Nintendo didn’t launch the Game Boy in Europe until late 1990 – more than a year after the Japanese and American launches. Unlike with consoles, power standards weren’t the issue behind the delay; Nintendo didn’t have to worry about reprogramming software for PAL/SECAM or dealing with 50Hz vs. 60Hz timing issues, because the Game Boy came with its own integral LCD screen that had nothing whatsoever to do with international broadcast standards. Nor did they need to worry about making a device designed for 110v/120v power run on 240v current, because the Game Boy’s power was also integral: Four AA batteries. And batteries is batteries, no matter where you go.
No, the delay in Europe simply demonstrated Nintendo’s lack of interest in that market. Japan and America were (and are) Nintendo’s bread-and-butter, and Europe was a dim and distant side consideration. So in that light, of course one of the Game Boy’s launch titles would be Baseball. Japan and America are the only countries in the world that genuinely care about baseball. It’s our common language. Heck, Nintendo would even go on to buy their own team, the Seattle Mariners, a few years after Game Boy’s debut.
So whether your native description for Game Boy Baseball is “kuso” or “crap,” at least you have a common frame of reference for its wretchedness with your overseas counterparts.
As with Alleyway, we can pin much of Baseball‘s lack of ambition, interest, quality, or timelessness on its vintage. In portable video game terms, the launch wave of Game Boy titles fell in the ugly primal phase of evolution. They were the first fish to use their fins to get about on land. Someday, they would evolve into magnificent amphibians, but for that brief moment in history they simply flopped about grotesquely, splashing in the mud as they gasped for air.
To the game (or sports) enthusiast of 2014, Baseball doesn’t offer much in the way of appeal. It may, in fact, be the most primitive take on the sport since Atari’s Home Run for the 2600 more than a decade before its own debut. Now, nearly every baseball game plays largely the same, since it’s based on a real-world sport with firm rules and mechanics. Play always alternates between the batting and pitching phases, with the former supplemented by the option to attempt base runs and the latter giving way to fielding whenever an opposing batter finds the ball. The difference between any two given baseball video games comes down to options and presentation, and Baseball has neither work speaking of.
Baseball offers you a whopping two teams from which to choose, the choice of whether to play home or visitor, and which of four characters you can field as your starting pitcher. Ah, and there’s one other option: You can play Japan or USA mode. The only difference between the two is that distances are presented in meters rather than feet, and the batters have Japanese names instead of American. Not being familiar with Japanese sports figures circa 1989, I have no idea whether or not any of these are meant to be thinly veiled references to popular contemporary baseball players; but the team captains in the USA mode are Mario and Luigi (fulfilling Mario’s contractual mandate for cameo appearances), so I’m not really sure why anyone wouldn’t just play USA mode.
Pitching offers a very small amount of control: You slide right or left on the mound to determine the angle from which you make your throw, then press A once you’re satisfied to enter the pitching stance. Holding up or down as you pitch the ball modifies the speed to become a slow pitch or fastball, respectively, and you can alter the curve of the ball’s path by pressing left or right as it flies.
The batting mechanics are even more limited. You can move freely within the batter’s box and swing the bat, and… well, that’s about it.
Still, batting feels like an embarrassment of opportunity and depth compared to fielding. Once your opponent hits the ball, you’re better off just letting go of the controls and allowing your tiny men to attempt to field it automatically. They have a tendency to miss when you’re playing against the CPU – the CPU, of course, doesn’t suffer from this issue – but it’s better than trying to guess where your fielders are relative to the ball. The camera view follows the ball, or more correctly follows the shadow of the ball, meaning that fielding often involves both the ball (which arcs upward at an impossible angle for a long hit) and your fielders drifting out of sight while the ball is in play. This was long before the idea of scaling graphics for camera zooms came into play for home consoles, and let’s be honest: There’s no way Game Boy’s programmers could have reasonably pulled off that trick on day one anyway.
The end result is that the single-player mode in Baseball is utterly frustrating. The programming stacks things unreasonably in the CPU’s favor, and even once you get the hang of the game’s quirks, the sluggish pace of the action makes for a barely interactive experience. No, the only way to reasonably enjoy Baseball is to play with another person. Which was the point of the game, really: It was Nintendo’s showcase piece for the Game Boy Link Cable.
Playing against a friend doesn’t fix Baseball‘s flaws, but it does help distribute them in an egalitarian fashion. As they say, misery loves company.
Origin of the species
Of course, the inspiration for Baseball‘s design was… Baseball. That is, Nintendo’s NES game. Released in 1984 in Japan for Famicom and 1985 at the U.S. launch of the NES, Baseball practically defined the Japanese console standard, aesthetically speaking, for 8-bit baseball games. Its chubby little characters would be repeated in other series like Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium (aka R.B.I. Baseball), and it basically represented a sort of minimal baseline for tolerable renditions of the sport in the Nintendo phase of the 8-bit era. By 1989, though, the baseball video game genre had evolved well beyond the primitive minimalism of Nintendo’s Baseball.
And yet, here we have Game Boy Baseball, which revisited the NES original and stripped it down even further. The NES game offered several more options for play than its Game Boy successor… not to mention things like color and a wider viewpoint thanks to the NES’s superior pixel resolution.
Like Alleyway, Baseball doesn’t include a staff roll or credits in the manual, and online resources alternately peg it as either an Intelligent Systems or Nintendo R&D1 venture, meaning it was probably a collaboration. The Intsys website lists it as part of their collective c.v. (along with Yakuman, Game Boy Wars, and several other Game Boy titles), and given the game’s similarity to the R&D1-developed NES Baseball, we can reasonably pin it down as a joint project between the two studios.
The real appeal of the game, of course, comes from the link play. For kids who picked up a Game Boy at the Japanese launch – not an insignificant number – Baseball was the Link Cable’s killer app. Not a great rendition of baseball, sure, but somewhat more interesting than the old LED sports handsets, and a good excuse to link your system to a friend’s. The superior Tennis would launch a month after Game Boy’s debut, and Tetris less than a month after that… but for a few short weeks, Baseball was the bleeding edge of competitive multiplayer portable game design.
And that fact alone makes Baseball a valuable part of video game history. We can look back from contemporary wi-fi-connected portable multiplayer experiences like Pokémon and Monster Hunter, and smile to think how far we’ve come in just 25 years.
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a news story marking a specific U.S. launch date for the system, and other articles on the system cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”