The Best Baseball Video Games from Every Generation
With the ninth generation of video games now underway, here's a look at Jay's graphic from the book depicting highlights of the first eight:
Baseball itself has been a staple throughout gaming's history, dating all the way back to the 1960s. Today I'll take a stroll through the evolution of our favorite sport in the virtual realm by sharing my choices for the best and most influential titles of each console generation. I'll sprinkle in a few Twins-related tidbits along the way, too.
Note: We're skipping the first generation, which consisted of various rudimentary "gaming systems" producing some rough early efforts in the baseball genre. None are worthy of mentioning here, so we'll start with the second generation, when Atari 2600 brought home gaming to the mainstream.
2nd Generation: Home Run
For Atari 2600 (1978)
At this point things were still pretty rudimentary. I listed Atari's Home Run in VERSUS among memorable (if simplistic) titles on the breakout home console: "As a baseball geek I’ve gotta include this primitive interpretation of the dusty diamond. There were no fielders other than the pitcher, who delivered from second base." Created by Atari designer Bob Whitehead, Home Run wasn't exactly a convincing baseball simulation, but it had its retro charm.
3rd Generation: R.B.I. Baseball
For Nintendo Entertainment System (1988)
When people think of classic baseball video games from the early days, this is typically the first that comes to mind. It was a massive step forward – the first title to feature an MLBPA license and thus, actual player names. Now, R.B.I. Baseball didn't have a license from MLB itself, so there were no team names or logos, but Minnesota was one of the eight selectable clubs in the game. (The Twins were, after all, reigning World Series champs at the time.) In the screenshot above you can see Frank Viola delivering to Detroit's Alan Trammell.
The progression from Atari and Home Run is plain to see. Here we have colorful expansive fields with nine players and fairly genuine baseball action – varying pitch types and speeds, player stats, differentiated player attributes, etc.
4th Generation: Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball
For Super NES (1994)
By the fourth generation, video games were starting to come into their own. Sega and Nintendo competed to advance the industry with their popular 16-bit consoles, and sports titles started to emerge as prime attractions. While I myself owned a Genesis, and was rather fond of Sports Talk Baseball, no one can rightly deny that the highlight of the generation was Nintendo's smash hit for the SNES. The game starred Seattle superstar Ken Griffey Jr. – no coincidence, as Nintendo's president Hiroshi Yamauchi had purchased the Mariners in 1992 – but no other real big-leaguer players. In contrast to R.B.I. Baseball, this game had the MLB license and not the MLBPA license, meaning real teams and logos but fictional players. Twins fixtures included first baseman A. West, designated hitter J. Hendrix and closer W. Herzog.
Taking advantage of the relatively powerful SNES hardware, Griffey brought a heightened sense of speed and scale to the baseball sim. It had an arcade-style feel with the exaggerated player builds and rapid pacing. This game was just plain fun.
5th Generation: Triple Play Baseball 2000
For PlayStation & Nintendo 64 (1999)
The fifth generation of consoles was all about making the jump to 3D graphics. Sony's PlayStation entered the fold to compete with the Nintendo 64 and ill-fated Sega Saturn on this front. In retrospect it was kind of an awkward transition for the gaming medium; polygonal graphics opened up a new world of possibilities, but developers were still figuring out how to design with them and hardware capabilities were limited.
As such, you had a whole slew of games released that were impressive at the time, but didn't age all that well. Triple Play 2000 is a fine example. Watching the gameplay footage below (with Kevin Tapani as Chicago's starting pitcher!), you may cringe at the blocky players, blurry textures, and choppy animations.
Still, I went with this choice because I look back on it as my favorite of an era that bridged the gap to the third dimension and greater immersion. Triple Play 2000 was well received at the time, earning a 9.2 out of 10 from IGN, whose review lauded its authenticity: "It's all here but the hot dogs." Most vitally, the Triple Play series laid groundwork for what it would eventually become the pinnacle of baseball video gamedom (covered next).
6th Generation: MVP Baseball 2005
For PlayStation 2, Xbox & GameCube (2004)
The next generation of consoles saw tremendous advancement in 3D graphical prowess. It also saw Electronic Arts retire the Triple Play series, rebranding their mainstay as MVP Baseball. The overhauled franchise came with strong efforts for the 2003 and 2004 editions, but MVP Baseball 2005 is widely regarded as the best baseball video game of all time (maybe even the best sports video game).
It's hard to put a finger on exactly what made this game so damn good. EA really just perfected the whole package. The graphics were stellar for the time (and, tellingly, still look decent today). Gameplay was thoroughly enjoyable, with innovative meter-based pitching and zone-based hitting interfaces. Numerous game modes could be played, including a deep franchise mode that put users squarely in the GM's chair, accounting for things like team chemistry and fan happiness. You even managed minor-league teams, all the way down to Single-A!
Tragically, this was also the final installment of the MVP Baseball series. While the sixth generation of consoles brought us many outstanding games (MLB Slugfest 20-04 is an honorable mention here for sure), it also marked a dark turning point for the sports genre.
With its Madden franchise facing stiff competition from Sega's (superior) NFL 2K on the football front, Electronic Arts struck an exclusive licensing deal with the NFL, taking every other publisher out of the running. Shortly after, competing publisher Take Two Interactive returned fire by striking an exclusivity deal of its own with MLB, effectively killing EA's MVP franchise.
It sucked. I wrote about this series of events at length in Chapter 18 of VERSUS.
7th Generation: MLB 10: The Show
For PlayStation 3 (2010)
One nuance of Take Two's exclusivity pact with MLB is that it still allowed for first-party licensing, which meant Sony could continue to produce its MLB: The Show series. For that, gamers were truly fortunate.
Major League Baseball 2K, the third-party baseball sim series published by Take Two Interactive, was never much good and fizzled out. Meanwhile, MLB: The Show continued to distinguish itself, year after year, continually resetting the benchmark for balanced realism and enjoyability.
The 2010 installment was especially noteworthy because its cover (and legendary "Well played, Mauer" ad) featured our guy Joe Mauer, fresh off an MVP season. The game also did a slick job portraying Target Field in its inaugural season.
8th Generation: MLB The Show 20
For PlayStation 4 (2020)
In a decade since MLB 10: The Show, the baseball games genre has stagnated somewhat. Granted, Sony has enhanced its flagship franchise each year, but without much in the way of competition, there's been a little pressure to innovate.
Here I went with the most recent edition of MLB The Show, because it's as good as any from the latest generation, and also because its an opportunity to mention "The Show Must Go On," a simulated 2020 season I chronicled back in the early summer while MLB sat in limbo.
The clip below of a Twins vs. White Sox game illustrates just how far the virtual baseball sim has come since the days of Home Run.
MLB The Show has obviously reached unprecedented levels of realism and quality. But to be honest, I found myself using this newest iteration more for roster experimentation and simulating outcomes (a la OOTP Baseball, a mainstay in the PC gaming realm) than actually playing through games. As crisp as it is, there's just nothing all that novel about the experience anymore.
With a new generation of consoles upon us, I'm hopeful to see the folks behind MLB The Show unlock new frontiers, along with other contenders stepping up their games to spark a little friendly competition.
As mentioned earlier, last week my friend and I released a book called VERSUS: 25 Head-to-Head Battles that Shaped the Evolution of Video Games. It's a self-published 246-page journey through gaming history with filled with full-color illustrations, sidebars, charts and plenty of fun. It's available for purchase now as a high-quality paperback ($30) or immediately downloadable ebook ($15).
VERSUS makes for an excellent holiday gift, and by grabbing it you will be supporting a couple of independent creators. We'd love if you gave it a look!
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