Bad News Baseball
Among those familiar with the Nintendo Entertainment System library of cartridges, if you were to challenge them to name a sports game made by developer-publisher Tecmo, odds are they would name a football title. Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl are the popular choices, and deservedly so, as they are well-crafted, excellent video games. However, Tecmo kept their design chops up their sleeve for others as well, one of them being a quirky fun-filled hardball simulation called Bad News Baseball.
Bad News Baseball covers all the bases (boy, we could really have a field day with the baseball puns here; haha, “field day”) that a basic baseball game needs to hit: One-player mode, two-player mode, continuation into a full season beyond just a single outing, some form of stat-tracking, and an engine more robust than Nintendo’s original, and awful, Baseball.
The NES had a lot of baseball games. Even within the genre of sports, the sub-genre of baseball saw more titles than other well-respected categories, such as the JRPG. Now, most people were likely just to find a favorite or two, or perhaps avoid the baseball games altogether; however, getting to know the full roster lends a lot of enjoyable comparison.
Baseball games were programmed so similarly that some of the differences might be slight, but they are there. For example, compared to the R.B.I. Baseball series, Bad News Baseball is more fielding-oriented: Runners are much more likely to be called “OUT!” at the base, whereas in R.B.I., the A.I. is very forgiving, considering a runner safe even if they are barely just touching the plate pixel-to-pixel.
Compared to Base Wars, the over-field camera in Bad News Baseball is tighter, more honed-in; which is great, since Base Wars always had a problem tracking line drives, leading to lost fielders and a screen full of green. Compared to Legends of the Diamond, Bad News Baseball has looser hit detection during batting, making it easier to blast home runs. Yet, of course, because of the emphasis on defense and fielders, there is a delightful balance at work, showing Tecmo’s strength in planning.
To put is simply: Bad News Baseball is not only a great baseball game on NES, but a great 8-bit video game altogether. Every baseball game had some sort of celebratory animation for home runs, but Bad News Baseball has several that it can cycle through. Most baseball games, even then, had on-screen umpires – but in Bad News Baseball, they are bright pink rabbits.
Okay, that is a little strange, but it does add distinctive character to what would otherwise be “just” a well-made sports title. Those rabbit umps, along with the Eastern influence seen in the very cartoon-like characters and interstitials, give Bad News Baseball a very distinct identity.
But if silliness is not the player’s thing, the baseball is more than in-depth enough to satisfy even a serious player. Bad News Baseball tracks the statistics for every player , even down to attributes for how well a pitcher’s ball breaks to right and left (yes, each has a separate value), every batter-fielder’s arm strength and running speed, even the stamina of pitchers that not only necessitate in-game substitutions but affect game-to-game readiness as well. Furthermore, every batter-fielder is graded on which positions they should field, with every roster having far more than a simple line-up of nine available, thus granting the player full managerial sway to customize their batting order, fielding positions, and pitching rotation. Good stuff.
This is all not to say that Bad News Baseball is without its share of faults, though. Missing out on the MLB license to use real players is a little unfortunate, as fine as made-up players are. Although the graphics are great, all the players look exactly the same: There is never any difference in height, weight, race, etc., only some differing pitching styles, which is a bit bland and unfortunate.
The ability to jump up or slide to the side to catch batted balls is nice, but not executed as well as it could be. Thinking three-dimensionally, if the ball is behind a player in a midair, it can still be “caught” by jumping into its pixel-drawn flight patch. This effect, while exploitable, causes some cognitive dissonance. Worse, though, is the slightly-too-long pause to get down to earth with the jump, as though gravity has been lessened for such mighty leap.
Speaking of physics, every at-bat feels a little “off” upon close examination. It really seems like hitting the “sweet spot” on the bat, dead center of the wood in the middle of a perfect swing, never results in as good of a hit as strange tip shots off the edge of the bat when swinging too late, or a way-inside too-early shot. Also, seeing fastballs up to 111mph can be disorienting, but at least fatigue sets in quickly. Also, does anyone else feel like it is strangely, slightly difficult to move a fielder diagonally?
The All Star Mode is a welcome addition for those in need of a harder challenge, but even the basic game is pretty stiff for newcomers or those inexperienced with baseball games. The A.I. is not exactly a deity, but does a computer batter ever, ever swing at a widely pitched ball? Pitching can be tricky, relying on the player to discover exploitable little un-hittable nooks and crannies, rather than truly outduel a batter at the corners of the plate. Trying to take on the mindset of a real baseball pitcher will leave the count full of balls and fastballs crushed out of the stadium.
Making a perfect 8-bit baseball game might be impossible, or at least extremely difficult within the constraints of both time and resources of the period. But if we do not rate on the scale of a high standard, to what purpose do we review through a critical lens? More simply: Bad News Baseball is great, but falls short of being flawless.
If you can overlook the just-about-literal white supremacy in the game, the visuals are fantastic. Gorgeous interstitial animations highlight close plays on the bases, while a handful of different animated home run celebrations add more whimsy to an already-whimsical playthrough. Even the details look just fine: The players at the plate, on the field, the field itself, the menus, etc. This is a professional-looking 8-bit video game, oozing with flair and flourish.
The usual 8-bit baseball-game sound effects are in full gear: The rise-and-fall pitch of the ball in flight, the satisfying smack of a the digital sphere into pixelated leather, and the clap of the bat, among others. The background music is well-composed, and dives into technical exploits of the NES hardware sound channels that few dare to tread (dig that drumline), but – and this might just be reviewer opinion – does not really match the on-screen action. It is oddly disconcerting. Strange.
But the speech effects are fantastic, and part of this title’s appeal; the energetic, confident calls of the umpires truly add to the tension and impact of game-as-sport. Hearing the ump cry “SAFE!” for a close call at home plate brings a real, visceral pleasure.
The NES had about 20 baseball video games in its library. Some of them tried to gain sales through a weird hook: Base Wars had robot athletes. A Little League game featured children. R.B.I. Baseball 3 not only had the real Major League Baseball teams, but multiple years’ worth of period-accurate rosters to choose from for each.
In the case the Bad News Baseball, the catch is rabbit umpires and goofy cartoon visuals? Maybe, but so is the tight design, in-depth password system (although with an insane range of special characters in its alphabet), and the appreciated option to press Start whenever the player wants to skip a cutscene. All in all, this is simply a great game. Be sure to take advantage of the computer’s bizarre tendency to sprint a baserunner back to first following a tag-out there.
Overall rating: 4.0/5 stars.