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  • The Best Baseball Video Games from Every Generation


    Nick Nelson

    Last week, a new generation of video games officially kicked off, with both Sony and Microsoft launching their latest consoles. As such, I thought it'd be a timely moment to reflect on baseball's rich history in gaming.

    Here are my picks for the best baseball video games of each past console generation.

    I recently published my first book, VERSUS: 25 Head-to-Head Battles that Shaped the Evolution of Video Games. Created in partnership with designer Jerrald Spencer Jr., it is available via Lulu (paperback) and Gumroad (digital). Over the course of 25 chapters, we navigate the history of gaming through a series of dualities and dichotomies.

    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:

    ccs-18-0-16027900-1605492795_thumb.png

    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)

    ccs-18-0-06820500-1605492952_thumb.png

    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)

    ccs-18-0-82302800-1605492994.png

    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)

    ccs-18-0-18482200-1605493082.jpg

    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)

    ccs-18-0-67160900-1605493133.png

    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)

    ccs-18-0-84469100-1605493178.png

    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)

    ccs-18-0-25999200-1605493222.jpg

    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

    ) featured our guy Joe Mauer, fresh off an MVP season. The game also did a slick job portraying Target Field in its inaugural season.

    [/center]

    8th Generation: MLB The Show 20

    For PlayStation 4 (2020)

    ccs-18-0-26383000-1605493271.jpg

    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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    I don't remember any of the names. The regular Nintendo baseball game was fun. I would actually keep stats for my games and play seasons and stuff, even if that wasn't part of the game at that time.

     

    After that, I haven't really played a lot of baseball games. I've found that I am really not good at them at all. I loved Sega 1995 NHL and Madden, but I was terrible at the baseball option. 

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    I will echo MVP Baseball series being the best sports game of all time. The early 2000s were the golden age of sports video games to be frank, because companies like EA and 2K Sports actually competed against each other to make the best football and basketball game.

     

    Sadly until these exclusive deals with EA (football), 2K Sports (basketball), and San Diego Studios (baseball) expire, all of our favorite sports games will continue to be stagnant.

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    This Super Nintendo baseball game was near and dear to mine and my brother's heart. Super Baseball Simulator 1.000. We spent a majority of our childhood playing that game. It is certainly more arcade like than realistic, as players had super powers attached to them. A batter could have a bomb super power that will explode if a fielder attempts to catch the pop fly. Or the pitcher could throw a frozen rope 185 MPH... Regardless, we spent countless hours creating teams and playing against each other. 
     

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPeYb5gQLlI

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    I know this is focused on console games, but HardBall for the C64 was awesome. (I never played the Genesis version that was ported over, but for PC baseball, HardBall! was the best, a huge leap forward.)

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    I played mainly PC variants growing up, so I've gotta give a shout out to Tony LaRussa Baseball 3. This was (supposedly) the first game to have reactive commentators. It had a proto-fantasy draft option, first game to feature actual player photos, but the sneaky best part was you could play with the park factors. I would crank the altitude as high as possible and then try and bunt for a home run.

    MVP2005 was the GOAT even on PC, duh. 

    Triple Play 2000 was a life changer for sure. Did anyone else ever unlock the secret team of developer characters? Pure chaos fun.

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    Baseball Stars for NES was way ahead of its time.

     

    It didn't have any MLB license, but it was by far better gameplay than that of RBI Baseball, or any other baseball game on the console (I have basically all of them).

     

    It had a Franchise mode. You could create and sign players. Your team earned money to spend on said players to power them up.

     

    You could rob home runs, make diving stops. Everything that RBI had from a gameplay standpoint, Baseball Stars did better, along with having modes and functions that didn't come along until well into the next generation.

     

    I love RBI too, basically because the Twins were THE team on it, but it doesn't hold a candle to SNK's Baseball Stars for that gen.

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    You nailed the list.  Couldn't agree more.  Just wanted to add that Ken Griffey Jr's winning run did actually have all of the real players they just had made up names.  All of the stats were correct from the season before and you could edit the names.  I edited all of the names on my system to the correct names.

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    Thank you Steve and Vanimal for bringing up Baseball Simulator and Baseball Stars.  The downside with Baseball Stars was when you were crushing it in franchise mode, and the screen would freeze. Pre-teen rage at its finest.  Good thing the controllers were attached or they'd have flown across the room.

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    Pretty good list, I owned many of them myself.  RBI baseball was great but the fact the 4 fielders moved all the same way would lead to the popup between infield and outfield to be HR because you would come in to catch from outfield and bounce over the head with no backup, but still great game. 

     

    Griffey was great too, but only having the one player name was no fun, but if you took the time, like I did, you could change the names yourself to fit the teams.  The players still had similar stats and abilities, like on the Mariners SS Lincoln, AKA A-Rod as a young player.  He was dang near better than Griffy. 

     

    However, MVP baseball was the best ever, with no other game since to touch it.  I always liked the show, but MVP was so amazing.  For me it was a few things, but one great thing was that it was the first, and really only game that I can think of even still, that would have throw variance.  Meaning not every throw was 100% on target and some algorithm would decide if it was an error.  The throw would pull the player off the bag or be in the dirt.  Sure, it was most likely just graphics but looked so real that even easy throws would get messed up sometimes needing the fielding ability of the 1st baseman to help out.  So many other things like sliding to avoid tags, and being able to see the camera that the throw would be on 1 side of base or another, really allowing you to test the accuracy of players arms.  The fact they had minor league teams in franchise mode made it even better to so you could build teams up and not just play same season over and over.  Hitting machinic was so much better than any other game too, as well as pitching machinic.  Whoever made the game engine should have got snatched up by the show to make theirs for the future, but when you have no real competition you do not push to make the best game you can.

     

    This makes we want to go back and play some MVP, going to need to go find it.   

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    This Super Nintendo baseball game was near and dear to mine and my brother's heart. Super Baseball Simulator 1.000. We spent a majority of our childhood playing that game. It is certainly more arcade like than realistic, as players had super powers attached to them. A batter could have a bomb super power that will explode if a fielder attempts to catch the pop fly. Or the pitcher could throw a frozen rope 185 MPH... Regardless, we spent countless hours creating teams and playing against each other. 
     

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPeYb5gQLlI

     

    I loved this for NES, had no idea they made a Super Nintendo version of it!!!

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    I can tell this discussion isn't serious because there is no mention of Backyard Baseball.

     

    And yes, as the parent of two boys growing up in the late ’90s, I was looking for Pablo Sanchez as well. I’m thinking he’s the answer to our current utility infielder need in letting Marwin go.

     

    But seriously, as the parent of a baseball-fanatic son with a physical limitation, it was a wonderful gift to have a game character who used a wheelchair. Though my son used a walker as a kid and now uses a cane as a young adult, rather than a wheelchair, Kenny Kawaguchi’s inclusion made him feel like there was a place for kids like him.   

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    In the late 80s, people loved the Street Sports Baseball game, and the franchise in general. By this time, Hardball had been out for a while, so I found this game (and every other baseball game of the era) unplayable.

     

    https://www.c64-wiki.com/wiki/Street_Sports_Baseball

     

    La Russa's Ultimate Baseball is a close second to the original Hardball. Hardball's drawback was once you started running (or stealing), you could not change your mind and run back to the base. Ultimate Baseball had this feature, but was otherwise a tad boring in comparison.

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    MVP 2005. Man. my roommates and I in college played that non-stop. We had by-laws made up because one of my roommates was a dirty cheater (like distracting us to pick runners off), and had standings and kept track of run differential. any free time we had, we played. Then I got a C on a test, and had to drop out of the "league" as I remembered why I was in college, and it wasnt to play video games

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    I'd like to correct you Nick.

     

    MVP Baseball 2005 was not the final installment of the series. There was an 06 and 07 as well. 
     

    And as far as the gameplay on the field was concerned, they were a huge jump over 2005, as hard as that may be to believe. MVP 06 is probably the game I have sunk the most time into in my life. I never played 2005 after I purchased 06.

     

    It is true EA lost their MLB license, but they transitioned over to college. Running a college program was even more satisfying on console back then than it was to run a MLB team. 

     

    I say all this as a guy who has watched about 50 innings of college baseball in my life. I watch that many innings a week of MLB ball during the season. 

     

    But the gameplay was so amazing and that is all I really care for in a baseball game. The pitching was improved from 2005. The fielding was the most fun I've ever had playing defense in a video game. The batting animations and ball flight were on par with The Show in 2010. And the base running control has never been matched.

     

    I never moved on from playing that game of baseball until The Show 2016. 10 years of sticking with it. None of the versions of The Show up until then were good enough for me to make the switch.

    And OOTP helped feed the GM addiction.

     

     

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    I'd like to correct you Nick.

     

    MVP Baseball 2005 was not the final installment of the series. There was an 06 and 07 as well. 
     

    And as far as the gameplay on the field was concerned, they were a huge jump over 2005, as hard as that may be to believe. MVP 06 is probably the game I have sunk the most time into in my life. I never played 2005 after I purchased 06.

    I wish I could relate. Personally I lost all interest after the MLB license was lost. Tried the college-themed versions a couple times, never did much for me. 

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