Baseball is more than just the game played on the field. It can also be the game played on the virtual field. So, Baseball Prospectus is going to write about, review, discuss, whatever the many, many baseball video games released in the last half-century that the genre has even existed.
Cyber Stadium Series—Base Wars
Publisher: Ultra Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Entertainment System
Release Year: 1991
Why This Game?: There are plenty of video games where you get to play as a robot, but very few of them are sports titles, and fewer still are baseball. There’s Super Baseball 2020, sure, but that’s something of a mix, with robots and fully equipped humans—we’re talking jet packs and body armor—on the same playing field. Cyber Stadium Series—Base Wars, though? That’s all robots, baby. And it’s a game about baseball-playing robots that lets me talk about scabs and labor and greedy owners and anti-union propaganda, so, obviously, I was going to get to this eventually.
How Does It Play?: Outside of the robots and one notable deviation from the rules of the sport that you know, it’s a pretty standard game of arcade-style baseball. You don’t pick your pitches beforehand like in more realistic titles, but manipulate the speed and direction the ball is heading using the directional pad. Since your pitchers don’t throw the ball, but instead shoot it out of an arm cannon designed for pitching, you charge up your pitch like you’re Mega Man X about to lay into one of Sigma’s goons with a buster shot—except instead of a larger or smaller blast, here a longer charge means a faster pitch, while shorter is slower. Like any arcade baseball game worth the price of admission, the slow pitches are useful, too, for causing your opponent to embarrassingly swing-and-miss about three seconds too soon and then have to live through that awkward pause before they get a chance to reset for another swing.
It’s fair to complain a bit about having to field fly balls in Base Wars, because the game’s camera doesn’t move as fast as it should—it stays with the ball too long, which is a negligible issue on pop ups, but more of an issue if a slow fly keeps traveling and you aren’t aware at all of (1) which outfielder you are even controlling or (2) where they need to be when this thing finally comes down. Throws to the infield look like they’re shot straight out of a cannon, at least, because they are, and this will end up causing quite a few close plays at every base. When there’s a close play, that’s where Base Wars differentiates itself: tie does not go to the runner, but is instead broken by a series of kicks and punches.
That’s right, these robots aren’t people in the eyes of the owners who employ them, and therefore they can fight for robot supremacy just because a play at the plate was a close one. All the umpires need to determine here is whether a robot getting its shiny metal ass kicked is able to stand up and fight some more—the base or out, respectively, goes to whichever robot has their arm held aloft following one of these little bouts.
You can punch, kick, and jump, and if you press the A and B buttons simultaneously, you’ll perform a special attack. You’ll need to press both of those buttons together quite often, or else you’ll be steamrolled by your opponents. Maybe even literally, if you’re facing a bot with treads.
Other than the fighting, though, it’s baseball. You can pick up and play with ease if you’re familiar at all with this style of baseball video game, and figuring out the flow of the fights isn’t too bad, either. You just might lose a few of those before you get the feel for them, is all.
What This Game Does Better Than The Rest: Customization is the highlight here, because there are four different robot styles to choose from, and you can tweak your roster until you have a team balanced in whatever way you’d like. And yes, that means you can customize your team so that it’s just really great at fighting, and try to win that way. Since a team that has lost three robots during a game has to forfeit—the robots take damage in each fight, and can take so much in multiple battles that they no longer function—you could, if you wanted to, beat up the rest of the league en route to the pennant, in a very literal sense.
Customization isn’t as big of a deal in a single exhibition contest, but when vying for the pennant, you end up going shopping for parts in between games, using money you’ve won along the way. You can strengthen robots’ ability to throw, catch, hit, as well as repair the robots that were busted up while fighting. Repairs cost money, too, so you need to carefully balance your funds between improving the quality of the robots you put on the field, and making sure you have robots to put out in the first place.
One way to avoid high repair costs is to equip your robots with weapons, so that they have a better chance of making it out of those fights relatively unscathed. (Some of which you can see above, in an image scanned from the game’s manual.) Sure, buying weapons for your team might make it feel like baseball has maybe gotten a little out of hand in the 24th century, but then again, real-life MLB players still throw fastballs at hitters after the previous batter is too visibly excited about hitting a homer, so maybe we shouldn’t throw stones here. Especially because the robots might take that as an act of aggression and throw much larger stones back at us much harder.
The game also reminds me that this sketch exists, so it has that going for it:
Fungo: You know how The Replacements was a decent way to waste some time at the peak of channel surfing for the kinds of movies that would constantly play on cable, because there are some good gags in it, as well as Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves? And that this was true even though it’s a movie about a bunch of scabs scabbing it up while unionized professional football players fight for a fair contract? Base Wars is kind of like that, if you bother to read the instruction manual, anyway. Baseball’s owners have decided that the players are too expensive, and robots are cheaper, so the players are all going to be replaced with robots, and that’s just how baseball is played now. See, I’m not just forcing some talk about scabs and greedy owners and such in here: that’s literally the basis for the game and its narrative!
From the aforementioned manual:
At last it can be told. How, at the turn of the 24th Century, the game of baseball was changed forever. It happened in Cape Codpiece, Florida, during the annual winter meetings. On the aluminum paneled walls of the posh hotel’s Presidential Room hung stirring portraits of baseball’s all-time greats. Legends like Cecil “Rooftop” Shingleton, Travis “Tee” O’Justice, and Tip “Rude” Wayter. Around the huge conference table sat a group of sour, seething executives collectively known as the baseball team owners. The issue before them—the astronomical player salaries. (A Solar League official had just ordered one of the weakest franchises to shell out $2.4 billion a year to Gomer “Go Homer” Gomez, a lifetime .250 hitter.
For hours the owners debated their options. Until suddenly Irving Flopilidopolous, owner of the Boston Banshees, leaped from his chair and slammed his fist on the table.
“Robots!” he exclaimed. The other owners looked blankly at each other. Then smiles slowly crept across their faces as they realized they had found the solution—replace the players with mechanical men. No more salary demands. Better yet, no more salaries! Just obedient automatons pre-programmed for action.
Alright, first of all, if a guy who it is implied isn’t very good is pulling in $2.4 billion annually, then this league is probably doing well for themselves. And also, good for this Solar League for having what seems to be a salary floor in an uncapped league. No wonder the owners wanted to get rid of this union—these narrative devices are heroes. And second, this line shows up later in the manual, when discussing the save feature for the pennant mode:
(At least you won’t have to worry about the robots going on strike and putting the kibosh on an exciting pennant drive.)
Given this is the staunchly anti-union video game industry we’re talking about, it’s hard to know how deeply embedded this tongue is in the writer’s cheek, or if someone involved really did hate organized labor. But either way, the concept is all so ridiculous and they have robots fighting each other that it’s just fun to experience, regardless of whether it’s just a timely crack about work stoppages or someone who is very, very irritated by them. And joke’s on Konami and the localizer from their shell* company, Ultra Games, anyway: Juan Soto might end up signing for $2.4 billion well before the 24th century, and Rob Manfred doesn’t have advanced enough robot technology to stop that from happening.
*Yes, a shell company as video game publisher: Nintendo, thanks to the severe lack of quality control that had sank Atari and nearly the entire console portion of the video game industry a few years prior, had rules in place for how many games could be released by a single publisher in a year for the Famicom/NES. Some of the larger studios like Konami figured out workarounds, like a subsidiary to distribute games that Konami proper could not due to those limitations. Ultra Games’ first-ever release? That would be the NES port of Metal Gear, which you might have heard of before!
Video game manuals used to be full of all sorts of nifty narrative and world-building, because there simply wasn’t room in the cartridge to store that much non-essential text. Going beyond those limitations in the Famicom/NES era cost a lot of money, enough to nearly kill some publishers, so to the manual those ideas went for games like Base Wars. Without the manual, Base Wars is some good arcade baseball and robot-bashing fun, but with the knowledge of those pages? It’s a fully realized future where dystopia has crept into sports, too!
Its Industrial Impact: Self-checkout.
Cyber Stadium Series—Base Wars Wins Above Replacement Game: Base Wars is a good game that’s maybe a little more fun to talk about than it is to play at this point. There’s nothing really wrong with it, no, but play for a little bit and you’ve seen what it has to offer, too: the longevity and intrigue is really in the setup of it all. Let’s give it an average-ish WARP of 2.5—a little more exciting than average, but not so much that you become fully enamored. After all, Konami has done better, more exhilarating work in the baseball space since.
Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. His baseball writing has appeared at SB Nation, Defector, Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, The Nation, FAIR, and TalkPoverty, and you can read his takes on retro video games at Retro XP.
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