The 2017 Major League Baseball season is upon us, but why sit behind a giant foam finger drinking an $8 beer when you can take to the diamond yourself, in videogame form. Now, baseball videogames, and sports games in general, are notorious for their short shelf lives and annualized, iterative improvements, but a select few are actually worth returning to long after their rosters go stale. Most of the games on this list were released in the late 80s and early 90s, when baseball videogames had peak variety in features and styles. Many more baseball videogames have offered solid sandlot simulations over the years, but this list is for sluggers only. Batter up!
R.B.I. Baseball is a charming, classic baseball romp. There’s nothing particularly special about the way it plays, but the rounded characters kind of look like Fischer Price’s vintage Little People figures, and when the ball is in play their legs pump like little alternating pistons as they trudge their way through the outfield. Somewhat horrifically, R.B.I. Baseball also has the most cringe-inducing audio sample for beaning a batter, sounding like their 8-bit vertebrae crumple in on themselves. The background music comes in two varieties, is on a short loop, and is hypnotizing and infectious.
Tecmo Baseball is kind of a sleeper hit compared to the company’s Tecmo Bowl football series, and it’s not very showy, but it does combine several cool elements from other baseball games of the time into a unique package. Tecmo Baseball uses the Bases Loaded-style behind-the-pitcher camera for its batting interface but frames the action pragmatically between picture-in-picture panels of first and third bases. There are also animated cutscenes that play on the jumbotron when you hit homeruns (I love the hand-slapping animations). Fielding also has some tricky jump maneuvers that are really satisfying to execute correctly.
If you think baseball games drag on forever, Little League Baseball might be the game for you. Games only last six innings instead of nine and the ten-run mercy rule is in effect. On top of all that though, Little League Baseball has a lot of personality with international teams from North America, Asia, and Europe, three different player body types a la Ice Hockey, and embedded skill level stats and characteristics, like running speed, for each player. After a couple games with one team you’ll learn who to sub out from the starting line-up and who to put in the cleanup spot. Texas is the best team. They have a player named Daniel who’s an amazing hitter, not that I’m biased because we share a name or anything.
At first glance, Baseball Simulator 1.000 looks like any other run-of-the-mill 8-bit baseball game, but its secret weapon is the variety of special pitching and batting powers that dramatically transform the way the game is played. Some of the pitches will cut a hole right through the bat and a fiery beanball will literally explode the batter, expelling them from the game and this mortal coil. Batters can fight back with launching fly balls that cast multiple shadows or hit a grounder so hard that it knocks the player attempting to field it all the way to the outfield wall. Oh, you can play in outer space too. It’s pretty bonkers for a game that bills itself as a simulation.
This isn’t a ranked list, but make no mistake, Base Wars is the best baseball videogame money can buy. Players take control of 4 different variations of robots (flying, tank, cyborg and motorcycle) that shoot the ball out of arm cannons instead of throwing. With the right upgrades, pitchers can have direct control over the ball as if it were a mouse cursor. However, the biggest departure for Base Wars from other baseball games is that instead of force outs or tagged runners, there is a separate battle mode, complete with weapons and health bars, where the winner determines whether the call is “safe” or “out.” The season mode lets you fully customize 6 teams, earning money after each game to visit the parts shop for repairs and upgrades. Watch your players’ HP though, because if it hits zero they detonate and are eliminated from the rest of the game. Lose three players and it’s a forfeit. Beginners should pick a motorcycle-heavy team like Detroit (cus it’s the motor city, get it?) and just never stop doing flips.
I’m including the NeoGeo version of SNK’s Baseball Stars 2 over its fondly remembered NES counterparts because it feels like the true vision of what the series was meant to be. No other baseball game has this much eccentric flair and pizzazz, from the rainbow emblazoned text to the lovingly animated character portraits that flank the batting interface to the fact that the announcer says “B-B-B-B-Baseball Stars 2!” multiple times an inning like it’s a dancehall airhorn. I simply can’t look away from Baseball Stars 2.
The actual baseball in Tony LaRussa Baseball II is nothing too special, but the managerial options are robust, and being on PC, the full-motion video has a wonderfully vintage “multimedia” look and feel. The game also includes deep stat tracking and player customization. Additionally, there’s a solid chunk of baseball history in Tony LaRussa Baseball II, with classic players from the old-timey baseball days including an all-star team from the rarely represented Negro League, creating opportunities to pair hall of famers against the then-current roster of players.
Often overlooked, Sega’s World Series Baseball games are a rare instance of a retro baseball videogame that has both the MLB and MLB Players Association licenses, with most others having only one or neither. So if you’re looking for a game to provide a thorough snapshot of MLB in the mid-90s (sequels were released in ’95, ’96 and ’98 as well), this is the series to check out. The baseball itself is competent, and I always liked the big player sprites during the batting animations, but the main appeal was being able to run a draft of named professional players onto actual MLB teams.
Often pointed to as the de facto classic baseball videogame, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball (not to be confused with its inferior sequels), isn’t the most strikingly original game compared to others on this list, but it is one of the most well-rounded baseball packages you can ask for. Characters are expressively exaggerated, batting and pitching abilities are equally matched and fielding the ball is snappy and responsive. It’s a reliable title that holds up well, even today. You might as well think of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball as baseball’s NHL ’94 .
The longstanding resonance of MVP Baseball 2005 owes a lot to the modding community on PC that painstakingly updates rosters, logos and even announcer audio year after year. MVP Baseball 2005 was the last MLB game from EA Sports after Take-Two Interactive secured license exclusivity, and hs continued to live on as a fan favorite, particularly on PC, for over a decade. The hallmarks of modern simulation baseball are all at work here, though the graphics obviously look a little dated. Still, no other game retains a feel-good sense of community around the virtual diamond like MVP Baseball 2005.
A mini-game within Japanese music game series Rhythm Tengoku (Rhythm Heaven in the US), Air Batter features a batter inside a cutaway of a green room floating in outer space and tasks players with hitting musically timed baseballs as they launch out of an empty brown pot. All the while, the camera zooms in and out to obfuscate your view of the action, forcing you to rely on your sense of the beat to know when to swing. It’s not technically a baseball game, but it’s probably the catchiest a batting cage has ever been.
A mini-game collection/storefront, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is less about playing a game of baseball and more about practice and preparing to for the big game. You can purchase batting, catching, umpiring and bat carving mini-games from down-on-his-luck dog, Rusty. Turns out Rusty is selling you these games to provide food for his family, but still you can haggle down the real money prices of his games from their $4 starting points. It’s endearing, but also legitimately grim when you realize your stinginess means a puppy doesn’t get to eat tonight. Forget MLB licenses and photorealistic graphics, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is as real as baseball gets. Maybe too real.
The de facto king of modern videogame baseball is The Show series, so why not just jump in on Sony’s most recent iteration. MLB The Show 17 is the only game in town when it comes to new official MLB videogames for contemporary consoles, but that doesn’t mean the developers at are resting on their laurels. MLB The Show 17 is gorgeously rendered, includes robust franchise modes (like the old school throwback retro mode, hence the game’s inclusion on this list), and features snappy on-field controls. Players who follow the series may complain that changes year-to-year do little to justify plopping down $60 annually, but if you’re jumping in cold, there’s little to detract from having a great day at the ballpark in MLB The Show 17.
Dan Solberg is a digital artist, writer, and professor, producing works about videogames, music and art. You can check out more of his work on his website, dansolberg.com, and see his not-work by following him on Twitter.