pull back on spending so much money on this game.
Hardball! and my Commodore 64 would eventually give way in the 1990s to RBI Baseball and my NES, Super Bases Loaded and my SNES, World Series Baseball and my Genesis, and Triple Play Baseball and my PlayStation. While I appreciate the journey through baseball video games that I’ve enjoyed over the last 30 years… it started with Champion Baseball at this small campground in Whately, Massachusetts. That game– and that place will always have special places in my memories.
One last thing: If you’d like to try Champion Baseball for yourselves, you can, thanks to The Internet Arcade. It’s not a perfect replica of the game that I sank dozens of quarters into from 1984-1989, but it’s pretty close. A controller– such as an Xbox 360 wired controller– works best. If you play it, please let me know what you think!