Long before the arrival of the perennial all-star showings of the MLB: The Show Franchise and the increasingly disappointing MLB 2K releases, the NES had a 1986 gem in the widely acclaimed R.B.I Baseball. Its free-flowing pickup and play style was ambitiously, but shoddily resurrected with the bug filled disappointment that was R.B.I. Baseball 14. Somewhat surprisingly MLB Advanced Media, after receiving countless criticisms, came back with R.B.I. Baseball 15, a vast improvement over its predecessor in every way. The inclusion of online play, faithfully recreated Major League Ballparks and other enhancements allow the at-the-plate gameplay that is wonderfully reminiscent of the 1986 original to occasionally shine. R.B.I. 15 is, at its best, a fun and challenging diversion, however it is rarely at its best as it is constantly bogged down by various glitches, limited features, a complete lack of player differentiation and a severely underwhelming audio-visual presentation.
Traditionally sports titles, with each yearly iteration, tend to include increasingly complex controls and gameplay mechanics whereas R.B.I., a throwback to gaming’s younger days, relies on player placement and timing to create an engaging and challenging experience. Batters can move around freely within the box and pitchers can move side-to-side across the mound making R.B.I. 15’s one-on-one battle require a lot more strategy than appearances suggest. Although it’s simple, the ability to throw a few different speeds of pitches and to control slight movements with aftertouch makes R.B.I. 15 even more of a deceptively deep experience at the plate. Like its real life counterpart, foulballs, homeruns and strikeouts do come in bunches and there does seem to be the occasional bit of randomness in the distribution of hits, but outcomes never feel predetermined or unfair.
Unfortunately the baserunning, though now allowing you to control individual runners, remains mediocre as stealing, although effective at times, seems, without access to viewable speed ratings, to be a game of chance and not much else. Even knowing the exact specifics of each and every player’s abilities isn’t overly helpful as there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the players in the game.
However, where R.B.I. 15 really falters is in the field. It has most definitely improved over its predecessor in creating a more, but not completely reliable AI auto-fielder options as well as static fly ball indicators and in allowing base-throwing controls to be mapped to face buttons, but the questionable fielder logic, occasional freezing and overwhelming amount of glitches outnumber each and every improvement. Infielders are more concerned with being glued to their designated base than on fielding easy ground balls and outfielders, whose positioning you cannot change, play far too deep resulting in a far too large a gap in shallow left and right fields for both teams to exploit. Further, baseballs that are hit into certain areas on the field, including onto the pitcher’s mound, simply cannot be picked up forcing all baserunners to unfairly score just so that the game can continue. Additionally, the sheer number and types of fielding errors along with the almost complete lack of throwing errors makes the game feel somewhat broken rather than being a replication of Major League Baseball.
Nevertheless the game is easy to pickup and play while providing an occasionally decent experience over the course of its fast paced 15 minute, 9 inning games. Easy mode is easy and higher difficultly levels offer a formidable challenge where you, if you’re not careful, can be blown out by the AI who are more than capable of forcing the 10 run mercy rule well before the full 9 innings have been played.
The problem is that there just isn’t all that much to do. While this is a budget arcade title not designed to compete with baseball simulators released at full retail value, the lack of basic features is astonishing. You can play exhibition games, a reliable but somewhat empty online mode, an adjustable length season or just the postseason, but within these all too similar options there isn’t that much to do as it all feels the same. The regular and postseason game modes have stat tracking, but forces you to play exhibition like games with the same 16 or 25 man roster as there are no injuries, trades, free agents or minor league players to deal with. R.B.I. 14’s albeit broken season goals are gone and while the achievements are decently thought out, one appears to be broken and there are no unlockable teams or anything of the sort. Winning the World Series once on the shortest season length is more than enough to experience the full range of R.B.I. 15’s depth and that’s a problem.
To be fair, player trading would be a redundant feature as players, minus their skin tone, all look and play almost exactly the same. All pitchers, Major League workhorses and specialists alike, tire by the fifth or sixth inning and although players have underlying stats you can’t see them and you can’t really tell that there is a major difference between most of them. Live roster updates have been promised and although they may provide some solace, it likely won’t completely fix these fundamental issues.
Playing against another person is thus where most of the longevity is to be had, especially as surrounding the aforementioned glitches and somewhat lacklustre gameplay is an incredibly underwhelming in-game presentation that further dampers the single player experience. Sound is limited to the weak crack of the ball off a player’s bat, the half-hearted roars of the crowd and the admittedly enjoyable “strike” call from the umpire. Graphically, players have an arcadey, but nonetheless human like visual style to them that works, and the ballparks are recognizable, but have a somewhat grainy look to them. The crowd, home-run celebration screen and other fixtures are neither monumental nor off-putting. On the bright side, the on screen interphase adds a nice touch to the gameplay, but as a whole, the experience feels empty.
R.B.I. Baseball 15, despite its numerous flaws, isn’t a terrible game, but it isn’t all that good either. Although arcade baseball can and has been done better, this is a nonetheless fun and challenging diversion, especially when playing with friends. The pitcher-batter duel that is the trademark of the series is as enjoyable as ever, but it is often overshadowed by numerous glitches, a lack of player differentiation and an empty presentation in a game where there ultimately isn’t really all that much to do.