Pre-game huddle: The Challenge Flag series brings games that have been considered to be below average– or just plain bad– in front of the Retro Referee to get a fresh ruling. Will he overturn the call, or let it stand?

Baseball is one of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s earliest releases. Based at least in part upon Nintendo’s Vs. Baseball coin-op, this game has been generally panned by modern-day reviewers and by retro collectors alike. Complaints about the game include a weak feature set, generic teams and players, automatic (and inconsistent) fielding, and more.

Is Baseball really a bad game, though? The Challenge Flag has been thrown, so it’s time to give it a look and see if the general ruling by reviewers and collectors stands.

Looking into the complaints about Baseball, they are valid. For starters, there are few features or options, except for choosing to play a solo game or a game against a human opponent and choosing one of six teams (A, C, D, P, R, or Y) to play as. That’s it. There aren’t individual players to make up each team, and there aren’t any statistics for players. The generic presentation here doesn’t give players much to be interested in. It’s one team of random players versus another, and other retro baseball games do this better with teams, players, statistics, and more.

That’s an E-6.

The complaint about automatic fielding is also a fair one, though it’s mostly because of the inconsistency of fielders to make standard plays. Outfielders misplay fly balls too often, and grounders seem to find their way through infielders’ legs a bit too much. These fielding gaffes can turn a 5-1 contest into a 5-5 tie in a hurry, even with a decent pitching performance with accurate placement and variable speeds. If a hitter makes contact, the defense could very well be hamstrung by poor CPU play… instead of giving a player the chance to make that catch or play (or not). It leaves too much to chance.

While the complaints about Baseball are understood, there are some things that I’m considering before upholding the ruling about it being a bad game.

Vs. Baseball in play. Note the Points count on the right side of each screen.

First, Baseball was changed from what was a pretty good coin-operated arcade game. Vs. Baseball incorporated a points system that didn’t make the transition to the NES. The points system was, basically, a countdown timer; as the game progressed, points would decrease at a steady rate. Points could be earned by scoring runs, and they were lost more quickly by giving up runs to the opposing team. While the points system was certainly used to get players to pony up tokens or quarters to continue playing, it also encouraged strong play to extend how long each token or quarter lasted. Taking away the points system stripped Baseball of its main draw, and left behind a bare bones baseball game.

Second, it’s reasonable to argue that the teams in Baseball are supposed to represent Major League Baseball teams. Since Nintendo didn’t have the MLB license, single letters were used to get around that obstacle and represent six popular franchises:

  • A: Athletics (Oakland)
  • C: Cardinals (St. Louis)
  • D: Dodgers (Los Angeles)
  • P: Phillies (Philadelphia)
  • R: Royals (Kansas City)
  • Y: Yankees (New York)
The Philadelphia Phillies versus the Kansas City Royals? Could be.

The instruction manual doesn’t mention anything about this, but if you consider that the uniform colors match up and that these teams were pretty prominent at the time of Baseball’s release… the theory has merit. Of course, Nintendo wouldn’t note that the letters were short for MLB teams; unfortunately, the cryptic lettering and lack of specific players and their stats makes this hard to figure out. It’s also tough to pinpoint whether the Athletics hit for more power or if the Dodgers have better pitching, as their MLB counterparts back then had. That said, if you’re a fan of one of the six teams that are purported represented here, perhaps you might have a bit more of an affinity for Baseball now than you might have before reading this.

The final point that I consider when evaluating this game is the meat and potatoes of any baseball game: the pitcher versus batter matchup. Hitting and pitching are very simple and intuitive to execute in Baseball, and that is a positive thing for the game. Hitting is all about timing, and it’s very satisfying to take a fastball over the wall for a dinger or to pull a pitch down the line for extra bases. Pitching is surprisingly deep for such an early NES baseball game; changing speeds can really throw batters off balance, and moving pitches inside and outside effectively can catch a few hitters looking at called strikes.

I’ll resist the urge to make a “Back, back, back!” Chris Berman call here.

In my view, the pitcher/batter battle in Baseball is a fun one to take part in. Maybe it’s a bit too simplistic for some, but keeping in mind that it’s an arcade game at its core, that simplicity would be attractive for a wider range of potential players. It’s an asset here because almost anyone can simply pick up and play Baseball. There aren’t more advanced things to consider, such as pinch hitters or relief pitchers. It’s a very straightforward game, and while that doesn’t appeal to everyone, it’s got a certain charm in its direct, no-nonsense approach to the game.

After considering all sides, I find that Baseball for the NES is not as bad as many claim it to be… overturning the initial ruling, after further review.

Yes, it’s generic. Yes, automatic fielding can be a hindrance at times. Those complaints hold water; however, I find credibility in the ACDPRY team theory and I genuinely have fun playing Baseball. Of course, I won’t play 162-game seasons and keep a book of stats when playing, but I do enjoy the relatively quick nine innings of arcade-style baseball that’s being offered here. It’s more fun when playing against a friend, but playing solo can generate some close games, too.

Baseball isn’t in the same class as the best baseball games on the NES, but given that it’s an early game within the console’s life cycle and that it’s a somewhat neutered coin-op conversion (instead of an original, from the ground up effort), it’s a decent game for what it is.

Collector’s note: As of this writing, PriceCharting has Baseball for the NES valued at around $4 USD for a loose cart and around $18 USD for a CIB (complete in box) item.

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