Fix This App: R.B.I. Baseball needs to correct some errors before it's a hit

rbi baseball gallery

We spend a lot of time with mobile apps. We know what we like and what we don’t—sometimes within the very same app. Our Fix This App series takes a closer look at a mobile offering that’s not without some flaws and tries to nudge it a little closer to perfection.

Outside of something stamped with John Madden’s mug, I’m not sure there’s a more beloved sports video game than R.B.I. Baseball. It debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, and while more sophisticated games have certainly come along in the ensuing 28 years, few games can boast of the kind of goodwill and nostalgia that R.B.I. Baseball generates. Baseball players use the game’s theme song as their walk-up music. Obsessed fans have recreated memorable moments like Game 6 of the 1986 World Series or Kirk Gibson’s 1988 walk-off homer using R.B.I. Baseball. That’s a game with some staying power.

So it’s no surprise that Major League Baseball would want to revive the game and maybe capture a new generation of players who look at the 1980s-era graphics of the original R.B.I. Baseball and think they’re staring at cave paintings. Just in time for the start of the 2014 season, MLB.com trotted out R.B.I. Baseball 14. Like the original, this revived version includes real players—480, MLB says—and pretty straightforward gameplay. The graphics have gotten a 21st century makeover, but fans of R.B.I. Baseball from the Before Time will find plenty of familiarity in this new version.

rbi baseball players

Real players on real teams lends an air of authenticity to R.B.I. Baseball 14.

What they won’t find is a flawless baseball game, at least not in its current mobile form. There’s a lot to like about the current version of the game. But like a baseball team missing a few key pieces, R.B.I. Baseball requires a little bit of tinkering if it hopes to contend for a pennant.

What it works on

The mobile edition of R.B.I. Baseball 14 debuted on iOS devices earlier this month; MLB says an Android version will come out later this spring. You can play the game on an iPad 3 or later, iPhone 4s or later, or fifth-generation iPod touch. (MLB also makes a version of R.B.I. Baseball for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with versions aimed at the latest gaming consoles from Microsoft and Sony due later this spring. We’re just looking at the mobile version of the game here.)

What it gets right

Just firing up the app will bring a smile to the face of long-time R.B.I. Baseball fans—MLB has kept the jingle from the old game in this version. The graphics are decent—not the realistic recreations you’d see in a game like FIFA 14, say, but certainly polished enough for a mobile game that aspires to get you up to the plate with as little fuss as possible. Including real player statistics adds a touch of realism to the game—the better the player performed in the 2013 season, the better they’ll do in R.B.I. Baseball—and I appreciated that the game incorporates the dimensions of real baseball parks. Play a game in Boston, and you can bang a hit off the Green Monster in left. (The walls of Wrigley Field are, sadly, devoid of ivy, however.)

rbi baseball monster

The stadiums in R.B.I. Baseball match the dimensions of their real-life counterparts, so home games in Boston feature a rather imposing wall in left field.

If you’re a fan of either unlocking rewards or old-time jerseys, R.B.I. Baseball dangles a particularly tasty carrot in front of you. Knock off a very specific achievement—score four runs in an extra inning, for example, or have your closer nail down a certain number of consecutive games—and you can unlock an alternative jersey for your team. That 1980s gold Oakland A’s uniform will be mine, I tell you!

R.B.I. Baseball keeps the control scheme simple, with a two-button approach to both pitching and hitting. When you’re on the mound, you use a d-pad to control the speed and direction of your pitch, and a button to throw. Hitting is a matter of positioning yourself in the box with that d-pad and then tapping a button to swing. (There’s also a Bunt button which you should tap approximately never.) Controlling defenders has always provided the biggest challenge for baseball video games. R.B.I. Baseball gets around that by offering an assisted fielding option, which at least gets your fielder in the right postion to make a play; from there, it’s a matter of tapping the right base to throw out a runner—and that’s where the game stumbles a little bit.

What it gets wrong

While it’s usually not a problem getting a fielder lined up to snag a ball, throwing the ball to right base can be a challenge. On a grounder to the left side of the infield, say, my shortstop will make a terrific catch… and then just stand there as I frantically tap what I think is first base. This happens with greater frequency on the iPhone and hardly at all on the iPad, so I suspect that it’s a matter of the diamond being a little too tiny for fat fingers on the phone’s smaller screen. That insight doesn’t make me feel any better as the runner reaches first while my shortstop studies the baseball intently.

rbi baseball fielding

You tap on the baseball diamond in the lower right corner of the screen to select which base to throw to, but the controls aren’t always responsive, especially on the iPhone.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of R.B.I. baseball offer a multiplayer option; the iOS version does not, and it can get a little lonely squaring off against the computer, whether its in exhibition mode, a playoff series, or the full-season of games you can play in R.B.I. Baseball.

Whatever mode you play in, you can’t stop a game midway through, save it, and pick up where you left off later on. And that’s a big problem: While the allure of baseball is that it’s not governed by any clock, the same can’t be said of mobile gaming. I typically play games on my iOS device when I have a spare moment or two—not the 15 to 20 minutes that a nine-inning game of R.B.I. Baseball in full-season mode requires.

You may have some other quibbles here and there with R.B.I. Baseball 14 depending on what you like about the sport. If you enjoy tinkering with lineups, you’re out of luck here. R.B.I. Baseball lets you pinch hit players during a game, but the lineup that comes with each of the 30 teams is the lineup you’ll start each game with. You won’t get in-game player stats or season totals if you play in full season mode, either. I understand why these features were sacrificed in the name of offering a fairly stripped down game. But if that’s the sort of thing you look for in a sports video game, you should know that it’s a non-starter here.

How to fix it

MLB is off to a promising start with the initial release of R.B.I. Baseball for iOS devices. It will only take a few tweaks to make this a major league game.

  • Add a Save feature: Don’t force me to block out a 20-minute window just so I can squeeze in an A’s-Astros tilt. Let me save my progress as I go, so I can duck in and out of games at my leisure.
  • Add more players: Whether it’s over local Wi-Fi or some kind of online multiplayer feature, I want to take on human opponents.
  • Adjust the controls for defense: Either make the defensive controls more forgiving or—better still—add a bit of intelligence to the game. On a bases-empty grounder, there’s no doubt my fielders will be throwing the ball to first base—don’t force me to tap frantically on a routine ground ball.

This story, "Fix This App: R.B.I. Baseball needs to correct some errors before it's a hit" was originally published by TechHive.

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