Nintendo Entertainment System
Release Date: 1988
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon when my mother drove us to the local mall where my older brother, an avid sports gamer, purchased what is widely regarded as one of, if not the best baseball game available on the NES.
Coming from then unheard of developers Jaleco, Bases Loaded was the console's first attempt at a realistic baseball simulation, and it remains one of the most fun depictions of the sport as long as you've got the patience to play it.
Baseball has never been a fast-paced game, though it can be high scoring. Bases Loaded captures this to a degree that was simply unheard of at the time and introduced key features that, though integral parts of the sport, had never been seen in a video game interpretation before.
The first thing that struck me, as it most likely did everyone else who played it in their youth, were the remarkably realistic graphics. Using a unique camera angle from behind the pitcher and rudimentary motion capture techniques, the graphics while pitching and batting were strikingly realistic for their time with fluid animations. Connecting with the ball switched to an overhead bird's eye view of the field, which was far less impressive but featured a much better sense of scale for the stadiums than competing titles. With the exception of the mystically floating catcher's mit, Bases Loaded had, far and away, the most realistic presentation of any baseball game.
As the box advertised, the game also featured some limited digitized speech. Umpires called balls, strikes, outs, and more - another feature that was innovative for a 1988 8-bit sports title. The prevalent music unfortunately adds little to the experience, and with no way to turn it off, will soon become obnoxiously repetitive.
I remember staring in awe at the splendor of the graphics as my brother played his first of many games, both of us delcaring that graphics would "never get better than this," but Bases Loaded was more than just a pretty game. Its enhanced focus on realism meant it contained a lot of the intricacies of the sport other depictions left out. With this came a decidedly slower pace, not helped by the constant cuts to the scoreboard between every batter, but baseball lovers will likely appreciate the slower pace that mimics the sport better than the more arcade experience of Nintendo's Baseball or Tengen's cartoonish R.B.I. Baseball.
By way of examples, Bases Loaded was the first game I know of to use batting averages and ERAs as an indication of a player's quality. Players with higher averages were more likely to hit the ball more often and further, while the players at the bottom of the order with lower averages were more likely to strike out or hit light grounders. Comparatively, a pitcher with a higher earned run average is more likely to be victimized by hitters than leave them standing at the plate with a blazing fastball.
The unique camera angle allowed for greater control over both pitching and hitting. All manner of pitches could be thrown by pressing the d-pad while the ball was in motion to change a standard fastball into a sinker or curveball. Throw the ball too close to a batter, however, and you may provoke him to charge the mound (resulting in an ejection for that batter). Likewise, batters could not only swing high, low, or mid-level, but they could step in or out during the swing for balls thrown towards the inner and outer edges of the plate.
Fielding, on the other hand, was a bit less intuitive. Outfielders feel a tad too slow and the larger stadiums make it difficult to reach balls in time. Additionally, there is no icon to display approximately where the ball with land, which makes fielding pop flys trickier than it should be, and the game has a penchant for issuing errors at the most inopportune times.
One of the more divisive aspects of Bases Loaded was its rosters. At the time, the majority of sports games weren't licensed with the exception of Tengen's R.B.I. Baseball. Bases Loaded featured a fictitious league comprised of only 12 teams, and no licensed players however. At the time this wasn't unusual or of particular concern to gamers, but people have a tendency to forget the context of the old days when going back and playing classic titles and it may be a deal-breaker for those folks.
That said, the 12 teams, some of whom stemmed from odd locations such as Omaha or Hawaii, have their own strengths and weaknesses, including my beloved Utah, which was an offensive powerhouse, but had pitiful relief pitching. Unfortunately, though you can pick your starting pitcher, you cannot alter your batting order or lineup. You can, however, pinch hit or bring in a relief pitcher as the game wears on.
Ultimately, it's all the little touches and nuances that make Bases Loaded the gem of the NES's baseball lineup. The way pitchers were carted out to the mound on the bullpen car, or how the pitcher would slump in shame as a victorious opponent runs behind him after belting one into the stands. The feeling of an intense, long term standoff with a pitcher as you send pitches foul to stay alive in the box. Bases Loaded was easily the best representation of the sport available in its time, and I find that it still holds up remarkably well to even modern simulations - at least in terms of fun factor.