RBI Baseball ’20 Review
Opening day has come and gone, and we still don’t have any baseball. With major sports brought to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the only outlets for sports is video games.
RBI Baseball ’20 would very much like to be one of those outlets. Believe it or not, this year’s release is the seventh in a row of the more modern iteration of the franchise. RBI Baseball generally flies under the radar because it’s impossible to talk about baseball games without talking about The Show. In the same way that Madden dominates the conversation around football, The Show has been the standard-bearer of baseball games for over a decade.
While The Show focuses primarily on hyper-realism and intricate gameplay mechanics, RBI Baseball has always been a bit more casual. The batter can move around the box as if he were a trophy, reminiscent of the original RBI Baseball back on the NES. Fielding requires a single press of a button as opposed to using a gauge for power. Swinging has been restricted to a single button.
This year, though, RBI Baseball is making an attempt to grow up, allowing you to charge your swing at the expense of accuracy, and taking half a step toward The Show’s pitching system. You’ll still only need one button to throw pitches, but first you’ll pick the type of pitch you want, and then you’ll hold down the button to increase the power of your throw as you aim the pitch with the left stick. Each pitch will show you the direction the ball will break so you have an idea of its final destination. The longer you hold the button, the more the pitch locator will start to dance around the spot you’re aiming for, so there’s a bit of strategy in finding the optimal press length. As your pitcher gets tired or as he loses confidence in a particular pitch (i.e. a particular pitch is giving up hits), the locator becomes increasingly erratic, to the point where it’s essentially uncontrollable.
Batting is purely a timing play, but has a similar mechanic to pitching in which holding down the button will fill a meter that corresponds to the power of the swing. The more powerful the swing, the lower the accuracy, so pitch location and timing make a big difference in terms of how successful you’ll be. In my time with the game, timing the pitches never felt quite right. I’m not sure if it’s the graphical fidelity of the game or simply my tendency to be better at pitching than hitting in baseball games (I seem to have quite a few 1-0 or 2-1 wins), but batting really never felt comfortable for me using the new power mechanics. In the Home Run Derby, it was easy enough to get into a groove and blast multiple dingers in a row, but that really isn’t the core of the game.
RBI Baseball ’20 includes the option to use these new controls or classic controls, and I did find batting to be a breeze using the classic controls. With the classic controls you can freely move your batter around the box (which actually felt like it gave me more agency than the new controls) and tap the button to swing. Playing the game this way actually reminded me of the old NES version I used to play and was probably the most fun I had.
And that’s really the heart of the problem with this game. It’s adding gameplay changes that try to bring more realism to it and they don’t really land. While it is a budget game ($30), if I’m trying to get more realism out of a baseball game, I’d just go with the one that perfected it, not the one with the half-hearted attempt at it. The game is striving to have more realistic character models and animations, but they don’t really land. The lack of ambiance really stands out as you play to a quiet crowd and hear the same umpire ball and strike calls over and over again. The only time the game really feels alive is during the Home Run Derby, which features a tournament format and fireworks each time you go yard.
The Home Run Derby is really the only alternative to standard baseball as well. Given that new mechanics have been introduced, it would have been nice to see some skills challenges that let you work on the new gameplay. The game frankly just feels a bit bare bones, particularly considering this is the seventh modern iteration. RBI Baseball ’20 is at its best when it’s not trying to be The Show, when you can complete a game in under a half hour, and when you’re not taking too close of a look or listen to the aesthetics.
Ultimately, this is a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s moving in the direction of a simulation, but it’s not quite there. It has the option for arcade-like controls, but the environment is sterile. If you need a baseball fix and don’t have a PS4, RBI Baseball ’20 is serviceable, if bland.
(Reviewed on Xbox One)